By Tom Peacock

A year of upheaval as Ed Walker relocated to Lambourn still delivered his highest total to date in terms of both winners and prizemoney. Given that the young trainer also inhabited four different yards during his six seasons in Newmarket, the chances of further improvement must be considerable now he has a firm footing.

“My career so far has been plagued by a lack of stability so it’s great to finally have a base where we know we’ll be for the foreseeable future,” said Walker, who has taken over the Kingsdown stable vacated by David Lanigan.

“It was ridiculous really, most trainers might move once or twice in their career. It was bloody hard work but we crashed on through and kept our chins up. Sadly we lost some very good guys; you can’t expect everyone to pick up their lives and move and they chose to stay, understandably. But they were all a big help during the transition phase.”

“If asked would I take 56 winners, including two stakes winners, this year, I’d have jumped at it,” he added.

The 34-year-old had put careful plans into place, such as ensuring a team of all-weather horses were on the go so as to have pathfinders on the new gallops ahead of the season proper.

“In terms of actual training, the facilities are great, they’re all owned and run by Jockey Club Estates, but we’ve got our own private grass facilities. We’ve not had the competition for turf gallops we’re used to in Newmarket, so we’re very spoiled in that department,” he said. “The gallops are quieter, personally I find it more relaxing. It’s 800 horses here versus 3000 in Newmarket; that’s a big difference. The gallops are obviously quite a lot stiffer, which has meant some adjustment of the actual training regime.”

“It probably suited me, to be fair. I’d not be one for being too hard on my horses and if anything I felt in Newmarket I’d probably not been doing quite enough with them, and the way I train maybe suits these gallops better. You don’t need so much speed on these gallops up stiff hills.”

After a decade in Newmarket, including his apprenticeship with Luca Cumani, it is also a return home, with Walker’s parents still living close to Andrew Balding’s Kingsclere stable.

“The racing community is a very small one so it’s a great industry to be in in that respect, a lot of camaraderie and banter. A lot of non-racing mates are from this part of the world and I think my wife Camilla and I are happier here,” he said. “I never planned to stay long-term in Newmarket but I felt if I couldn’t set up my business there and make it work, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it anywhere. Newmarket is a great place to start training, a great place to train, no question, but I never really wanted to grow old there.”

No horses were lost and Walker’s 78 boxes remained full all year, a number he feels is “nice and manageable.” The major challenge was the human cost.

“Six of the current staff were in Newmarket and fully functioning it would be a team of 30, so not many. Those people were the nucleus that we built new the team around,” he explained. “It’s tough, everyone’s struggling, there just aren’t enough people in the industry at the moment, sadly. The horse population is going up and [BHA chief executive] Nick Rust doesn’t help with wanting to keep bookmakers happier and having races in the middle of the night every day of the week and increasing the fixture list, but he’s not doing a great job to find us these extra people to train these extra thousand horses he wants in training. But we got there, it’s been a good year. We’ve just lacked a bit of quality, which would be my only complaint.”

Walker’s highest hopes had been for former G1 Criterium International and Prix Jean Prat runner-up Stormy Antarctic (GB) (Stormy Atlantic), with whom he has gone back to the drawing board.

“It has to go down as a disappointing season as he only won a listed race,” Walker reflected. “He was Group 1-placed at two, a very easy Craven winner, second favourite for the Guineas and second in the Jean Prat, so he had a chance of becoming a stallion. Once that dream was over, it’s about keeping him healthy and sound and going pot-hunting. He’s been gelded and I think he’ll be a different horse.”

Looking ahead, he added, “Unfortunately he was very unlucky in the Hyde S. at Kempton, he didn’t get a run, and the plan was to win that and go for the All-Weather Championships. That went out the window so he’s having good break. I think he’s a horse more than capable of winning a North American Grade I. Otherwise, if there are testing conditions in Europe I’ll do an Andrew Balding if the Sussex S. came out soft again.”

Aeolus (GB) (Araafa {Ire}) was another near-miss in important handicaps. “We just needed a bit of luck in the big races, but winning any race is hard. I was begging the owner to protect his mark for a Wokingham or a Stewards’ Cup and Mr Buxton came round to my way of thinking. The ground was too quick for the Wokingham and we very nearly pulled it off in the Stewards’ Cup. He’s a fun horse and hopefully he can pick up one of those big ones in due course.”

A major benefit in taking over Kingsdown, bought in 2012 by hedge fund kingpin and enduring owner-breeder Bjorn Nielsen, is that he now trains numerous horses in the black and yellow Nielsen silks.

“I only really got to know Bjorn this year, he’s a great guy, he gets the game, and his great dream is to win the Derby,” Walker said. “He breeds and buys lovely horses and his knowledge of pedigrees is second to none.”

The pick of Nielsen’s 2018 Derby entries must be the stoutly-bred grey Stephensons Rocket (GB) (Teofilo {Ire}), a €235,000 Arqana purchase by agent Jeremy Brummitt. After making one of the most eye-catching debuts of the season at Sandown, looking particularly keen and inexperienced yet still finishing second, he went on to a convincing maiden success at Redcar.

“He’s done nothing wrong and in an ideal world I’d have got him out a bit earlier and given him one more run this year in a better race,” Walker said. “I think he’s one who will be better in better company and very much one for next year. I think he’s pretty good. He’s doing well so far in the winter, we’ll see where we are in the spring. He’s a gorgeous-looking horse, great temperament, he’s got everything going really.”

Stephensons Rocket epitomises the type of horse Walker wanted for the transition. That phase over, he has been able to broaden the portfolio.

“We’ve some exciting 2-year-olds, actually. They were way behind but luckily they were bought knowing the move was going to be tough, so we had a lot of 3-year-old types that were given a lot of time and a lot only got going in the last couple of months,” he said. “I think we’ve bought a much more precocious, sharper bunch of yearlings this year knowing we’ve not got to move. They’re all in already–a lot of my 2-year-olds in 2017 were not into the yard until February or March, so we’re well ahead on that front.”

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