Gaming the system - a reason for celebration or elimination?
When Caspar Fownes scored his fourth Hong Kong trainers championship win in season 2020-21, he showed once again that he is not just a high-class trainer but the undisputed champion of gaming the system.
Fownes, 54, remains a monument to a very lucky save by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, as he gained his licence 18 years ago only in exceptional circumstances.
He had worked for his late father, Lawrie Fownes, for some years as his key assistant and the Fownes family assumed that, with Lawrie’s retirement imminent, Caspar would slide into a licence and keep the same team of owners and horses.
They were in for a shock.
Fownes was initially passed over by the Licensing Committee but his dashed hopes were put back to together with a very late call up after Peter Chapple-Hyam decided to withdraw from his own licence and return to England near the end of the 2002-03 season.
The Jockey Club decided that Fownes, with his long history growing up in Hong Kong racing and with his father’s string of horses still intact, offered the only viable option for a replacement with only a couple of months before the start of the next season.
That proved correct.
Fownes won with his first starter, has since won four championships, almost 1,000 races, 2 Derbies and a swag of major feature races, including internationals with horses like Lucky Nine, The Duke, Green Birdie and Southern Legend.
So, he is a worthy champion trainer again following his exploits in 2020-21 but there was more to the win than simply training racehorses – Fownes is also the “master of churn.”
When we talk about churn, we’re talking about the capacity of a trainer to cycle more horses through his stable, expanding his winning opportunities. In other jurisdictions, that seems a common place concept, with the biggest yards operating conveyor belts of hundreds of animals, testing many, keeping those with wins up their sleeves and discarding those with problems, without talent or which have gone as far as they’re going.
That’s fine when land for training facilities is plentiful and there is a place for hundreds of trainers and thousands of horses but, in Hong Kong, there are limitations on all those things and official caps on the number of horses in training at any time. Aside from satisfying the needs of the space and horse population, caps do nudge the trainers’ race towards being more competitive. That’s why George Moore’s record of 87 wins in the 1979-80 season – when there were no caps on numbers – stood for 25 years before Tony Cruz beat it.
That cap was formerly 60 horses per trainer but, since the Conghua Training Centre opened in 2018, trainers with a Conghua satellite operation can have 70 horses.
In reality, though, through stable transfers and the coming and going of imports and retirements during a season, quite a few trainers use more than that limited number of individual horses and Fownes is a master at that.
One of the obvious loopholes is stable transfers – horses move between trainers constantly in Hong Kong, with an average 20 moves a month over the 10-month season. That’s significant in a jurisdiction with a total population south of 1,500 horses and trainers often actively pursue particular horses to join their string, horses they might have identified as not getting the right management where they are.
This table shows how effectively Fownes used his stable transfers in 2020-21, with his number of acquisitions one of the highest and landing 14 wins from the 18 horses which moved to his stable.
And his efficiency at stable transfers is only a part of his effectiveness at recycling his team in most years to start as many horses as possible during the season, a skill that was right at its peak last season. Far from the notional cap of 70 horses, Fownes ran 89 different horses
during the year, well clear of his nearest rival in this regard Douglas Whyte, and an advantage of 16 extra horses over the man he beat for the title, John Size.
In a jurisdiction like Hong Kong, with more than 95 % of the races tightly-contested handicaps, where winners of multiple races in a season are not easy to come by, using that many more horses is a winning edge.
That’s not to suggest Fownes’ title is in any way devalued – he broke no rules, part of any sport is learning to take full advantage of any loopholes available and there is nothing to stop Size or any other trainers taking the same approach.
So Fownes can be rightly celebrated as the champion trainer but getting the benefit of the “using the system” seems not to be getting the same praise at the other end of the table.
The Jockey Club has performance criteria that need to be met by trainers in order to keep their licences, with a “three strikes and out” type of policy. As mentioned earlier, the club has limited facilities available so the number of trainers also needs to be capped and licences are prized and tough to get. So, underperforming trainers are in the cross hairs for replacement by others who, amongst the locals anyway, have likely been biding their time for over a decade working under other trainers in hopes of hanging out their own shingle one day.
Currently, the key requirement is for a minimum of 16 winners in the season but that has been tweaked in 2020-21 with the proviso that a trainer cannot count more than 2 wins in the bottom grade, Class 5.
Which means that a battling trainer with 18 wins won’t pass the test if 5 of them came in Class 5. Since trainers at the foot of the table do most of their business in Classes 3,4 and 5, that’s clearly going to make life more difficult.
On this table, listed in order of the most Class 5 wins since the 2016-17 season, you can see the Class 5 runners and winners for the various trainers.
Shaded in green are the number of Class 5 runners when they represent at least 20 per cent of the trainer’s overall starters and, in yellow shading, you see the number of winners, if it accounts for 20 per cent or more of the trainers wins.
On the right-hand end are Class 5 runner and winner percentages for these seasons.
It is clearly going to be a problem for the trainers who are already under pressure, like Michael Chang and Peter Ho, but there are others who could come into focus in coming years, too.
Now, let’s talk tin tacks.
The germ of this new concept seems to be that there are trainers – not too far from the base zone themselves, in some cases – like to suggest that some other trainers contrive to keep better-level animals down in the handicaps and ensure their own continued survival by training most of their winners with these well-graded horses in Class 5.
There isn’t actually a lot of evidence for this – Class 5 appears to be serving the function that it is supposed to: as much as a stage for those with lesser ability as for horses whose talents are waning with age and wear and tear. The average age of a Class 5 horse is around a year older than other classes, the average number of starts is higher than other grades.
Some would argue that the club does not want to encourage owners to persist with these lower class horses and would prefer to see them replaced with something better.
But, at bottom, it looks an unfair attack on the trainers who are often trying to squeeze out the last win from aged or brittle cast-off former Class 3 horse from a higher-ranked stable.
Yes, they may have better than Class 5 talent but some need more time and attention than top stables are willing to give and, like Fownes juggles horses to squeeze vital wins for the title, these lesser-ranked trainers are attempting to use the system to claw their way to meeting the requirements. They should be seen in the same way as the champion trainer who does what he can to achieve his best result - instead they are targeted for elimination, not celebration.
If the point were to discourage Class 5 horses altogether then why not exclude those horses across the board? It's ironic that Fownes is one of the main players in Class 5 - all part of playing the handicap system - and would not have been champion in 2020-21 had the same rules applied to his Class 5 wins as will now apply to the trainers struggling to survive.
In fact, the previous season would have have a different leading trainer too had these rules applied to Ricky Yiu.
The Jockey Club makes its own rules and, if the aim is to recycle the bottom trainers faster, then the fairest path is by lifting the requirements for all trainers.
It seems an odd proposition that any races which are run under the rules, host betting and pay out prize money, like all the other races, shouldn’t be counted but, if Class 5 horses aren't legitimate for meeting performance requirements, is it fair that they are legitimate for championship purposes?