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Dog Racing: Ever-ambitious Wallis issues a ten-year warning; Interview In 2000 Mark Wallis was voted BGRB Kennelhand of the year Five years later he graduated to become the UK's Champion Trainer. Phil Donaldson caught up with the man and his story.

Byline: Mark Wallis

MARK WALLIS, Champion Trainer in his first season as a full licence holder, paused for no more than a split second before answering in typically straightforward fashion: "It's the breed you see. I simply love these animals. Put a poodle or something in front of me and I couldn't really give a shit, but a greyhound . . ."

The question was, of course, what was it that drove the man, a youthful 41 years old (three years older than me but looking ten years younger, damn him), in his relentless pursuit of winners en route to the holy grail of the trainers' crown.

"The thing is," Wallis says, pausing as a jet fighter from nearby RAF Lakenheath briefly drowns out the cacophony of canine calling that heralds the arrival of feeding time, "for me there's no finer animal than the greyhound."

Wallis, who still remains fastidiously 'hands on', saying "if you see me at a track with the dogs, then you know I will have 'done' them. I never want to lose that closeness to the job", expands further: "My satisfaction comes from the moment when you arrive at the track, having groomed, fed and prepared them for battle and then, as the traps open, watching them smash out and charge for the winning line.

"They're a tremendously loyal and honest breed. What you put in is what you get back, and that's what I love. It's not about the money - I couldn't care less if I've got a tenner or a thousand quid in my pocket, that just doesn't concern me. It's the thrill, the buzz of success that spurs me on, be it graded, open or a competition final."

Born and raised in Northampton (he still supports the Cobblers), Wallis' rise to the top of his profession is a tremendous tale. The years of success as right-hand man to his mother-in-law Linda Jones (Wallis is married to her daughter, Sarah) have been well-documented, including a fairytale success in the Trainers' Championship showdown at Walthamstow in 1999 and two trainer titles for the great lady in 2001 and 2002. But how it all came about - this tremendously successful partnership - is what I wanted to find out.

"My parents were newsagents," Wallis explains, "and I followed the family business from Northampton, via Luton, to a premises on Newmarket high street.

"I was a glass-cutter by trade, but I hated it. It was just a means to an end, to get the money to do those typical lad things. But also I was developing a passion for the dogs.

"Dad was a massive fan, and we had our first runners with Dukey Elliot at the old Rye House before the Newmarket move. Another Mixture was our first and best and he won plenty of races."

It's funny how chance, coincidence or even fate (if you subscribe to that particular four-letter term) can play a hand in steering people together. Having moved to Newmarket and switched their dogs to Mildenhall trainer Don Andrews ("a good man, but totally different to old Dukey"), Wallis and his dad got pally with Alan 'Slippy Blue' Carter, who owned a garage just round the corner.

"Alan was a real pal, and when his dog won the 1990 Derby, he brought the trophy round to our shop the next day! It was him that really put us on to Linda, having placed Slippy Blue's first litter of pups there, and suggested we move our dogs there.

"Trusting his recommendation, we sent Lonely Mixture [a son of Another Mixture] and also had Michaels Mixture out of the Slippy Blue pups. It was me that made the trip to Linda's, and you could say I never really left!"

The Imperial Kennels set-up made an immediate impression on a young Wallis, and he soon started helping around the place, albeit on an unpaid basis.

"I used to be up with the lark. Newmarket, being a racing town, is a hive of activity whilst most of the country are still sleeping! We'd do a better trade at quarter-to-four in the morning with the stable staff and jockeys than we would at quarter-to-eight!"

By eight in the morning, Wallis could be found, wellies on and shovel in hand, serving his apprenticeship at the kennels.

"The place wasn't what it is in size now - I mean there was basically a tin pig hut when Linda moved in - but the potential was there, and it was easy for me to tap into that and want to be a part of it."

Even back in those fledgling days, Wallis had the fire of ambition burning inside to train greyhounds. It was between 1993 and 1994 that he held a permit licence, and with some success, too, around the likes of Swaffham, Mildenhall and Harlow.

However, in 1994 the moment arrived, when the up-and-coming Jones got the offer of a Romford contract, and with it the financial clout to offer Wallis a proper, paid employment.

"We made a great team. Linda was, and still is, absolutely shit-hot with the dogs, and a great educator. She also was tremendous at the PR. The press and owners loved her and still do, and rightly so.

"We began to attract publicity in those early days, especially when we first hit the 100 open-race winner mark."

In fact, it was at that point, around 1999, that Wallis recalls a defining moment. A meeting with one of the Mullins' boys at Crayford led to a bit of banter regarding how many winners each camp had had.

Wallis recalls: "It may have been a throwaway conversation to him, but I came home to the kennels so fired up you wouldn't believe it! I said to Linda, 'come on, let's really go for it. Let's show them what we can do', and, to her credit, she backed me up all the way."

The rest, of course is history, but this memory, so readily recalled by Wallis, was seismic in its significance, helping to shape the success that followed.

JUMPING back to the here and now, and touring the site with Wallis, I found myself relaxing in his company and appreciating his point of view. Everything is treated to a healthy dose of realism, even those ear-piercing planes that periodically disturb the Suffolk air. "We've got the fighters going over from Lakenheath and the bombers take off from Mildenhall," he says. "Let's face it, there'd be no four-minute warning here if there was a war declared. We'd be first point of call - but that's not necessarily the worse thing!"

For Wallis, the ethic of teamwork is to the fore. He is quick to praise his right-hand man, Patrick Janssens - "he knows how I think, and I know I can trust him 100 per cent" - along with BGRB kennnelhand of the year Pete Vernon (a title Wallis himself won in 2000). The team also includes Linda's nephew Sid Hewitt, Jade Halloway, Ronnie Smith, Carlo Verhaegan ("Patrick has recommended him), Ronnie Smith and even Linda's ex-husband Doug still picks up a bucket when required.

"We also rely heavily on the expertise of our physio Ron Mills," adds Wallis. "We've mentioned him many times before, but he's been with us from the earliest days, and is at the kennels a couple of times a week.

"It's not just the open-racers that benefit from Ron either. Owners of graders deserve just the same treatment."

His accessibility for owners is another admirable trait. Wallis admits: "I spend a lot of time on the phone' owners want to speak to their trainer, and so they should. My missus handles all the paperwork, which is a massive relief for me, and the system seems to work!"

Mentioning family, Wallis, a dad of two Daniel, aged seven and Emily who's two - is honest enough to admit that he doesn't see as much of them as he'd wish.

"I have one day off a week where I totally switch off," he explains, "but the demands of running a big kennel mean I miss out in some ways. I'm often up and out before the kids have breakfast, and if I'm not racing, there's still plenty to do here."

The organisation at Imperial Kennels had me reaching for military terms. Wallis believes that routine and simplicity are key in most things, be it treatment, feeding or grooming. He is also justifiably proud of the fact that much of the kennel's success has been achieved by relatively inexpensive purchases.

"Everyone knows that we have Simon [Wooder] with us now, and he has put plenty of money into the sport, but a lot of the dogs we had for him initially were not his more expensive ones. Even Fear No One, who won Category finals including the Yarmouth Derby, was considerably below a five-figure sum.

"At the moment we have just 19 open-race only dogs, which is actually three more than last year!"

The key has clearly been in the placement of the dogs, and Wallis has proved remarkably adept at that - bear in mind that his first ten runners in major finals were all defeated last year and you can appreciate just what a great strategic effort it was to wrest the trainers' title from Charlie Lister.

In the past he has proved a major tactician too, helping Jones to an impressive points haul in 2002 by targeting the Sky races, and going on a massive open attack in 2003 - "we had 147 winners at Romford that year - more than we had at the Stow!" He prides himself on making the right entries, and won't enter a dog just for the sake of it.

An honest individual, Wallis could be forgiven for resting on his laurels and waxing lyrical about his achievements, but as we toured the site he could not help but point out the tiny faults that most wouldn't even give a second glance. A wall that needs painting, or a cobweb that requires removal - little escapes his eye.

He even recalls the scathing criticism he received from the Racing Post's Peter Meldrum when failing to attend last year's Trainers' Championship meeting - "that stung, but Peter was right. It was an error of judgement and he was spot-on. I respect him for that, and he knows that."

So, having established just a little of what makes the man tick, I posed the obvious 'what does the future hold' question. Again the answer was almost instantaneous. "I want ten years at the top," he declares in that almost understated tone that has probably led to more than one rival underestimating Mark Wallis.

"It's been tough to get here, and it'll be even tougher to stay here, but that's what I aim to do. The cut and thrust of a successful kennel, the travelling around the tracks, the people and characters you meet - most are great, some are arseholes - they all add colour to our sport. That, and of course the dogs themselves, is what does it for me."

As we shook hands and I began the return journey back to London, I couldn't help fastforwarding those ten years as I negotiated my way along the undulating nightmare of an unmade road that leads to Imperial kennels (I'm sure part of my suspension is still nestling in a pot-hole).

If that's what Mark Wallis says he's going to do, then I'd better be back to do the follow up story in 2016. I just hope they sort that bloody road out by then.

'I couldn't care less if I've a tenner or a thousand quid in my pocket . . It's the thrill, the buzz of success that spurs me on'


Top trainer Mark Wallis has designs on competing with the best for a good few years yet' BGRB Awards at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in January, Mark Wallis receives his Trainer of the Year trophies from NGRC Senior Steward Edward Bentall
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Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Feb 15, 2006
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