By Brad Gray
Racing attracts all types. It’s a line that is trotted out within the racing industry time and time again, however it certainly rings true when it comes to the strappers and foreman of Chris Waller Racing.
With the dust settling on Day 1 of The Championships and Day 2 on the horizon, let’s start with Umut Odemislioglu, who as the strapper of Winx, is as recognisable as the mighty mare herself in her customary black earmuffs.
Umut and Winx ahead of the George Ryder. Image: Bradley Photographs
Odemislioglu was born in Turkey and was introduced to racing by his grandfather.
“My grandfather was a horse breeder and olive farmer and I grew up with him. Then I studied in Istanbul. First I studied drama and then I left that when I went into horse racing. I used to work in the industry for my grandfather’s friends when I was studying,” said Odemislioglu who has now been in Australia for 11 years.
Prior to working for Waller, Odemislioglu spent five years with Tim Martin, becoming assistant trainer within a year, however he had an itch to see other training systems. He is now a section foreman running a 40-horse barn. One of those forty is of course is the one-in-a-million Winx.
“I went on a break for eight weeks to see my mother who was sick and when I came back she was in my barn already, which was barn six and box 101. She didn’t have a name. I usually get the babies when they first arrive and she was one of them,” recalls Odemislioglu.
“I always liked Street Cry as a stallion. Winx was a nice type. She was very quiet and needed to grow as she was immature. She was small but most of the Street Crys are like that. They are not two-year-olds.”
“She kept growing, getting taller and bigger.”
Umut giving Winx a wash
Odemislioglu, who has only missed strapping Winx on three occasions - the Sunshine Coast Guineas, Queensland Oaks and her first Cox Plate - was desperate to strap a Group One winner and as fate would have it, his first was Winx.
“It’s been a dream run. I was hoping for one Group One with her, maybe a fillies race, the Oaks I was thinking, but she has gone further.”
The Australian Oaks is of course the last time she was beaten! If you’ve seen Winx in her stall or parading in the mounting yard, you’ll no doubt have seen Odemislioglu with his game face on.
“I don’t want to smile before the race. I worry about the horse. You never know when they are going to do something.”
“I get nervous and a bit tense. I don’t worry about whether she gets beaten or not because she has proved more than she can. If she lost the race I would take that but if something happened to her, that’d worry me.”
“The earmuffs keep her calm. Otherwise, she has no gear. No blinkers, no tongue tie, no nothing. In that way she is easy to train… apart from the stress.”
Winx’s aerobic capacity has plenty to do with her incredible racetrack ability but Odemislioglu believes that plenty of it has to do with what’s between her ears.
“When you take the hood off she sees the track then she starts warming up. She is the smartest horse I’ve ever worked with in that way.”
“She knows when she is going to race and when she is going to finish. She doesn’t want to get disturbed much. She doesn’t have time for cuddling. She says leave me alone I’ve done my job. She is not a funny or friendly horse that will come to you, she just really professional. She is a pure athlete.”
Odemislioglu has a number of nicknames given to him by the staff including ‘Mr Winx’ and ‘Winxy’ and he is quite fond of them. Not as fond as Winx is of her tucker though.
“She loves her feed,” said Odemislioglu before mentioning that her neighbour Foxplay is also a good eater.
“She liked the green apples I found in Melbourne. If I give her normal apples or carrots she’s not interested but when I gave her the green apple she loved it.”
It’s been a “once in a lifetime” experience for Odemislioglu and the next chapter Winx is set to write comes on Saturday in the Longines Queen Elizabeth Stakes on Day 2 of The Championships.
“She is at her peak and getting better. I think she has a little bit more in the tank to improve too.”
“I have a USB with all of her pictures saved and I get many things from the owners. They give me paintings and look after me. They’re nice people and I’m always getting something.
“I will spare a room for her later.”
Mark Peters has only been with Waller for 10 months after battling Hodgkin lymphoma which prompted a crossroad in his career where he traded the corporate world for one working with horses. It’s “therapeutic” according to Peters.
“I spent 20 odd years in the automotive industry until about three and a half years ago when I developed cancer,” recalled Peters.
“I had a stem cell transplant and that was six-to-eight month recovery but I had complications so that put me out for two years. I went back to the cooperate world but only lasted eight weeks. I couldn’t stand it.
“I’ve had an interest in horse racing since I was a teenager and had the odd bet here and there. I was sitting there watching the races one day and thought ‘bugger it’ that seems like a good idea I’ll go and be a strapper working in a stable.”
The stables of Chris Waller Racing
Peters completed a course at the Australian Racing and Equine Academy at Richmond TAFE.
“I love it. It can be therapeutic in some ways just being around the animals.”
“It’s certainly got me fitter. It’s got me active too. For two years I was sitting at home and couldn’t do anything as I was too weak and not well enough. A lot of medication didn’t help which I’m still on but its part of life.
“I get to work about 3:20am and get a sheet of what’s going on for the day and the horses working. I take temperatures in my barn of 20 horses, muck the boxes and then get the horses saddled up, put the bridles on, any other gear and take them out to the trackwork riders. Then when they come back, wash them.
“Once the trips are over we wash faces, brush tails, wipe them down, pick their feet, check them over to make sure of no injuries, their shoes are all okay.
“Because of the routine you know what you’re doing, what you’re looking for. It becomes second nature. You’ll hear a horse walk past and you’ll think ‘that shoe is off’ because you are so used to the routine.”
Foreperson Analese Trollope is one of Waller’s longest-serving and most trusted staff members. It’s a big job to look after “140-odd” horses and near 60 staff members but the systems in place ensure nothing is ever missed.
“When I first started working for Chris he had 28 horses in work,” said Trollope who has been with Waller for 12 years.
“You haven’t got one barn doing one thing and another doing something else so when you interchange staff everything flows.”
Trollope loves what she does
There’s a little sparkle in Trollope’s eye as she recalls her favourites from over the years. Among them are Mr Ubiquitous, Permit and Waller’s first Group One winner, Triple Honour.
“I travelled a lot with Mr Ubiquitous while Permit I just had a connection with as soon as he arrived. He had big googly eyes. I used to call him Peppermint. I could walk in the barn and say ‘Peppermint’ and he’d come straight to the door with his ears forward and he’d start whinnying at me.”
“Triple Honour I travelled with too. When you travel with them you get a bit closer to them. I took him to Melbourne and Perth.”
Fellow foreperson Clare Heuston is coming into her 10th year with Waller after originally starting her working life in the computer industry installing hardware and software.
“I used to own a racehorse and that’s how I got the bug,” said Heuston.
“Gary Nickson trained the horse and I worked on Saturday mornings for Gary and I got my strapper’s licence.”
Heuston has seen hundreds of horses come and go from the stable and despite trying to sidestep getting too close to those under her care, she does have particularly fond memories of a couple of classy mares.
“I strapped Kristry Lee and was really close to her because I had her since she was a yearling. You watch them go through their racing career and get them through safely to a point where they are ready to have foals, but it’s hard to say goodbye.”
“I also strapped Catkins in her twilight racing years. She was no-nonsense and knew once you put the leather head collar on that it was raceway. She‘d get to the races and knew what she was there for.”
“Those of us who have been here a long time are actually starting to see horses’ grandchildren come through.”