WEST MIDLANDS AREA
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Pointing West Midlands
TRAINER TALK: AXELLE & MARK WALL
"HEART OF THE COTSWOLDS"
As I arrive at Axelle and Mark Wall's Upper Coln Farm stables in the Cotswold village of Coln Rogers, I am greeted by Olive the silver dapple miniature dachshund, proudly showing off her new diamante collar. "Axelle liked the look of it. "Mark told me ruefully. "As soon as Axelle saw it I knew she'd have it. It's a bit bling for me!"
The rapport between the couple is immediately obvious. Throughout our chat, they're finishing each other's sentences. Sometimes it's difficult to know which way to turn! So it seems appropriate to start by asking how they met. "Up a gallop," Axelle answers. "Halfway up Mark's stirrup broke and he didn't move. On the way back down he picked it up and vaulted back on I was well impressed!" Axelle remembers their first date at Stratford in 2004. "I'd been riding that morning, so I washed in a bucket and got changed in the car!"
Mark was brought up in Yorkshire, where his father John worked for Lord Howard de Walden's Thornton Stud. His first riding experience was on Dinky the pony. "He was just 12 hands, but built like the proverbial outhouse. I rode in gymkhanas in summer and hunted with the Hurworth in the winter. Dinky wouldn't stop at anything - he would give leads over five-bar gates. I was only seven or eight, too young to appreciate how good he was. I owe him everything."
John then relocated to the Cotswolds and Mark started working for David Nicholson, then Stan Mellor, before moving to France with Carlos Laffon-Parias, where he looked after an Arc de Triomphe runner! "My heart's in jumping but you can't beat working with decent horses," he confesses.
By his own admission, pointing wasn't on Mark's radar until he started riding out in his lunch hour for Nick Edden and Sally Caton when he returned to England and was working his second stint for David Nicholson. His first ride was on their Mr Max at Maisemore Park in 1999. He finished fifth but the horse was obviously fitter than the jockey. " We went over the last and my legs buckled. I made it over the finishing line but, as I walked back, five pigs could have passed between my legs! Coming back from a flat yard in France I probably looked like Andy Turnell."
Mr Max provided the fledgling jockey with his second winner at the Heythrop a year later his first was on Impenny at Mollington and over 200 have followed since, the milestone being reached at Larkhill in March 2015 on Keen Eye. That winner belongs to loyal supporter Jason Warner, who also owned Nobby Kivambo, on whom Mark won seven points and for whom the riding instructions from Jason were invariably "Just go like f*ck!"
Any follower of Mark's riding career will be familiar with his front-running approach and Mark expands on his preferred approach to race riding. "You can go where you want to, cut corners if you like, and there's nothing worse than being behind a dodgy jumper. It obviously suits my way of riding as I find that horses are nice and relaxed in front. Personally, I think that the view that you should be settled in the back is over-rated it suits the human not the horse, and you should do everything to keep your horse happy."
Axelle chips in. "You have to be a very good judge of pace
and Mark is." She quotes one of the jockeys, whom she refuses to name. "We all really like Mark in the changing room, but when he hits the front, we effing hate him!"
Talk turns to the brilliant but ill-fated Theatre Queen, who put up one of the most devastating performances I have seen in over 30 years of pointing when winning the Coronation Cup at Larkhill in 2014, but who was tragically killed at Cheltenham last March. "The first time I rode work on her, I was buzzing," recalled Mark. "I knew she was something special. Better than My Flora, who was the top mare at the time." "She was such a lovely mare," adds Axelle. And, referring to Theatre Queen's tendency to down tools at the start. "We never hated her! She always wanted to run, she just got stage fright at the start."
If Theatre Queen was the classiest horse Mark rode and Divine Intavention, on whom he has won 17 races including another Coronation Cup and been second in the Cheltenham Foxhunters, is the toughest, then Sheknowsyouknow was certainly Axelle's favourite. "She was tiny, just 15.2 hands, but she gave everything. (Owner) Michael Hawker bought her as a hunter and raced her every couple of weeks, but she always looked immaculate."
This is the couple's third year training at Upper Coln Farm Stables owned by Mark Tufnell - having previously had "a couple of stables at Coln St Dennis", where they trained Arab racers as well as pointers. Their first winner in points was Pretty Lady Rose at Kingston Blount in 2006. "We won best turned out horse, owner, trainer and jockey" jokes Axelle. Now they have a dual yard, Mark having taken out a professional licence in December 2014 and Axelle training the pointers.
The couple lead a busy life as well as a full-time mother and racehorse trainer, Axelle is PA to a financial advisor and are fortunate to be able to call on the help of Kash Mathias and Jake Launchbury. "Kash came with the owners of one of our horses and decided to stay!" laughs Axelle. "She's a great kid, she turns up every day and never lets you down." Aspiring jockey Jake, who rode his first winner in 2014, has been with the Walls since September. "He wants to ride and has been doing lots of team chasing, which makes you think properly," Mark tells me. "We'll give him some rides this season."
Axelle and Mark take a hands-on approach to their string and make sure that their charges are more than mere racehorses. "Our horses could go and do another job tomorrow," claims Axelle proudly. "It's really important that when you sell them on or give them away, their second career is already instilled in them."
"Being a small yard, we can give them a lot of attention," she continues. "We pair them up for example two fussy eaters together and they go out all day, even in wet weather (I can testify to that!) Horses naturally live outside. They get more fresh air and exercise and they can stretch their muscles."
As usual, I ask them to finish by summing up what point-to-pointing means for them. Axelle could not imagine a life without racehorses. "It's so ingrained in me. What would I do with my weekends? And I love watching youngsters coming through. There's something in it for everyone." For Mark, the reality of the sport is more prosaic. "As much as you're on a high one day, you're brought down to earth the next. It keeps you grounded. If not, you'll soon be flat on your arse!"
FIVE TO FOLLOW AXELLE WALL
Big Bad Barry
"He's not big, he's not bad and he's called Brian at home. But the owner's daughter named him after a fish in the TV series Ben & Holly! He was not quite right to run last season but with another summer behind him he came out a different horse and won a decent maiden at Larkhill. We were over the moon."
"An admirable mare who won't stop trying. She just sticks her nose out and keeps going. She was off last season and won't run early as she enjoys the better ground.
Gett Off My Cloud
"He's been hunting since he was three and is a bit of a dude! Like most Silver Patriarchs, he has taken an age to mature but has shown plenty of promise in his three runs."
"Ex-Charlie Longsdon. He schools well at home but his jumping was not good on the racecourse. We'll take him hunting and he'll be a fun ride."
"A young mare who is still learning the ropes. Hopefully she will run in February or March."