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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

What to expect from the trainer who's expected?

There might be an extra few ounces on the face, the hat is different and so is the grass cover on the real estate beneath it, but this season's unique "new" trainer, David Hayes, is still smiling.

Here Hayes is pictured not long after his arrival at Sha Tin in 1995, with Better Loosen Up's Japan Cup win still clearly offering plenty of bragging rights.

At the time, 32-year-old Hayes was the youngest expatriate trainer - or trainer, full stop - to be licensed in Hong Kong.

At the time, he was part of the wave of change coming over Hong Kong. Foreign trainers had always been a part of Hong Kong racing, but the Jockey Club was then lifting restrictions on the level of imported racehorses and undertook a similar program with trainer recruiting as well, importing big overseas names like Neville Begg, Ivan Allan, Hayes and Patrick Biancone to take on the entrenched local champions, like Brian Kan and John Moore.

Hayes stayed for a decade that included two championships before returning to Australia, vowing even then that he would be back.

Now, he has kept that promise as the marquee replacement for the departure of a marquee trainer in Moore, and becoming both the oldest trainer to join the Hong Kong ranks as well as the only trainer to be licensed twice.

And that latter factor brings with it a different expectation on the "rookie" as a major aspect of what we see in the trainers' ranks in the season ahead. New trainers can be a mixed bag as, whether expats or locals, they take on challenges they have not previously faced but Hayes having been around once probably carries higher expectations.

In 2019-20, Ricky Yiu, like Dennis Yip seven years earlier, surprised by taking the title ahead of two-time previous champion Tony Cruz and another surprise, Francis Lui.

Yiu's previous best finish had been a third - to Hayes in 1998-99 - and he was better know for his ability to produce a high class galloper, like Fairy King Prawn, Sacred Kingdom or Amber Sky, rather than winning races in bulk. His win was an even bigger surprise than Yip, who had finished fourth the season prior, and the race was just as much about the flops as the winners.

The 11-time champion, John Size never really threatened and finished sixth, the second-worst finish rank of his Hong Kong career but with the lowest win strike rate in his 19 seasons.

Frankie Lor had run second and third in his only two appearances and promised much but could

manage only joint-eighth this time, rolling across the line level with former perennial champion jockey, Douglas Whyte, in his debut year.

On September 6, they're all back to zero and a new story begins to unfold. So what should punters expect in the Hong Kong training ranks this time?

Well, let's look first at Hayes.

Hayes has said he does not expect to be competitive for the championship and expects to be outpaced in the early season. Stable numbers don't look to be any issue - his yard will be as full as he wants it to be by all indications - but that looks a fair comment as around three quarters of his team will be horses making their first appearances in Hong Kong, either raced or debutants.

It will be late October at the earliest, and more likely into November, before his new horses arriving during July and August can be ready to threaten.

So, I don't think he's being disingenuous with those comments but Hayes also has a record throughout his life that is hard to ignore. His first-ever runner was a winner, his first Hong Kong runner was a winner and so was his first runner when he returned to Australia.

And his early season record stands up well when we look at his counterparts.

This table looks at the tallies for trainers after the first 145 races - these days, that is almost bang on the first 2 months of the season - and the early risers tend to repeat that, season on season. And Hayes has a strong early record - he won't have the ammunition, the numbers to be a contender but it will surprise if he doesn't send out winners from the start.

Hayes has a readymade top grader in Beauty Generation - albeit now an 8-year-old - and is pulling together a promising group of previously-raced horses heading for the Derby, including dual Australian G1 winner Shadow Hero, but the group with equally-high expectations will be his unraced imports. Hayes will be hoping to pick up a big one here or there but perhaps a solid finish just behind the top few looks the most likely outcome in the championship. What he does with his jockeys might also have a bearing on the Purton vs Moreira head to head on the riders' table but we'll look at that another time.

Can Ricky Yiu win again?

He became only the 10th trainer to win a title in the last 40 years when he landed the prize so, having joined such a restricted club, perhaps he can repeat.

He credited the extension of his team into Conghua Training Centre and the addition of his son's youthful energy to the operation with his great leap forward last season.

But his own history, and history in general, would say no.

Yip's 2013 slightly surprising victory was followed by a 10th place finish the following season and he has not finished in the top five since.

Both Yiu and and Francis Lui produced some eye-popping improvement to finish first and third last season's rankings and a glance at the history of the trainers' championship says it is normally a contest for the usual suspects. That's no surprise as regular success equals buying power.

The stewards would have had a long inquiry into the performances of Yiu and Lui if they were racehorses! They had not previously figured in the first three in the entirety of Size's Hong Kong career.

If Size has to be favourite, then Tony Cruz must be second favourite for his record of consistency and, surely, he is overdue for another title.

Caspar Fownes has underperformed since his last win but there is no mystery to that.

Although Fownes wins the Happy Valley "premiership" nearly every season, he simply has not been winning enough races at Sha Tin on the main track, where more than 50% of the races are run.

If he can plug that gap in his recent form,then he becomes a serious contender.

The dirt is less of a "must win" - there are short of 100 races there each season and the leading trainers there in 2019-20 were Manfred Man and Francis Lui with 10 wins apiece.

While Hayes' performance will be one big focus in the season, so will the follow-up effort of Whyte. His 44-win debut season placed him behind only Size, Frankie Lor and John Moore for a first season performance in the last 35 years, and level with Fownes.

Three of those names are on the champion trainer's trophy already and Lor has plenty of fans to say his turn will come, so it's good company.

The presumption that a first season tally will be improved upon in year two isn't ironclad, however. It hasn't actually happened since 2006-07, so that is the test for the Durban Demon, to buck the recent trend.

If he can, then he might be looking at a top four or five finish but it just looks too big a leap to make him a real title contender at the second time of asking.

For our money, John Size is the man to beat as he looks to pass the great George Moore and set a record of 12 championship titles.

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