Peter Walder: Taking the Shot

March 5, 2015

Fast Pass and Peter Walder in Korea

You don’t win races at a 25% clip as a racehorse trainer unless you know two things. The first is how to get the most out of your horse, every time you lead them over. They have to be ready to perform at their maximum level. The second is where to run your horses. If you don’t know what level your horses can win at, you will get chewed up and spit out in this game. Those two separate attributes must be possessed to have that type of success level. Regardless of what level or circuit you compete at, maintaining a win % in the 25% neighborhood pretty much puts you at the top of your craft. Peter Walder has done just that, at some of the most competitive meets around. And he has done it with consistency. He has also done it with primarily modest stock, but when he gets his hands on one with real talent, they run like rockets.

That’s not to say there aren’t many other things you must know, as getting the fragile but graceful and competitive thoroughbred racehorse to perform at their maximum is no easy task. Nor is the reading of a condition book and playing chess with all the other outfits at your chosen meet. It takes a high level of cerebral skills, animal husbandry skills, diagnostic skills, instincts, self-confidence, and dedication. And not just any dedication. The type of dedication to forgo many things others take for granted. Normal hours, days off, vacations, running late, calling in sick, not a chance. The horses have to be cared for and like many other businesses, if you are not there you can’t be sure what is happening. With a racehorse you have to know what’s happening. It’s a rough life, but a very rewarding one, you just have to love and want it.

Peter Walder loves and wants it. He shows it every day in the consistent performances of his horses. One need only look at any of his horses, or his shed row, and his work ethic is as evident as the top care all his horses receive. Peter knows and puts his hands on every horse in his barn. He has developed and perfected his own program over time, and you’d be hard pressed to argue against the success of it. It wasn’t easy, and nothing was handed to him, but the fruits are just now beginning to pay off.

Peter, who is affectionately known as Ron to his close friends, grew up in Los Angeles. He was a heck of a baseball pitcher in high school. Good enough to be All City and earn a baseball scholarship to Niagara Falls, New York. Peter excelled in high school with his natural talent. It was never his dream though. It wasn’t where he belonged or wanted to be. Once he advanced to the collegiate level things changed. There he was playing with people who had the dream, and, differently than high school, everyone was very good. He may have had the talent to make it had he chosen that route, but between it not being what he wanted and a subsequent shoulder injury, he walked away. No regrets, no looking back, it just wasn’t for him. There is a saying Peter applies to many aspects of his life and it fit back then. It goes “Don’t be divided from the truth by what you would like to believe.”

Peter wound up in Canada where his grandparents were from. He began his racetrack career in Toronto and started learning his craft from the very bottom. He had no connections, no money and nobody behind him other than his family. He worked for trainers like Steve Barnes, Greg Cox, Brian Kessel, and Mike Doyle. He learned the game and absorbed every trick of the trade these guys knew. He worked with Key Spirit, who Barnes had claimed for 40k and turned into the champion Canadian sprinter. He went on to work for Roger Attfield and was fortunate to be around and care for some nice horses. Horses like With Approval, Triple Wow, and Ivestia. By the time he went to work for Alex Bankuti, Peter knew enough to make him dangerous. He was spot betting, picking his spots to build up a bank roll. He wanted to train on his own, and wasn’t going to wait for some owner to give him a chance if he could do it himself. Owners were hard to find and gravitated to experienced trainers. Alex taught Peter a lot about getting a horse mentally happy, a practice he still employs as a vital part of his program today. He learned about not injecting horses, but getting them physically happy as well. Alex gave him a lot of leeway and enough rope to hang himself. He didn’t though. He learned, worked and got to know people in the game. In 1995, Peter took out his trainer’s license. His first claim, Radiant Fling, who he haltered at the old Greenwood Racetrack in downtown Toronto, won. He would later lose her at Hialeah.

He claimed Jimmy the Score for 10k, half of which was his. He ran the horse back in an allowance race and everyone told him he was crazy. Jimmy won, came back with a shoe half on and half off but he got the money and Peter started getting attention.

Other than not having to borrow and fight for stalls, not a lot has changed since back then. Peter has achieved what many in the business can’t and that’s consistency. He started winning and hasn’t stopped, regardless of the level he plays at. In addition to the niche of maintaining a high percentage year in and year out, Peter has developed another knack. The knack of turning claimers into stakes performers. He has done it time and time again. Pyramist, claimed for 10k, won the 100k George Roseneberg stakes at Delaware. Lacy Slew, another Walder claim, won the Maryland Media Stakes. Sonja’s Angel, yet another claim, just missed in the Sixty Sails at Hawthorne. Sweet and Sour Nina made the claiming to stake transition for Peter. When Peter runs one in a stake it pays to pay attention. The most recent success is none other than Santa Anita Handicap contender, Sir Quesqueyano. All he did was win the Sunshine Millions right off the Walder claim at 20-1. Now he shows up to take on the best horse in the country in The Big Cap on Saturday. We’ll come back to that.

Because of his high winning percentage and repeated success with moderate horses and claimers, Peter has been unfairly labeled a claiming trainer by some. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes he excels with claiming horses, especially the older ones he fancies, but give him a runner and you’ll quickly see this man can compete on the biggest stages The Sport of Kings has to offer.

Force Freeze is the best horse Peter Walder has trained to date. He fell into Peter’s hands when his owner searched for a trainer he felt would give the horse the attention he deserved. It did not take long for Force Freeze to improve dramatically once in Walder’s program. He blossomed and blossomed fast. He went from being an also ran who never lived up to his early hinted at potential to arguably the fastest and best sprinter in the country. He set stakes records in The Teddy Drone at Monmouth and the Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship. His finest hour came in the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Sprint when he came within a head of winning, only to be a battling second to Amazombie. Had he won, he would have been a cinch to be champion sprinter. He was ready too, he looked loaded on the turn and John Velasquez turned him loose in what in hindsight may have been a smidge early. When collared in deep stretch by Amazombie he fought back, but fell a head short.

I first got a chance to see Peter’s brilliance and dedication sometime around 2000. He had just brought a new owner into the game and they had claimed a small gray filly for 25k named Alerted by Gold. Peter took his customary 30 days to get the slight filly accustomed to his program. She responded. She filled out, looked more alert and on her toes, trained eagerly and even showed a tad of speed, which she was devoid of before the claim. They ran her back and she ran a decent third, a race it looked like she could build on. Then things went haywire. I remember Peter calling the owner sometime around 7 or 8pm that evening. He couldn’t call earlier as he was tending to the little filly. He told the owner, I have some bad news, the filly had some kind of fit back at the barn. She went crazy and was flipping and kicking and thrashing. It took all this time to get her quieted down. It took the whole barn. She nearly died and nearly killed us. My Vet thinks it’s heat stroke but I am not sure what it is. The Vet says she is done as a racehorse. I know that isn’t what you want to hear. And oh yeah she’s blind. Whatever happened made her go blind. Then he told the owner not to panic, he’d figure out what happened, and to keep hope alive that he could save her. He also said sometimes their sight comes back.

Peter Walder and his staff worked with the filly, as did the Vet. They figured out it was a severe heat stroke and that the filly got really hot and worked herself up. Her sight returned and she was healthy and happy. She actually started thriving. Peter felt she could race but didn’t want the filly at any risk and knew her tendencies. He felt if he ran her he could be ready for any problem afterwards now that he knew what he was dealing with. He also figured out something else. He kept the filly nice and cool prior to racing. They used fans, ice, rubbing alcohol, and she got some odd looks at Belmont that morning in her stall. She looked pretty good drawing off in the stretch under Pat Day and in the winner’s circle later that afternoon.

I remember seeing a picture someone took of Peter Walder and the little filly the night she had that fit. He had no shirt on, was wringing wet, both he and the filly were all scratched up. It was a mess but his care never strayed from the filly and there are not many trainers who would have been able to save her and get her back to the races. The Vet left and said he did all he could, hope for the best. Peter didn’t leave though. They were there deep into the night and the little filly knew it. Unfortunately she was claimed later on. In a classy show of sportsmanship, and out of regard for the little filly, Peter approached her new trainer to advise him of her tendencies and how he pretty much eliminated them. The new trainer said that’s ok I know what to do with my horses. He didn’t.

Every trainer wants to win a Kentucky Derby, a Breeders’ Cup or a classic race. A race like the Santa Anita Handicap with all its glory and tradition surely qualifies. But there is another place where winning in any type of race carries that special feeling reserved for the most hallowed spots in The Sport of Kings. Saratoga. Peter’s first venture into The Spa didn’t turn out the way he envisioned. He brought a tough mare named Minnie’s Brat who had a habit of giving her all. There was no reason to think this time would be any different. Minnie’s Brat was not up to the Saratoga competition that day or perhaps was just off her game. She ran poorly and Peter cried all the way back to Monmouth. He knew he’d be back though. A few months later he claimed Ima Halo for 16k at Hialeah. He whispered to that same owner of Alerted by Gold, this filly might be good enough to win for 25k at Saratoga come August. He was right as Ima Halo gave Peter his first win at the premiere meet in horse racing.

Game on Dude, Rock Hard Ten, Ack Ack, Nodouble, Alysheba, John Henry, Seabiscuit, Lord at War, Greinton, Affirmed, Bates Motel, Broad Brush, and Spectacular Bid. These are the types of names you see when perusing past Big Cap winners. Can Peter Walder work his magic and slay the giant Shared Belief, one troubled start from being an undefeated Horse of the Year? We’ll find out Saturday afternoon but looking at Peter’s past record you’d be remiss to think the horse isn’t live. Peter doesn’t waste starts or run where he doesn’t belong.

Claimed for 62k, Sir Quesqueyano won the Sunshine Millions Classic first time Peter ran him. He runs his second race for Peter on Saturday. Considering The Gulfstream Park Handicap is Saturday as well, and is run at Peter and Sir Quesqueyano’s home track, you may wonder why ship out west and tangle with Shared Belief.

“Shared Belief is one horse and we are getting some good weight from him. Not to take anything away from him as he is a great horse and easily handled the Horse of the Year last out, he is coming off two hard races and almost all of them get beat at some point. This might be a good time to try him and my horse is doing very very good. I couldn’t be happier with him.”

“I also wasn’t thrilled about cutting back to a mile. My horse can rate and I think he will handle the distance. The race at Gulfstream is coming up very tough this year with multiple contenders.”

It would be no disgrace for Sir Quesqueyano to run well and only hit the board in The Big Cap. Not that that is why Peter Wader is here with his horse, as he came to take a shot at it, but the fact remains hitting the board would be a great training feat. Considering Peter has made lemonade from lemons that is no unreasonable expectation. It is also noted Sir Quesqueyano is no lemon. The horse has always had talent and would throw a big race every now and again for his past connections. Nothing like he ran in the Sunshine Millions but good efforts just the same. If he improves again, there will be some loud screaming going on turning for home in Arcadia and in South Florida. Regardless of the outcome, we definitely expect to make some noise along the way.

Contributing Authors

Jon Stettin

Jonathan’s always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings. Growing up around the game, he came about as close as anyone...

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An amazing article. Well done @jonathanstettin #ruffian…

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