The trainer tells Martha Terry about the horse that was primed for a Grand National win, lessons from his father-in-law, and his goal for next season
“We would have won, for sure,” Robert Walford laughs hollowly. “This would have been our year.” He trains Walk In the Mill (Miller), who was among the favourites for the 2020 Grand National before it was abandoned. Last Saturday, instead of saddling up the 10-year-old for the Aintree showpiece and sending him out to improve on last year’s fourth, Robert was roughing off most of his string and pretending it’s already summertime.
“We’ve packed up six to eight weeks before normal,” says Robert. “I don’t think we’ll be racing before the end of July. We’re doing what we’d normally do with the novice hurdlers and bumper horses in May, giving them a school over fences and preparing for next season.”
Next year, Miller will be 11 and Robert shrugs at the idea of a veteran winning the National. In reality, there have been three winners of that vintage in the past decade alone: Pineau De Re, Auroras Encore and Neptune Collonges.
“There’s always a chance, and I expect he’ll stay in training,” Robert says. “It’s a bit of a dream to come back and win a third Becher, as he’s the only horse to have won it twice in a row, so who knows?”
A change overnight
Miller has certainly enjoyed a mature rather than precocious career, which could stand him in good stead for yet another bash over the Aintree fences he so relishes.
He had moderate form up to last season, but his ability seemed to change almost overnight with the advent of a new farrier – one of Robert’s owners, David Bond.
“He has transformed the horse, done an amazing job,” says Robert. “He’s made him from a 120 horse to a 150 horse. Miller has rubbish feet – he pulls shoes off, and he gets corns if you put them too far forward. He was losing a couple every week. And he couldn’t move properly, his jumping was moderate and he wouldn’t go forwards – he wasn’t happy.”
Robert noticed the effects “within days”.
“We have a hardcore track to the gallops and he used to be really careful where he put his feet, and all of a sudden he wasn’t. He won his first Becher Chase a couple of weeks later.”
Shoes weren’t the only snag in Miller’s early career. He was initially trained in France and “no one wanted to buy him as he was known to be a bit crazy”.
“His current owner [Dido Harding] loves hunting and likes to ride her horse sometimes; she won the Magnolia Cup in 2017,” says Robert. “She’s realistic and told me to buy a nice horse she could hunt if it was no good. He didn’t have a good reputation, but I liked his form. I couldn’t go and see him, but Richard Hobson, who used to buy my French horses, did go, and told me, ‘It must be a nice ride, I saw them leading it off the gallops on a bike’.”
It transpired that was the only way they could get the horse on or off the gallops.
“Once he arrived here, we found out pretty quickly he was not an easy ride,” smiles Robert. “He’s not in any way naughty or ungenuine, but he used to get his knickers in a twist and plant himself. But he’s grown up now and my wife, Louise, rides him every day. A small yard is probably good for him – there’s nothing to jazz him up here.”
Perched on the Dorset Downs
Robert’s Dorset yard is at the foot of the gallops of his late father-in-law Robert Alner, for whom he first started work as an 18-year-old jockey and “never left”. While the Alners used to ferry horses in horseboxes the four miles from their yard to the gallops, the younger Robert has built a new house and yard in situ, perched on the side of the Dorset Downs, looking out over the Blackmore Vale.
“You can almost see William Fox-Pitt’s house,” says Robert, who’d been schooling at the eventer’s yard the morning H&H visited.
This was just days before the coronavirus shut down the sport, and Robert, Louise and her mother, Sally Alner, are sitting on sofas in their vast kitchen, happily glued to the TV action at Cheltenham. Sally is animated, shouting instructions at the oblivious jockeys: “Sit up! Sit up! Faugheen’s tanking!”
“It’s like Gogglebox here,” laughs Louise, tucking into a custard doughnut.
Little did we realise that would be the last top-class jumping action for many months.
Walk In The Mill didn’t run at Cheltenham, for, despite him having won over £300,000 and being best Brit at last year’s National, Robert says he lacks the quality to have a chance at the Festival.
“He’s only a class horse over the Aintree fences,” says Robert. “He’s a good jumper, but just plods along. We wouldn’t have anything slow enough to work with him. He wouldn’t keep up at Cheltenham going to the start.”
Louise says her early-morning ride – whom she pops over tree trunks in the woods for fun – is fiery and forward, but Robert maintains he needs a positive partner on the track. Step forward James Best, who has ridden the bay to all but one of his wins.
“He’s a horse you need to ask questions, and James is very positive,” Robert says. “You can’t sit there and wait for things to happen. James asks him big questions. He kicks him on a lot, which is the way to ride him. He needs a bit of motivation because he’ll only do what you ask him to do. But if you ask, he’s an amazing jumper – he can take off outside the wings, from anywhere. It’s so easy for him.”
Robert’s parents are dual-purpose trainers in Yorkshire, and he remembers them both race-riding when he was a boy. His own grounding as a jockey gives him canny intuition about a horse’s ability.
“Often, when we go to buy a horse, I will try him,” he says. “I’ve ridden some good horses. I know which tracks will suit certain horses. And I ride out four lots every day.”
Robert pays tribute to his father-in-law, who died in February at the age of 76, as having set up his career. He trained the 1998 Gold Cup winner Cool Dawn.
“I’m more influenced by Robert than by anyone else,” he says. “We mostly just try to copy what he did. Not only was he a great trainer, but he was amazing at buying horses. He would buy inexpensive ones and do well, so I was always interested in his opinion.”
Robert credits his success as a jockey to the calibre of horses his father-in-law trained.
“I was a middle-of-the-road jockey, but I won quite a lot because I rode some good horses,” says Robert modestly, having bagged more than 200 winners, including both Cheltenham Festival and Grade One successes. “We talk about how great jockeys are, but most of the time, it’s simply the best horse that wins. Jockeys make a bit of difference, but no one can make a rubbish horse go fast. Of course at the time I thought I was brilliant, but the reality was I wasn’t!”
Back on the TV in the Alners’ open-plan kitchen, Faugheen’s just been beaten by a length into third to Samcro and Melon in the Grade One Marsh Novices’ Chase. It’s a great run for a 12-year-old in his first season over fences, but Robert winces.
“They’ll be devastated with third,” he says. “Second, third, fourth – they’re the first losers. There’s only one place that counts. Fourth for Miller in the National last year – it’s no good.”
Perhaps runner-up in the virtual Grand National will have made Robert smile – and maybe he’d even have settled for fourth again this time, if he’d only been able to run. As we spoke, before the pandemic had escalated in this country, Robert was anticipating the race being run behind closed doors.
“It’s not a race you can postpone because you then clash with other meetings and everyone is aiming to peak for Aintree,” he says. “For me, running behind closed doors wouldn’t bother me in the slightest – the prize money is the same, the horse doesn’t care if there’s no cheering, and as a jockey, you never hear the crowd.”
But it wasn’t to be, and now – in common with the rest of the world – Robert is playing the waiting game while the sport hangs in limbo.
Ref Horse & Hound; 9 April 2020