He may have racked up 53 Group One winners during his six-and-a-half years training for Te Akau Racing but Jamie Richards was back to being the boy at trackwork on Tuesday.
The finishing touches had already been made on the racing team for Matamata on Wednesday, Richards’ final day in the role before he prepares for his new career training in Hong Kong, and it was his replacement Mark Walker and his assistant Sam Bergerson taking charge of Tuesday training in preparation for Saturday’s Group 1 Courtesy Ford Manawatu Sires’ Produce Stakes (1400m) day at Awapuni.
“It was a pretty odd feeling this morning. I didn’t have to worry about how the horses worked this morning,” Richards said.
“I was there behind the scenes giving them a hand but it’s Mark and Sam’s department now. I’ve just taken a step back and give them a hand where they need me.”
Richards joined Te Akau as its racing manager in 2014 and not much more than 12 months later began training in partnership with Stephen Autridge.
Six months later, he gained his first Group One success when Xtravagant destroyed his rivals in the New Zealand 2000 Guineas (1600m) at Riccarton and a week later he added a second elite win through Risque in the New Zealand 1000 Guineas (1600m) at the same track.
Group One wins have come thick and fast since as Richards has established himself as a world-class trainer, his first 13 elite wins in partnership with Autridge and his last 40 on his own right.
Among those triumphs were big-race highlights with stars like 14-time Group One heroine Melody Belle, versatile speedster Avantage, Classic winner Gingernuts, the brilliant Te Akau Shark and current horse of the year Probabeel.
“Probably our best day was Randwick when Probabeel and Te Akau Shark both won. Winning two pretty major Group Ones in the space of half an hour over on Australian soil is pretty hard to beat,” Richards said.
“We’ve been able to continually turn out good horses, year-in, year-out, the vast majority of those bought by David Ellis, who has been the driving force behind it all.
“We’ve done well with the good horses and tried to place the ordinary horses the best we can so that their owners get to experience the feeling of a winner as well. We’ve just strived for success.”
Richards has 17 runners entered for Matamata on Wednesday as he bids to add to his 736 New Zealand wins, a tally which includes 136 stakes wins and has led to three trainer premierships and being in the box seat for a fourth this season.
Richards was keen to go out on a high note on his final day training in New Zealand before he and his new fiancee, leading jockey Danielle Johnson, head to Sydney for the next few weeks. There the couple will attend the Easter Yearling Sales and use that time to network for Hong Kong and enjoy a trip to the Hunter Valley.
Richards will fly to Hong Kong on May 11, giving himself plenty of time to get accustomed to his new life ahead of the new racing season in September.
“It’s pretty strange. It’s been a pretty intense time but it’s on to the next chapter now. We’re just waiting in limbo now for that,” Richards said.
“I’m not going up to Hong Kong to make up numbers. I’m pretty determined and focussed to be as successful as I can. It’s a pretty competitive environment and the success won’t happen overnight.
“We’re starting back at zero, finding new horses and building new relationships with staff and owners and trying to be the best we can. I’m pretty determined to have a good crack at it.
“It’s a bit daunting and thinking about it, I get a bit nervous but there’s also a fair bit of excitement too. At some stage I had to spread my wings and have a go.
“In New Zealand, we’ve been a pretty big fish in a small pond but going up there, you reverse that and I’m a very small fish in a big pond. I remember them talking about (champion Kiwi jockey) James McDonald when he went up there, that he said he was just pinning his ears back and having a go and hopefully we can do the same.”
Richards said he was indebted to David Ellis and his wife Karyn Fenton-Ellis for their influence on his career and to Te Akau’s stable staff.
“The business is in great hands with Mark (Walker) coming back. He’s a world-class trainer who’s won nine training premierships between New Zealand and Singapore,” he said.
“Dave has been an outstanding role model for me and helped shave off a few of the rough edges, in the early days. Hard work is such an important part of it and putting the hours in reflects in the results.”
Richards gave an interesting insight into his training methods, revealing he had modelled his placing of horses on that of Sydney-based New Zealand Racing Hall of Fame trainer Chris Waller.
“I developed a feel for getting a horse ready to race when I was riding track work at Wingatui. But in the greater scheme of things it wasn’t until I was working in partnership with Steve (Autridge) and able to take a step back from riding work, that I was able to get involved in planning a horse’s programme and how many times it would trial, regards spacing and things like that,” he said.
“I spent a lot of time on the Racing New South Wales website, following what Chris Waller was doing with some of his horses, but never really understood it properly until I was with Steve and learnt the scale of how to go about training a horse to peak on race day.
“Looking through the calendar and picking out the right race, I think has been a massive part of the success in trying to place horses in races they could potentially win.
“Not every horse is capable of winning on a Saturday, but if we can get a win for the owners, whether it’s a Thursday at Woodville, or wherever, it’s still a buzz when you get a horse to win a race.”