An hour in the company of Dai Walters reveals a man of many parts. In his teens he worked as a labourer and greengrocer who also planted trees for the local forestry commission until he started as an apprentice fitter at the opencast coal mine in Maesgwyn.
He worked his way up until he struck out on his own in 1982, buying plant machinery and hiring it out to mining companies, initially in south Wales.
Now his Walters Group, which built Ffos Las racecourse over six years from 2003, turns over more than £150 million annually.
Walters, whose Christian name is actually Gweirydd, is proud of his Welsh heritage. His success enabled him to embrace racehorse ownership 25 years ago, when two of his Irish employees persuaded him to buy a share in a horse. Since then he became besotted by the game but there are signs the love affair may be waning.
How much of that is down to the Covid pandemic even he is unsure. The 75-year-old resolved not to go racing in its present guise after a visit to Chepstow.
“I didn’t enjoy it,” he says. “I couldn’t speak to my trainer or jockey face to face. You like to go racing to meet people and have a chat. When things get back to normal you hope the buzz will come back, but you just don’t know. Covid is a part of it, but not all.”
Like many owners, Walters is disenchanted by meagre prize-money levels, left further depressed by the pandemic. He understands that racecourses are under acute financial pressure but struggles to see a way out of the predicament even when a sense of normality returns.
Walters’ sense of ambivalence almost certainly dates back to when Ffos Las, which opened in the summer of 2009, was trying to build up its fixture list. Having staged 29 fixtures in 2011, it faced a reduction to just 16 in 2012 as the British Horseracing Authority sought reductions in tandem with a falling horse population.
In the event Ffos Las would host 26 fixtures but the experience left Walters feeling perplexed. He’d spent £25 million on building Britain’s first new National Hunt track in more than 80 years and was affronted that the rug could suddenly be pulled from under his feet.
Walters then spent the next five years trying to mould Ffos Las’ fixture list into one that worked for west Wales, where the racecourse was situated in Carmarthenshire. His frustration reached its apogee in 2018 when he sold Ffos Las to Arena Racing Company (ARC).
“The BHA never really supported Ffos Las,” Walters says from the conservatory of his imposing home on the northern fringe of Cardiff. “It was daft: they’d always give you the wrong days [for fixtures], like Monday afternoons.
“Ffos Las is a working area,” he continues. “You need Friday afternoon and weekend fixtures but they were so much more expensive to buy. We had to bid for them – how could we compete against the likes of Cheltenham and Ascot, which have sizeable populations nearby? If you’re a small track that has been going for a while, you’re fine. But for a new independent track that’s not part of a big group like ARC, you haven’t got a chance.”
Walters accepts that ARC’s purchase of Ffos Las made perfect sense. The Ruben brothers’ company owns or manages 16 racetracks and can transfer existing fixtures around them as it sees fit. But the experience left Walters feeling empty inside, even though it bequeathed some happy memories.
He didn’t just build Ffos Las; he breathed its very existence every day. He gave connections of runners a free lunch if they’d travelled more than two hours to get there. His determination to make it work even stretched to placing horses with a wide spread of trainers as an inducement for them to support the racecourse.
Now, 18 months later, Walters has totally realigned his engagement with racing. In May 2018, as he signed off on the Ffos Las deal, Sam Thomas moved his string from Lambourn to the 35-box stable at Walters’ property. It was time to write a new chapter.
“When things get back to normal you hope the buzz will come back”
“We had horses everywhere but when we sold the racecourse we couldn’t just drop that overnight,” Walters says. “I now have 20 with Sam because I like having horses at home. We have the set-up here, and I own a few in partnership with Nicky Henderson and Nigel Twiston-Davies because I like them.”
It has taken Thomas two seasons to hit his straps but winners started flowing in November and have not abated. Most have a connection with Walters and most of those are young horses on an upward curve. A prime example is Good Risk At All, who cost €22,000 as a yearling in France and won a Listed bumper at Cheltenham in November.
That’s the way Walters prefers it. He has the means to tangle with the wealthiest at public auction but chooses to buy mid-market, unraced stores. “You’ve worked hard all your life so why blow the money?” he asks rhetorically.
He owns two farms adjacent to his racing stables at Lisvane, where Thomas is a salaried trainer, and where he brings his auction purchases ahead of starting them off. The farms would be even more central to the game-plan but for one problem, despite Wales’ recent incarnation as a fertile source of training talent.
“In this part of the country it’s very hard to find youngsters who want to work in the game,” he says. “People ring us up saying they can ride but they don’t have experience of riding racehorses. What we’d really like to do is take injured horses out of the yard and put them on the farm to make boxes available. But that can’t happen until we get more staff.”
This is Walters’ new-found approach to maintaining his position as one of jump racing’s biggest owners. He still has around 30 horses in training each season, owned entirely by him or with partners. He has supped from some notable victory chalices along the way.
One of the first big races he won came courtesy of the Peter Bowen- trained Snoopy Loopy in the 2008 Betfair Chase at Haydock. On that day Kauto Star, sent off at 2-5, fell when upsides at the last but Snoopy Loopy might well have beaten him anyway.
Snoopy Loopy obliged at 33-1, in the process impressing upon Walters the tenet that you should never back out of a big race for the presence of a strong favourite. It was a lesson he regretted not heeding four years later, when Oscar Whisky, trained for him by Henderson, missed the 2012 Champion Hurdle despite having finished third the previous year.
“I like Nicky [Henderson] a lot but he has a few really big owners behind him and you can feel like you are in the back of the class when it comes to running your horse,” he says.
“I feel I might have won the Champion Hurdle with Oscar Whisky but Nicky said I wouldn’t beat this horse and that horse, so we went to the Stayers’ Hurdle instead.”
In the event Oscar Whisky finished fourth in the Stayers’ Hurdle and Rock On Ruby won the Champion. “Three weeks later Oscar Whisky won at Aintree, where he beat Rock On Ruby into third place,” Walters relates.
“To me, racing should be a sport, but I sometimes feel it isn’t like that these days. That’s the reason I might get out of the game and sell the horses. Sometimes I feel like putting a line through it all but now we have Sam [Thomas] here. We can do our own thing.”
Nor did Oscar Whisky find redemption. Having won the Scilly Isles Novices’ Chase, the horse returned to Sandown ten months later for the Tingle Creek Chase and suffered a fatal injury when he fell at halfway.
“You can feel like you are in the back of the class when it comes to running your horse”
Oscar Whisky was dear to Walters’ heart. He won the Welsh Champion Hurdle when the race transferred to Ffos Las in 2011, and Walters recently suffered another body blow when Whisper, who’d won the Coral Cup at the 2014 Cheltenham Festival, was killed at Haydock in December.
“It breaks your heart when it happens,” he says ruefully. “But you either get out of it altogether or you accept it and move on.”
For now, Walters is moving on, albeit in a different direction. It will be on his terms, especially with prize-money levels failing miserably to keep up with riding costs.
“I do it because I can afford to,” he says. “I wouldn’t like to say how much it costs me every year but if any horse can pay its training fees, I’m happy. You can’t cut corners with horses and I’d say costs have gone up by 100 per cent in the last 10 years but not prize-money.”
It’s fair to say Walters could do with something to rekindle the joyous feeling he experienced when he bought his first racehorse 25 years ago.
Will that joy return when crowds are allowed back in numbers and the sport’s finances can be repaired?
“The highlight of my year was always the time from Cheltenham to Aintree, but we seem to have lost that buzz,” he responds. “Yes, we all have to be sensible about it, but once you get older you find that things change.
“I’d love to go back to how it was 20 years ago, when I got a big buzz out of it. It will be a hard year in 2021 but if it doesn’t come back soon it could start to fade away. These things happen. I used to enjoy going out for a pint but I don’t do that anymore.
“This Covid business and not going racing has made me think. I have enjoyed it up to now but this is the year that could change everything.”