You have to pardon Mark Wallace a certain impatience with the romantic saga of Takeover Target, the Australian sprinter whose journey from oblivion culminated in the King's Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot. To a man whose quest for the same prize had itself survived considerable odds, Takeover Target is a pain in the Outback.
"To think how much I loved Australia before last Tuesday," Wallace said yesterday, shaking his head. "I spent a year and a half there as a young man, and had great craic." He sat back at his desk, watching the cigarette smoke drift into a shaft of sunlight, and grimaced. "He must be a fair horse, mind."
The horse he saddled at Ascot, Benbaun, had origins nearly as discouraging as Takeover Target. When Wallace began training, he managed to enrol him for just 7,000 guineas. Benbaun had been rejected by his initial purchaser as a "wind-sucker". With each season - this is their fourth - horse and trainer have each shown increasing eligibility for the big stage.
Benbaun ran so well on his reappearance, when short of work, that Wallace was confident that he would go close at Ascot. "He had to switch round four horses and was eating up ground at the finish," he said. "Jamie Spencer was convinced he had got there. But I had an instinct that we were just beaten." Gut feeling became outright nausea as the judge gave his verdict: Takeover Target, by a short-head.
Naturally, the microphones and notepads clustered round Joe Janiak, the cab driver who lives in a caravan and trains Takeover Target as a pastime. But the stakes had been higher for Wallace, 33. There are no hobby trainers in British Flat racing, where setting up a stable represents an exorbitant gamble.
On Sunday, Benbaun seeks consolation at the Curragh - in a listed race he won last year - but later in the year his trainer has the Breeders' Cup and Hong Kong in the back of his mind. After that, he might even pursue Takeover Target to his backyard. Whatever happens, Wallace has swiftly demonstrated that he has qualifications not confined to an impressive education.
The son of a Co Tipperary doctor, he returned from Australia for two years apiece with John Oxx and Aidan O'Brien. He then spent five and a half years with Mick Channon. "That was a very good grounding," he said. "Mick's a legend. We never had a cross word in all the time I was there, and a couple of his owners sent me a horse on his recommendation. He also gave me five grand and said, 'Here, buy yourself some tack.' That's the kind of man he is."
Whatever methods he may have borrowed from his different mentors, in demeanour Wallace achieves an appealing blend of ease and ambition - the cheerful pugnacity of Channon to flavour the intensity he valued in O'Brien. "Mentally, the toughest person I have ever met," he said. "Aidan can see things in horses that other people don't. It's hard to put a finger on it, I doubt he could himself. But he works, too: works and works and works."
Wallace first climbed out of the trenches with a dozen yearlings, all of which needed owners. Fortunately they were prompt to advertise his talents. One bank holiday in May, he sent out three winners in one afternoon. By midsummer he had won a group race in Italy with Clifden, and last year he took over Sefton Lodge stables, at the foot of Warren Hill.
But then his best two-year-old, who had spent the spring thrashing older horses on the gallops, broke a leg. Benbaun had to cover a multitude of sins. "We ended the year with just 10 winners," he said. "It was terrible, and you do half-lose your confidence. But at least I didn't change what I was doing, and we have turned things round this year. We have 28 or 30 two-year-olds. Most of those we ran in the spring won, and we've got some very nice ones for the second half of the season."
Benbaun has been with him through thick and thin, and Wallace is convinced that his ally is stronger than ever. "He has improved with each year," he said. "On the gallops he looks like a plater. He plods around, saves it all for the racetrack."
When it comes to priorities, that example is not wasted on Wallace. "Financially, this game can kill you," he said. "But those hours in the morning, with the horses, that's what you do it for. It's never a problem getting out of bed in the morning."
Nap: Don Pele
NB: Bold Act
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