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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

Juniors make a claim - they really do hold their own with the riding champions

Jack Wong recently made the graduation from apprentice to senior rider with his 70th win and now the focus of punters, owners and trainers will switch to Matthew Poon, Victor Wong and the currently-injured Dylan Mo when it comes to junior riders.

Hong Kong's racing scene is overwhelmingly centred on handicaps and how to beat them - not surprisingly, considering there are only two dozen races a season run at set weights or terms - and part and parcel of that is logically the apprentice claim. Trainers see the allowances as a legitimate way to beat the handicapper without getting too tricky and everyone is proficient enough at mathematics to subtract a number from the handicapper's rating and call a horse 'well handicapped' as a result.

I've never been convinced - does Matthew Poon with 5 pounds off the handicap equate to Zac Purton or Joao Moreira with the full weight?

The point is that owners and trainers seem to think it's at least good, maybe even better, and they throw plenty of good rides at claiming apprentice riders as a result .

Whenever one wins, you'll hear the commentators carry on about how the claim made the difference - you don't hear so much how about how the claiming jockey made the difference the other way when he or she slaughters one.

So I was interested in looking at just how the apprentice rider proposition plays out in reality.

Now the apprentice claims do get a little bit muddied because local Chinese riders continue to have a weight claim well into their senior riding careers. So, Jack Wong left his time as an apprentice behind with the presentation which took place at Sha Tin on June 10 after Exponents was his 70th winner (shown right), but he didn't lose his claim. What he lost was his 5-pound claim but he has another 180 wins before he loses all claims and only a few enduring riders get to that level. So good luck Jack!

The HK Jockey Club does its best to see that apprentices don't overlap too significantly, ie not doubling up on 10-pound, 7-pound or 5-pound claimers, and now we are left with Victor Wong on 10, Poon and Mo on 5 pounds. Mo is out until next season, Poon is going along nicely and Wong is going to get all the attention with that 10-pound allowance for another 9 wins then 7 pounds for 25 wins after that.

But is it a false view when trainers chase the claim over the established skill? Below is a table of all the apprentice riders for the past 10 years and how they fared with their different allowances - how many rides, how many winners, a winning percentage and then a notional $10 bet on all their rides and how that fared too, with the final figure the profil/loss percentage for those bets. It's a bit hard to read and 'detaily' but the bottom line is not many showed a positive result and those that did so, mostly did it when they were claiming 10 pounds. You can look at that two ways - the market had not yet come to grips with their skills at that early stage and underrated them or, more likely, they jagged a big priced winner or two at that time, since 10-pound claimers often find themselves pushing around the ones thought to have little chance. How many outsiders is shown in our next tables. First a table of their rides only when claiming 10 pounds. Some positive results there and some solid strike rates from Matthew Chadwick and Matthew Poon.

But that includes plenty of big prices and the result s can be thrown out by one result. So we're going to throw out the ones outside the market and find it's a much better result with some of the apprentices and even a mildly-profitable result backing ALL the 10-pound claimers, whenever they ride a chance, ie something 11.0 or under. Jockeys like Keith Yeung or, now, Jack Wong, lose a huge proportion of their rides when they are filtered this way but don't lose many of their winners.

As their claims become 7-pounds, some of the apprentice riders do improve to compensate and do a good job of holding on to the strike rates established with 10 pounds, but the market has weighed them up now. They are losing less than half their rides when we filter out the chances now, and still not losing many of their winners but their mounts are priced shorter and it's tough to show a profit.

At 5 pounds, they are already established riders by this stage, their strike rates tend to drop a little further again in most cases and it's tougher to get a dollar out of them, barring a small-sample outlier like Mo. So you could just about argue that it's the smaller claims that are overrated by owners and trainers rather than the 10-pounds.

Jack Wong has actually done a great job on 5 pounds, perhaps a reflection that his form last season was negatively affected by injuries.

So all that remains is to have a look at a 'control' stat so how does the result with a 10-pound claimer compare with, say, Zac Purton, since that's the opposition?

Purton has been in Hong Kong for more than 10 years now, and using his past decade, we get the result below. And that shows that the apprentices can almost compete in terms of strike rates while they have their claims so the allowance could be said to even things up but Purton's numbers come off a huge sample of rides in the market and, considering the HKJC takeout from the win pool is 17.5 per cent, losing 7 per cent is not bad at all.

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