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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

Incoming trainers will hold the early spotlight

Updated: Sep 5, 2022

Naturally, looking for the winner of the championship in season 2022-23 will be the primary narrative about Hong Kong trainers but that story will have to share the focus, at least in the early months, with the appearance of two highly-touted new names.

Champion New Zealand handler, Jamie Richards (above) and local product Pierre Ng (pictured in blue suit) will be the first new trainers since Douglas Whyte in 2019, although former dual Hong Kong championship winner, David Hayes, was reintroduced to the roster two years ago.

And expectation around this season’s new trainers is at the high end.

Firstly Richards, who (the returning Hayes aside) is only the second new foreign trainer since Richard Gibson in 2011. Michael Freedman was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it addition to the line-up in 2017 and gone again in just over a year so Richards is almost a novelty as a fresh expat trainer.

Richards celebrated his 32nd birthday just four weeks before the first meeting of the season, making him 10 months younger than the previous youngest trainer ever appointed by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, David Hayes back in 1995.

The New Zealander is the son of a jockey and an amateur rider himself but as a trainer he has set his homeland alight in a short career. In just seven years with a licence, he has taken home the training championship four times, the first in partnership in 2015-16, the latest in 2022 despite having left for Hong Kong with three months of the season remaining. He has posted a career strike of 19 per cent winners to runners, with his 488 wins including 40 Group Ones in both New Zealand and the tougher arena in Australia.

A 30 per cent strike rate in Group One races is simultaneously both a tremendous recommendation for a trainer but also something to query coming into the Hong Kong environment, where Group races are as desirable as they are anywhere but are also only a minor part of the annual program.

Championship performances here are very much about a trainer’s capabilities with bread and butter types in Class 3 and Class 4.

The challenges for Richards are the same as for any arriving foreigner – a warmer, more humid climate, which impacts how horses are fed, worked and raced, relatively limited facilities for resting horses during the 10-month season, a tight handicapping system that quickly gets on top of most horses and a completely new culture to understand.

Richards also faces the issue of sourcing horses and owners, after a decent amount of his success in New Zealand and Australia came as lead trainer for New Zealand’s biggest owner-breeder entity, Te Akau Racing.

Initially, he will be measured by an ability to rehabilitate fix ‘em ups from other yards, of a type he might never seen in New Zealand, before he gets a chance with fresh imports mid-season.

There have been excellent trainers imported to Hong Kong who never got to terms with some or all of those things, though, in fairness, they were usually from a background in Europe or Britain, so even training on a racetrack was foreign to them.

On the plus side, Richards has shown that he has a serious talent and, being smart, young and still open minded, and with a famously rigorous work ethic, he should be able to adapt to the environment. It is still horse training, after all, even if some of the components are different. He and his partner, champion New Zealand jockey Danielle Johnson, will be riding a lot of his work, so they will have a truly hands on approach to the job ahead.

Ng, on the other hand, has grown up with only Hong Kong racing so everything that will be new to Richards will be second nature to him.

The 38-year-old is the son of former trainer Peter Ng, who trained 463 winners in a career from 1984 to 2013, including dual Hong Kong Horse Of The Year in 1989 and 1990, Quicken Away, and 1985 Horse Of The Year, Mystic. Ng senior belonged to a different era when trainers were judged not so much by their ability to stack up wins as their ability to win major events or pull off a betting move. While his overall figure across almost 30 years might not look impressive, Peter Ng stuck by those key indicators even as the landscape changed around him, before leading home his biggest tally, 34 wins, in his final season before the Jockey Club’s compulsory retirement rules kicked in.

It was a reminder about his ability to train, and his son has shown the family flair too in his stints during the Aerovelocity era with Paul O’Sullivan, under John Size and, most recently, with Golden Sixty's trainer, Francis Lui.

It is impossible to explain to anyone outside Hong Kong racing how important a good assistant trainer (AT) is to the overall health of a training operation, but it becomes clear as the various ATs move around different yards periodically to gain experience with different ideas and to advance their claims to a trainer’s licence of their own.

The changes in fortune of the trainers they leave or join are often quite instructive.

In the yard of a perennial championship contender like Size, that is not as obvious, but in Ng’s time at the yards of O’Sullivan and Lui, both trainers enjoyed their peak seasons.

Each time Ng has been given quite a bit of the credit for that success.

Ng is also another example of how the Jockey Club's extensive training program these days has changed the lot of aspiring local trainers, who were once seen as largely inferior to the expats.

In addition to his work in Hong Kong as an AT, Ng has had work placements in Australia with the likes of Chris Waller and Mick Price, with Takayuki Yasuda in Japan and with Bill Mott in the US. He has been engaged in yearling preparation in Ireland, Australia, Japan and New Zealand and holds a Bachelor Of Science from the University of NSW. None of that would save him if he couldn't train but, in 2022, no stone is left unturned to make these young local trainers successful.

On the negative side, Ng has never trained in his own right, with all the responsibility that entails, but comes to the job as highly-anticipated as Frankie Lor did five years ago and keen to make an early impression.

Just to add spice to any comparison of the two freshmen, they look to be taking quite different approaches to the season in early training.

Richards has 49 horses on the books right now and has said he will not be in a hurry to get horses to the races. He has yet to send a horse to any of the 27 trials which have been available to him.

Meanwhile, Ng has 52 horses listed, is expected to make a full frontal assault on the season from day one and has had 19 triallers.

Lor finished runner-up to Size in his debut season and Size, of course, set the benchmark 20 years ago when he won the title at his first attempt.

How likely is that sort of a result for either Richards or Ng?

A win, as history suggests, is extremely unlikely and even a placing is a huge ask for a new trainer – after Lor’s second, the next best freshman finish this century is Dennis Yip’s fifth 18 years ago and the average first-season finish is in double figures.

And Lor and Size set a very high standard fighting out last season’s contest, with 90 wins playing 84. Size’s runner-up tally would have failed to win the title in only three other seasons in history (two of which he did win).

Of course, in true Hong Kong fashion, the top two finishers have a price to pay for their heroics in 2021-22, where they put 16 wins on third-placed Tony Cruz.

Size has made putting title wins together look standard procedure but that is deceptive – the only other back-to-back winners in the last 25 years were Hayes, in 1998 and 1999, and Ivan Allan in 1996 and 1997.

It is no mean feat due to the handicap landscape – having squeezed the last from his team to win the championship, the victorious trainer faces the problem of having a string high in the handicaps to begin the new campaign. At best, it means a slow start, at worst it means horses simply too high to win at all.

Size has won more than half the championships he has contested, is rarely out of the top two and there is little new to say about the Australian legend as he seeks that elusive 12th title to break George Moore's record (some might say he already won that when he dead-heated with Caspar Fownes in 2014 and lost on a countback of seconds, but that's another blog). He has become a master at managing his string to recycle a significant proportion of the team into the next campaign and that keeps him competitive and will be the test for his former protege Lor if he is to repeat his maiden title win. History is against him.

Of the other trainers that we know, Tony Cruz is never out of the top three or four every season, although his most recent title win was 2005, so he is well overdue.

The two champions prior to Lor were Ricky Yiu - a strong-finishing fifth last season - but his title win came as a surprise and a top five to ten finish is probably more likely his lot again, and Caspar Fownes (pictured), a four-time champion, who comes off a fairly quiet joint-seventh.

That does make Fownes dangerously-stocked with horses down in the handicaps mixed with the usual new acquisitions and it would be no surprise to see him be a serious player again this term.

Douglas Whyte’s sixth last season was another excellent performance since switching to training three years ago and he was the top Group One trainer of the season.

The expectation is that Whyte has built a platform from which he needs only to take one more step to become championship-competitive.

In Russian Emperor, he certainly has the horse to beat in the longer Group races again but championships are won in Classes 3 and 4 and, on that score, Whyte has considerable ground to make up on the likes of Size, Lor and Cruz.

He has ranked seventh, fifth and seventh in the combined C3/C4 totals in each of his seasons, sixth for that collective three years and, as the accompanying table for last season shows, that’s a ladder that does correlate quite closely, at the top end, with the overall championship.

Fourth last season, Francis Lui has a question over him now with the departure of his AT Pierre Ng, as outlined above.

Lui has been training for a quarter century and has been a solid midfield performer in most of those.

It has only been in his last 3 seasons – with 63, 61 and 55 wins – that he has featured as a player in the top order, so what will the loss of Ng cost him?

David Hayes is the other real question mark trainer for the coming season after following a modest return year in 2020-21 followed by another in 2021-22.

Hayes, a tremendously competitive individual, would have been bitterly disappointed with last season. Despite improving from 13th rank to 10th and up from 32 wins to 36, he himself would have expected considerably more improvement from his reintroduction year.

He did have excuses with injuries, even deaths, amongst his string costing him wins but, in a major public relations negative, there were also a whopping 20 victories scored last season by other trainers with horses that came from the Hayes yard, headlined by four-time winner Dragon Pride.

At the bottom end of the ladder, Peter Ho and Michael Chang are on the last chance for their licences after two strikes under the benchmark requirements. Chang hit the number of wins but the Jockey Club’s unfair policy of limiting the counting of Class 5 victories brought him back under it.

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