Beware first-time runners in Hong Kong unless you have the right trainer
Now that we're getting into the Hong Kong season towards the end of September, with more than 50 races under the belt more and more unraced horses are going to start to turn up.
Although we've already have Top Beautiful and Household King win their racetrack debuts this season, unraced horses are usually more of a presence once their trainers have had some time to get them ready.
In Hong Kong, there are two kinds of "unraced" horses, usually referred to as new horses.
They are actual unraced horses or "Griffins", which can be Private Purchase Griffins (PPGs) or International Sale Griffins (ISGs). In short, they have not raced before, anywhere.
Or the new horses can be Private Purchases (PPs), which have not raced in Hong Kong before but they did race somewhere else and qualified for importation, usually by winning somewhere or by a stakes placing.
Many punters are drawn to PPGs because they start in the equivalent of maidens, Class 4, and have clean histories while their opposition might have a few convictions and haven't impressed.
The PPs almost always tackle Class 3 or above and often bring overseas form with stakes races in it, which also looks sparkly - but don't be fooled.
The reality is that it isn't easy to win first time out in Hong Kong whether it's Class 4 or Class 1 - in fact, Nightlign (pictured above) is the last horse to win a Class 1 first-up and that was in 2008.
The table shows horses having their first start in Hong Kong since September, 2007, broken up into PPGs - who all have their first run in Class 4 or in the handful of Griffin-only races - and PPs, which are sorted by the class of race where they commence.
All PPs are losing propositions on a notional flat bet for the win and even the win percentages are poor.
Just 62 PPs have won first time out in Hong Kong over 10 years out of 1700 runners. For PPGs the numbers are better - because debutants can be well graded running in Class 4 against average horses if they are talented - yet they still only average 15 wins a season.
So there isn't a lot of profit to be found just backing new horses but the way we need to attack them is to look at the trainers. It is a matter of both a trainer's style and skill getting horses to win first time out, whether they are new to racing completely or whether they have raced somewhere else and shown ability but are ring-rusty after the long break while being exported from their home country to Hong Kong.
Both PPGs and PPs are combined in the table above and we can see the trainer by trainer performance with first starters of all types.
The third column shows their winning percentage of runners but the final column is more important to punters as it shows the profit/loss percentage of a flat stake bet on each runner.
As you can see, there are not many in profit and John Size has done a remarkable job with so many runners to still be in the black.
Size does have his share of PPs but it's fair to say that the champion trainer specialises in PPGs, which is why he has more first-time runners than anyone else but he wins with 17.8 % of them.
In Size's early days, he was a very profitable proposition with new horses but punters soon latched on to that, they rarely let his horses go out at long odds (over the 10 years and 276 runners, they averaged odds of less than 6.0) and his profit/loss level has declined over time as a result if you're just betting them all.
Because these are smallish samples, they can be warped by one result and that is the case with Richard Gibson, who had 99-1 debut winner Full Talent a few years ago and that accounts for all of his profit and more but Tony Cruz and Chris So do an excellent job with first time runners.
Of course, no examination is complete without refining this down to the ones that are really expected to do well, the horses 11.0 and below in the betting, which have displayed talent in their trials or track gallops.
This is where the good first-start trainer comes into his own because it isn't random, there is some real stable confidence behind the new horse if he is well-backed and there are some standouts now.
Size is more profitable here and, as you can see, a huge proportion of his first starters are expected in the market - 177 out of 276.
But trainers like Danny Shum and Ricky Yiu are far more formidable with new horses when they are fancied in the betting - Shum won with only 4 of 162 longer than 11.0 but is winning with one in three when they're expected to run well; Yiu is 3 from 161 out of the market but winning with better than one in four under 11.0.
Almond Lee has a spectacular return on investment with first timers and 3 of his 5 winners in this table started outright favourite so he is worth watching if that scenario pops up but he has fewer runners than many.
Unlike most of the current trainers, Chris So has only been licensed for 3 full seasons, so maybe his numbers will soften over time but both tables show he does a very good job at present with his first-up runners.