CHRIS Waller is feeling apprehensive. Winx, the champion mare he trains, is on a winning streak and tomorrow is race day. “None of them get any easier; I’m still anxious,” he tells Stellar. “I’m still concerned about the probabilities that she’ll get beaten one day soon.”
He need not have worried. The next afternoon at the Group One George Main Stakes at Sydney’s Royal Randwick racecourse, proves not to be that day. In what has become her frequent, nailbite-inducing style, she comes from the back of the pack and wins easily. It marks Winx’s 20th consecutive victory, putting her second behind only Black Caviar (who retired unbeaten with 25 straight wins) in the record books.
Winx has been dubbed the “people’s horse”, having captured the imagination of the racing community and the Australian public alike. Earlier this year, she was named the world’s top turf horse at the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Awards in London. In 2016, she was crowned Australian Horse of the Year after winning the prestigious Cox Plate and the Doncaster; Waller received the Bart Cummings Award for trainer of the year and her rider, Hugh Bowman, was crowned jockey of the year.
To be on this ride with Winx puts Chris, 43, and his wife Stephanie, 41, in a position they never dared dream about growing up in small-town Foxton, on New Zealand’s North Island. “When I was growing up,” Chris says, “most families went to the races probably two or three times a year. My family went more – probably once a month.”
“Somebody tapped him on the shoulder to share the news that the Queen wanted to meet him.”
Chris was raised on a dairy farm and caught the racing bug early; it has consumed him ever since. “My grandparents were hobby-horse owners and breeders of a few horses at a time,” he says. “I was always around animals and the occasional horse, and was just infatuated. As a boy growing up on a dairy farm, you either dream of being an All Black or [being in racing].”
Horse racing, he now realises, was the better fit. “I wasn’t very good at rugby,” Chris laughs. “I was amazed by horses. I remember strapping them – when you take them to races and look after them – and thought how good it was, how important you felt. I was in the right place at the right time, my responsibilities grew and I ended up being in management.”
His first job was with top New Zealand trainer Paddy Busuttin. It was during this time that Chris started dating Stephanie, who worked as a model – they married in 2005 and have two children, Tyler, seven, and Nikita, four. They went to the same high school, but did not properly meet until, fittingly, a day at the races.
“I was singing in the band at the races and Chris’s dad came up to me and said, ‘Have you met my son?’’’ Stephanie recalls. “I said, ‘Yes, I do know who your son is.’ We got to talking and then Chris chased me for a little bit... then lost interest,” she adds with a wry smile.
Chris is “vague” on dates but thinks he was about 18 when he walked in and out of a bar that Stephanie was in without saying hello. That was when the tide turned. “I chased up to him and said, ‘Why didn’t you say hello?’” Stephanie says. “He turned and said, ‘Call me.’ I called him – and then it was all over.”
For his part, Chris denies that any indifference was tactical. “I was starting to work with horses and more involved with that than anything,” he insists. Yet their partnership proved integral to Chris’s success as a trainer when they started out, with Stephanie providing support both emotional and, via her modelling, financial. She says she always knew he would succeed.
Any big wins tend to be celebrated at home, with their children and close friends.
“He’s just so dedicated, motivated,” Stephanie says. “I just thought, ‘How could he not?’ He inspires me to get up in the morning. He works hard. I knew he was going to [succeed] – but not to this level. He has exceeded all expectations, but I don’t think it’s just luck. A lot of people say, ‘Well, you’re just lucky.’ It’s a lot more than just luck.”
Despite their dizzying success, the Wallers lead a relatively low-key lifestyle. Inside their northwest Sydney home, not far from Rosehill Gardens racecourse, Sky Racing plays on a TV in the background and kids’ toys dot the floor. The main nod to their profession is the bulging trophy cabinet that contains, among plenty of other gongs, the two Cox Plates that Winx has won. If Winx wins her third this month, she will equal Kingston Town’s triple plate record held since 1982.
The champagne-sipping trackside aspect of racing is foreign to their day-to-day reality; Chris maintains a gruelling schedule that has him up at 3am six days a week. “We’re in bed by 8.30pm,” Stephanie says. And any big wins tend to be celebrated at home, with their children and close friends.
Family racing empires are an Aussie tradition, but Chris is not keen on the prospect of starting his own and puts this down to the punishing hours. “I’m dead against it. Our staff start at 3.40am to get our horses on the track at 4.30am, because that’s when the track opens and I want my horses working on the best surface possible. I don’t want to put my children through what I’ve been through, and the social choices you have to make. I’m very lucky. It hasn’t affected my life; I’ve got a great partner. But it’s a pretty tough life.”
Chris’s concern for his children is in part reminiscent of the genuine care he has for his horses. He grows emotional when he talks about Rangirangdoo, a champion he trained that broke down and had to be euthanised after a race in 2013. Tears fill his eyes as he explains, “We just love our horses so much. They’re like family. It tears you apart.”
“It was like sitting down with your grandmother and just having the best chat.”
When something like that happens so publicly, it draws criticism from some who ask whether racing is in the horses’ best interests. Chris wholeheartedly defends the sport. “Yes, we do make money out of horses,” he says. “Yes, they run hard for us. But I’ll go to my grave knowing they just love their job and are privileged to be with humans. And we feel the same.”
Winx’s successes energise Chris. He has his eye on a third Cox Plate win and a European campaign next year to put her on the world stage. Winx is co-owned by Ingham family scion Debbie Kepitis. This links back to another significant break for Chris, who in 2008 received a call from chicken magnate Bob Ingham, who was the biggest owner-breeder in the country. Ingham had just sold his racing empire for $500 million. “He said, ‘We’ve sold the business, we’ve sold the farm, the horses. We just want to buy a few horses and have some fun,’” Chris recalls.
They had never met, but Ingham liked the way Chris conducted himself when on TV. Chris was surprised because, “[I was] on the back of a little bit of success, but hadn’t trained a group-one winner.”
Speaking of fateful phone calls, Chris was at Ascot with Brazen Beau in 2015 when he missed another one. His excuse now is that he was focused on “other things”; luckily for him, somebody tapped him on the shoulder to share the news that the Queen wanted to meet him.
His first point of order was, he says with a laugh, “to Google what to do when you meet the Queen”. Ultimately, he says, “It was like sitting down with your grandmother and just having the best chat. She’s just so interested in horses. She’s so interested in Australia. She’s so interested in people. And I just can’t believe I had the opportunity to meet and get to see that side of her.”
Others seem to be saying the same of Chris, says Racing New South Wales CEO Peter V’landys, who describes him as “a rock star” and says he has seen politicians asking him for an autograph.
“I had the pleasure of meeting Chris many years ago when he first arrived in Sydney and Stephanie was his girlfriend, and I always thought he was punching above his weight,” V’landys tells Stellar. “He would say that he himself was battling, doing it tough... It’s a classic case in my eyes; if you dedicate yourself and work hard, you can achieve anything. I saw Chris when he was a nobody and at all times he was a genuine, nice person. He has not changed.”
It is perhaps a quality that Chris shares with his star charge.
“What makes a horse like Winx so special,” Chris says, “is the fact that she is an Australian battler who has come good.