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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

The winter looks bright - it's the season of Size

There are not many racing jurisdictions in the world where the trainer running 14th after two months of a 10-month season remains a firm favourite to emerge as the champion - welcome to Hong Kong.

In most places, the top racehorse trainer of the season hits the ground running at the start, finds the top of the table from the jump, or at least fairly quickly, and then keeps churning out winners until the finish.

One of the quirks of the Hong Kong system is that the season's leading trainer might be prominnt early, or not.

Last season, John Size (above with jockey Joao Moreira) beat John Moore and Frankie Lor but, at the start of November and with almost 20 per cent of the season's races already run, they were sitting 6th, 10th and 8th. The year before, the championship placegetters were running 19th, 1st and 8th - Size came from 19th to not only win the title but set an all-time win record.

It's a pattern that Size set in his very first season. He famously started the campaign with only 19 horses under his care, did not have a runner until the 40th race and the season was 10 per cent over before his first winner. But winners then began to flow, his numbers boosted as owners switched their pride and joy to the new flavour in town and Size swept from last to first in the middle of the season, with 39 wins from November to the end of March, before going on to win the title with 58 wins.

Since then, Size has made the middle part of the season his own. The initial part of the season has become a launching pad before he cranks up the runners and the winners, then his winners taper off late in the season - a characteristic he shares with the other championship contenders.

Their horses have been performing well all preparation but, by the back end of the term, have often reached a point where they are in the grip of the handicapper or a long season has had a physical effect.

Bear in mind, that horses in Hong Kong don't go out for a serious spells during the season, unless seriously injured, the top handlers do not have an assembly line running new horses through the yard as others tire and need a break or reach their level. Most horses will be in training for the whole 10 months.

In the very early professional days of Hong Kong racing, trainers' stocks were unlimited but for several decades now, there has been a cap on numbers. That used to be 60 horses per trainer until the Conghua Training Centre was added to the system last season, when trainers with stables there were permitted to move up to a cap of 70.

Of course, there is "churn" to stable numbers - some horses move to other trainers or retire and can then be replaced, so the total number of horses run by a trainer can exceed the cap.

But, while it seems that more horses should equal more success, the effect of that churn has a kind of randomness to it.

In the table to the right, you can see the number of individual horses trainers have had in Hong Kong over the last 5 seasons.

If 'churn' was a direct link to the winning trainer then there are some clear anomalies.

Size, for instance, won the 2017-18 season with only 57 different horses - fewer than all but two of the trainers who are still in service today - yet he ranked fifth for runners that year. Last season, Me Tsui got through 80 horses - a record in the capped stable era - but ranked third for runners and finished eighth on the table.

So, the trainers with Conghua stables occupy the top sports last season for horses used but it really comes down to squeezing the best use out of the horses on hand and the Size model is to dominate the mid-season.

Compare Size's usual season shape to that of Danny Shum, our current premiership leader, who has yet to win a title but is regularly in the top six trainers each season and has ranked as high as second.

There is, on average, a consistency to Shum's seasons. He begins fast - he is almost always one of the early leaders - and, smoothed over time, has been good for 3 or 4 wins a month through to June. He just doesn't have that big acceleration at some point of the year that kicks him clear of his rivals. That's no criticsm, it's just a different style and it obviously works for him, but that's why, if there were betting markets up for the championship, that Shum would not be favourite despite having a good lead over Size at the end of October.

This is the time that Size makes his move, and there are reasons, other than Size's results, for thinking that's a good idea. The weather cools in November, the oppressive humidity of much of the year disappears for a few months, and it's more comfortable for horses under the pressures of training and competition.

It's also the dry season - this year has been unusually dry in September and October but, in any normal year, there is very little rain between November and Chinese New Year to complicate things.

And history also suggests that trainers who want to be contenders for the title need to move now. They can get away with sitting anywhere on the list for the first two months of the season but, from February onwards, there isn't really that much change in the rankings.

On the graph to the upper right, see the ranks occupied by the top six trainers at the end of each month in 2018-19 - in most cases, where they ranked by March was where they finished.

It's a pattern that plays out in most years, and we have to look back to 2015-16 (left) for the last time there were some late bids for the top six - notably John Moore surging from well down the list to finish third - but you can still see that the 1-2 placegetters did not change from January onwards.

It was too complicated visually to use it here and added nothing to the discussion but, if we extended these graphs down from the top 6 to the top 10 or 12 finishers each season, the pattern is much the same.

So, November opens the season of Size and you'll know the champion trainer is in trouble, as he seeks a fifth successive premiership and to equal George Moore's total of 12 titles in all, if he doesn't make a big move through November-January.

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