Irony in Wallis’ 500th training win
By Garrick Knight
There was a touch of irony when Michelle Wallis trained her 500th New Zealand winner on Friday night.
The Waiuku horseman joined an exclusive club at Alexandra Park when Rubens gave her and husband Bernie Hackett their second winner on the card.
And in the process, it also gave Hackett his 300th career training success.
The thing is, Wallis and Hackett train a large team of trotters and generally don’t accept offers to train pacers any more.
In fact, 117 of their last 122 winners have been trotters and they only have pacer amongst their 35-strong team. That horse? Rubens.
It’s only because the big son of Art Major is part-owned by longtime supporter and friend, Tim Vince, that the horse got in the front gate.
“Barry (Purdon) was kind enough to offer to send him out to us, but we don’t take on pacers anymore as a rule,” said Wallis.
“And it was only because Tim owns him that we agreed; he has been such a loyal client for our barn for so long.
In reaching the 500 mark, Wallis becomes just the fourth woman to achieve the feat on our shores.
What sets her apart from the other three – Natalie Rasmussen, Catherine Butt and Nina Hope – who all train in partnership, is that 323 of those were achieved in a solo capacity.
And she says the feat kind of snuck up her.
“It was only about a week before we went away that my sister told me we were getting close.
“Until then I didn’t even realise.”
Wallis, nor Hackett were on course to celebrate. Instead they are in New York as part of a five-week North American holiday.
“Right now, we’re at Yonkers for their races and then tomorrow night we’re going to The Meadowlands to watch Speeding Spur.”
Wallis was born in to harness racing – her late father Errol trained 100 winners – and says there was never any question that she was destined for a life in the game.
She started out as a junior driver in the late 80s – “my first winner was a horse called Turama Ten at Morrinsville in 1988” - before eventually partnering up in life with established trainer, Hackett.
And it was only when times got a bit tough that Wallis even took out her training license, in 1999.
“Originally Bernie held the license but when we went through a quiet patch he went and got an outside job and I took over training the horses.
“My first winner was Game Petite, owned by Brian Hill.”
Wallis plugged away for the next six seasons, not training any more than seven winners per season, due solely to a lack of decent stock and support.
But in 2004, her and Hackett’s career trajectories took an upturn when good friend Tony Herlihy sent them a brilliant but injury-plagued trotter.
“Tony sent us Delft, and later on Sly Flyin, because he realised the positive effects beach training would have on them.
“And it was getting a good horse like him at that stage that allowed our stable to grow.”
Delft had only just returned from a failed American stint and was in the ownership of Leviathan investor, Joe Muscara.
He would win eight of his first ten starts for Wallis before running second in the Rowe Cup.
At the same time, Wallis had been sent Canterbury mare Paris Metro for beach training and it immediately catapulted her on to the big stage.
Paris Metro paid $35 when upsetting in the Group 1 National Trot on New Year’s Eve 2004 and Delft would win the same race 12 months later.
A few months later, the giant square-gaiter took out the Inter Dominion Trotting Final at Moonee Valley, a win Wallis points to as the highlight of her career, bar none.
“I know that win doesn’t actually count as part of the 500, but it’s still my favourite – the Inter Dominions are the pinnacle.”
With the benefits of their beach training now widely recognized, Wallis and Hackett never looked back and in the 2008-09 season, a career-high 70 wins were recorded.
Another major success story was Genius, who arrived broken down from Tim Butt in 2007 and went on to win 17 races and over $150,000 on lease.
Other good performers were Ima Gold Digger, who won the Group 1 New Zealand Trotting Free For All at Addington before being sold to America and Waitfornoone (11 wins, $201k).
Nowadays, the stable star is Massive Metro, who they purchased out of the South Island as a three-year-old mainly because he was a son of Paris Metro.
He followed in mum’s footsteps and gave the stable their third National Trot victory this past New Year’s Eve and Wallis thinks he might well be the best trotter they’ve trained on ability.
“It’s hard to judge horses from different eras but whereas Delft was an out-and-out stayer, I think Massive Metro would have been able to come off his back and beat him every time.
“I probably think Massive Metro is a touch better and we are so excited for what the future holds for him.”
Win number 499 came earlier in the programme when Jansson led the whole way to win the standing start mile trot in the hands of Todd Mitchell.
“That race was ideal for him; he’s a great little sprinter that doesn’t really see out the 2700 metres,” said Wallis.
“Over the short distances he’s a lot better.”
Wallis said the support of their loyal owner base was to thank for achieving this milestone and that she and Hackett are immensely appreciative for that.
On the horseman front, she makes special mention of Herlihy for his faith in them, and longtime stable driver Mitchell for “always doing a marvelous job driving our team”.
Robbie Close, training the team through July while Wallis and Hackett are away, was in the cart behind Rubens.
“A big thanks to Robbie for looking after the team; it looks like he’s done a great job.”
They’ll return to the sleepy surrounds of Waiuku in ten days after taking in next weekend’s famous US$3 Million Hambletonian Day at The Meadowlands, where the feature is a US$1 Million event for three-year-old trotters.