Walker all set to retake the Te Akau Matamata reins

By Dennis Ryan

30 Mar 2022

Walker all set to retake the Te Akau Matamata reinsMark Walker and the mainstay of the Te Akau operation, David Ellis. Photo credit Charlotte Mooney

“It’s all very familiar to me and now that I’m back amongst it I realise just how much I’ve missed it.”
Mark Walker’s feet have hardly touched the ground since arriving back in New Zealand in February, and that intensity has gone up a serious notch or two this week in preparation to take the reins from Hong Kong-bound Jamie Richards at the helm of Te Akau Racing’s Matamata stable.
It’s almost a dozen years since Walker relocated to Singapore, where he established a Kranji adjunct to Te Akau’s highly successful New Zealand-based operation. Having won five trainers’ premierships in his 13 years at Matamata, he added another four Singapore titles, the most recent of them in the 2021 calendar season.
Walker’s original Matamata stint was capped by a record 108 wins in 2009-10, his final season, and that figure was eclipsed by Richards when he produced 160 winners last season for his third title in just six years of training. His 40-plus premiership lead with three months remaining in the current season have all but guaranteed a fourth title, while domestic stable stake-earnings of more than $6.1 million are yet another record.
Richards was due to line up his final New Zealand starters on his home track on Wednesday and then the name in the racebook would change to Walker, beginning with Saturday’s Awapuni and Avondale meetings. Heading the weekend list are leading Gr. 1 Manawatu Sires’ Produce Stakes prospects Dynastic and Maven Belle, along with other black-type runners in Prise de Fer, Brando, On the Bubbles and Amalfi Prince.
“Now that I’m back and well on the way to getting settled in, I’m really looking forward to what’s ahead,” Walker told RaceForm between Tuesday morning gallops at the Matamata training centre. “I’m loving being home, there’s a sense of timing about it.
“It’s funny how you notice the little things – the countryside, the sun rising over the Kaimais – it’s all very familiar to me and now that I’m back amongst it I realise just how much I’ve missed it.”
Central to that are the horses that Walker will again be responsible for and the overall operation encompassing Te Akau Stud and the Matamata stable, which has continued to expand and dominate the feature race landscape.
“When David Ellis employed me as a 17-year-old, the farm out at Te Akau was 500 acres and has since grown to 4,000 acres. When I last trained here the team was around 50 with another 20 or so out at Laurie Laxon’s property at Karapiro and about the same in our South Island satellite stable.
“That model has changed to concentrating the racehorses here in Matamata between our on-course stabling and the original property just down the road. The farm out at Te Akau is also playing an increasingly important role with agistment and early education work; it’s obviously a system that works.”
One essential factor that hasn’t changed is the constant supply of quality racehorses secured by Ellis and his selection team, which Walker identifies as being crucial to Te Akau’s ongoing success.
“Whether it was our earlier stars like King’s Chapel and Maroofity, or more recent ones like Melody Belle, Avantage, Probabeel and Te Akau Shark, DC has been doing it year after year. It’s all won or lost at the sale-ring door, identifying the right horses.
“That was key to the winners I trained and the same with Jamie. Having the right systems in place is the other thing, good staff and a support team you can rely on.”
Walker certainly has no regrets about his Singapore venture, which he points out played a major role in financing the expansion of Te Akau Stud, in which he is a business partner.
“When I decided to go to Singapore racing up there was really humming, the stakes and the way they ran it was massive and it was a great place to live. Unfortunately racing there has slipped over the past few years and even though the money is still good, racedays are down to one a week.
“We’ve still got a part to play up there, and that’s in good hands with Donna Logan now managing our horses, and to be honest it wouldn’t take a lot to turn around the racing scene.”
Now Walker’s horizons have a different focus, both professionally and personally. Two years of Covid-enforced isolation have ended, with his teenaged children Zavier and Alexis living comparatively close by on the Gold Coast and his partner, Czech-born Mirka Vaicova and their two-year-old daughter Skyler set to join him in their recently purchased Matamata home.
On the professional front, Walker is not only looking forward to domestic feature race targets as well as at the Queensland winter carnival, but also what the future holds for proven stable members and the new draft of rising two-year-olds.
“I’m taking over a very strong team, which is exciting in itself, and I’m so looking forward to starting from scratch with the fresh intake. That’s while I’ve really missed, developing quality horses and getting the best from them.
“It’s been a wonderful journey that I’ve been on, this is another chapter and I’m excited about it. I turn 50 later this year, so I figure I’ve still got a good few years to give to the job that I love.”