How John Size learned to love Happy Valley again & why he is favourite to make it 5 titles straight
When Tornado Twist won the last Happy Valley race of last season to send John Size two clear again in the championship after John Moore had levelled up earlier in the night, it wasn't just a nice piece of timing, it was a fitting moment to appreciate how the quirky, concrete-surrounded city circuit was ultimately the difference in the 2019 title fight.
In the latter part of last season, with the title a three-cornered contest between Size, Moore and Frankie Lor, something Size had in his corner was his rejuvenated recent record at Happy Valley by comparison with his rivals.
Frankie Lor has done some sensational work in his two seasons but there is an obvious weakness in his game, at this stage, and it is Happy Valley. Lor has had 130 wins to date in only two season, but just 20 of them there.
Moore, too, has a hole in his armory these days in the shape of the Valley - his participation rate there has fallen away and so,as a consequence, has his win tally.
The final margin for Size in the championship was three wins over Moore and he beat him by nine wins at Happy Valley - 22 to 13. It looked something that Moore tried to address in the latter part of the season as he strove to overhaul Size's lead - he lifted his participation to 40 runners at Happy Valley in the final 73 races of the campaign there - but the damage had been done.
The irony is that there had been a time when Size also looked to have all but shunned the Valley, but the champion trainer has come full circle in recent seasons and been a major player there again.
So much so that he actually knocked the perennial King Of Happy Valley, Caspar Fownes, off his perch in 2017-18 and was the leading trainer there. Fownes was back as the top Valley trainer in 2018-19 but Size was still in the top three, along with Tony Cruz, and only four off the top spot.
It was not always so.
In his early days, as he posted wins in the championship at his first three apearances, Size had a 'normal' rate of participation and success at the Valley. Between 26.1 and 29.2 per cent of his runners went there and at least a quarter of his winners arrived there.
Many top trainers get frustrated by the greatly-increased luck factor that is in play at the tight, turning track, a factor out of the trainer's control, which can cost him wins that, from a training point of view, he feels he has done enough to earn. Over time, those trainers can sometimes make a pact with themselves to take more of their better runners to the "fairer" courses at Sha Tin and keep lesser horses which "need some luck anyway" to the Valley.
Whether those were the reasons underlying it, as Size's Hong Kong career progressed successfully and he emerged with 50 per cent of the championships he contested, he became a bit part player at the Happy Valley. He racked up only 30 wins in total over 5 seasons between September, 2006, and July, 2011.
Moore headed Size off at Happy Valley in all five of those seasons, but, around that time, seems to have started to lose his appetite for the venue almost at the same time that Size's numbers began to recover.
Moore's participation at Happy Valley dropped away to less than 20 per cent of his total runners and his wins his an all time low of just two Happy Valley victories in the 2017-18 season. Only in the second half of last season did Moore make a resurgence there, as outlined above.
While it was Size's success rate rather than participation percentage that fell away, his participation at the Valley has even cranked up to a consistently-higher level in the last few years, even with get-back runners like Tornado Twist, who might be considered unsuited there. As a result, his win tally has lifted too, with around 30 per cent of his winners in recent seasons at Happy Valley, as opposed to where he was a decade ago.
It is Size's all-rounder qualities that make him the favourite to win the trainer's title again over Moore and Lor when we bang the gong for the new season on Sunday.
He was second to Moore in the Sha Tin turf races last season after winning that race the year before, he is consistently in the top half on the dirt, where Moore is an average performer. Lor has been a revelation on the dirt, a strong player on the Sha Tin turf but off the pace at Happy Valley.
Of the other potential contenders, Tony Cruz is always strong at Happy Valley and Sha Tin but a virtual non-runner on the dirt, with 7 wins there in five years, and it's now 14 years since his last championship win. Three-time champion Caspar Fownes has fallen off the pace in recent times, holding a powerful place at the Valley and consistent on the dirt but lacking punch at the Sha Tin turf surface, where he is a mid-table player. That's a difficult hurdle to overcome since 61 per cent of the races are run there.
Of course, the other highlight of the coming training contest is the debut of 13-times champion jockey and Hong Kong racing institution, Douglas Whyte. Unlike most top jockeys who make the transition to training and fail, or at best operate at a lower level than they did as riders, the South African appeals to anyone who knows him as a likely success at the caper. He has more of the right mix of knowledge, workaholic and hunger to succeed than many who have enjoyed top flight careers in the saddle but find the going tougher when they have 24-hours a day invested in each horse.
The bar has been set very high for freshman trainers in the last two seasons. Had Frankie Lor not set the world on fire in his opening season th year before, understated handler Jimmy Ting's performance last term would have had rave reviews.
Judged by the past, anywhere north of 35 wins for a freshman looks a strong statement so doubtless Whyte will be looking to that as an initial target zone, even if he harbours desires to become a championship contender in this arena as he was in the saddle. He has strong stable numbers to start the campaign - 46 horses were on his team list as of Monday - and even a potential player for some major events. General's Delight (ex Millard Reaction) arrives from Australia with a strong reputation and the four-year-old classics in early 2020 as his ultimate goal.
If nothing else, Whyte can be sure that the Jockey Club will be quietly cheering him on as the club would surely like to see a resurrection of the reputation of the Olympic Stables out of which Whyte will run his operation alongside David Ferraris and Michael Chang.