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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

Why would Chris Waller be interested in Hong Kong anyway? You be the judge

The December sun was bright but unthreatening and the humity that so often characterises Hong Kong's climate had taken it's winter break. Rob Heathcote, affable trainer of star Australian sprinter Buffering and former travel tour guide, was on his haunches for a closer look at the Sha Tin racing surface and nodded his approval.

It was early on Monday, International Week, the local racehorses had finished their training for the morning and those visitors already embedded in the quarantine stables had yet to appear. There was time for idle chat.

"It's impressive, but why does everyone want to train in Hong Kong?" said Heathcote, seen here after winning Dubai.

And that inquiring face, inviting answers, was the figurative response across social media as the "Chris Waller to Hong Kong" rumour began to grow limbs and flop ashore.

It's a rumour to which I assign no credibility, at this point. In the future, who knows?

But the question from many was, why would he even want to?

With the rival Darren Weir comet extinguished and his successor in th state of Victoria still to emerge with clarity, Waller stands alone in Australian racing. He is the monolithic stable on the landscape. He is Uluru.

So rather than remix whether the rumours are true or false, it is worth a look at why Waller might even find training in Hong Kong attractive when his business is running so successfully in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

The first station on any journey to changing a job is the consideration of money. Well, Waller makes plenty of that now. How would Hong Kong stack up?

Thanks to the Racing And Sports website, here is a comparison of the basic statistics, including prizemoney in Australian dollars, over the last two completed seasons for Waller and John Size, Hong Kong's dominant trainer, along with the current state of play for the 2018-19 season.

The edge is clearly with Waller but there are a couple of wrinkles to that scoreboard.

One is taxation. Income tax in Hong Kong is set at a flat 16 %, a fraction of the top marginal rate that Waller would be asked to pay in Australia.

Another, more exotic, consideration is the champion mare, Winx, now retired. Even Waller, surely, is not going to find another Winx and, take her contribution away, and a normal, successful prizemoney year might look somewhat different.

The advantage for 2016-17 and 2017-18 swings to Size and brings them closer to together this season - enough to say that the tax consideration becomes a pretty sizeable one.

And then there is the workload to get that prizemoney, which moves us into the area of working conditions.

It takes Waller more than four times as many runners to achieve those prizemoney levels and that means a lot of interactions with hundreds of horses and staff, service providers and possibly thousands of owners. Not to mention the media demands on Waller. There are only so many hours in the day to make all those connections, communicate tasks and ensure all is well with the horses.

In the modern era of horse training, it is argued that a trainer like Waller just gets smooth, smart systems in place with competent staff and it's the same training 100 horses or 500 horses. And there may be something to that in a strictly horse training sense but more horses requires more links in the chain, more places where something can go wrong, more things that occupy a thought process, even if briefly. Waller is also responsible for the human side of his business - he is a significant employer and required by law to ensure obligations of all kinds are met with his employees.

Which brings us to the bane of a horse trainer's life in Australia - or most places, for that matter - the overdue account.

Trainers cannot be slow paying farriers, work riders, float drivers, feed merchants, entries for races, etc because they are fundamental to the process of training. Costs are passed on to owners, sure, but many owners are slow to pay, some are non-payers.

Even slow payers mean trainers have what is usually an eye-watering proportion of their expected income in flux; money which they have paid out then wait to recoup. The bigger the trainer, the bigger the bills swinging, unless you train for, says, Godolphin. For Waller, the swing would be in millions.

Now let's look at John Size's situation. He races twice a week, is limited within Hong Kong rules to the number of horses in his yard - it has kicked up from 60 to 70 since the Hong Kong Jockey Club added the training facility at Conghua in China - and his staff salaries and other costs are met by the Jockey Club. All considerations of feed, vets, stables, barn security and training facilities in general are administered and paid for by the Jockey Club. Owners are billed by the Jockey Club, not the trainer, and if they fail to meet their obligations in a timely fashion, they can be ejected from the club and, therefore, become ineligible to own racehorses. That relationship takes place between the club and its members, the trainer has no role to play.

The trainer's earnings from prizemoney or the daily rate (owners pay a minimum standard rate of about $AUD 6,000 a month) are transferred to his bank account by the Jockey Club as a matter of course, once the HKJC's own world class laboratory has cleared post-race tests within 2 weeks of racing.

In short, Size's job amounts to sourcing and training his horses and communicating with owners, many of whom might only be seen on race day as they are busy, successful pillars of the community with big businesses to run and plenty to do. Nobody in Hong Kong can win the lottery one day and be a racehorse owner the next - it just doesn't work like that.

Size's contribution via the media is as onerous as he wants to it to be but with 10 runners a week instead of 40 for Waller, those demands are much less anyway.

And, when the season ends in July, tracks are closed for several weeks, though most horses will still be on walking duty, and Hong Kong trainers take off for a holiday to recharge the batteries before they prepare for the new season starting in September. Of course, that option is open to Waller in Australia too but he does it knowing that there is still racing going on at home and he will still want to stay in touch with what's happening.

In terms of the actual horse training, it's a doubled-edged sword in Hong Kong with the restrictions on numbers. Unlike a Chris Waller-sized outfit in Australia, you don't simply get to shovel out the horses which are struggling and replace them with fresh stock. To a large extent, the faces looking out of the stable boxes the day before the first meeting of the season, will still be looking at you the day after the last meeting.

There is some churn, of course. In this table you can see the number of individual horses actually run by each trainer in 2017-18. Danny Shum's "60-horse" yard generated 77 different horses to run under his name, as horses were retired or moved stables and their places were taken, but Size won the championship with only 57 different animals.

By while that presents a problem when a trainer sees all those faces looking at him that he would prefer to move on, it is also a test of his skills. How are we going to get a win out of eight-year-old Lucky Win Dragon Gold this season, he says? A very sound old horse who ran in the Derby when he was younger, has won seven races and is much loved by his owner, who happens to be one of the richest men in Hong Kong and would be offended by the suggestion his horse should be retired when there's nothing wrong with him.

Lucky Win Dragon Gold is starting to get slower with age now - you can see it even if the owner can't yet - but march the horse and you lose the owner to another trainer, and owners are a relatively small group in Hong Kong. A few of his friends will probably move too.

Keep the horse and he might take up a box all season for little return as he slides down the handicap, then the owner gets upset you haven't won a race and moves to another trainer anyway. With that trainer, the horse might now be low enough in the handicap to win again or he now looks to have a problem - neither of which looks good for the prior trainer - but luckily the new trainer has a shiny new galloper for the owner to spend millions on.

Not being able to recycle horses by the hundreds every year has a downside to it but is also a showcase of skill for a star handler like Chris Waller. There is no provincial, country or interstate circuit to slip horses away for 'something easier'.

There are very, very few races restricted by age, so your new, talented but inexperienced, still developing three-year-old runs against battle-hardened five-year-olds from day one and managing their horse's progress through those difficult waters is a nuanced, painstaking talent that is part of why Size stands out from other Hong Kong trainers.

Waller would surely have plenty of access to high quality stock - just not as many chances to run them. Hong Kong has 12 G1 races a year plus the three races in the four-year-old series which includes the Derby. There is nowhere to hide, nowhere else to run and you can relentlessly bang up against the same superior gallopers, as Beauty Generation's rivals have found lately.

Because Hong Kong has no breeding industry, that is actually a positive for the racing stock. Every horse that arrives in Hong Kong has done something good. It has won races, maybe won very good races, maybe just won a barrier trial. But Hong Kong owners, trainers and their agents are constantly cherry-picking the cream of the three-year-old talent from other jurisdictions like Australia (see Beauty Generation et al) and have owners with deep pockets ready to pay for that talent. The horses are handpicked, not generated by the four-legged lottery of the yearling sale ring or the breeding barn. As a result, Hong Kong's best punch well above their weight in world standings and even the bread and butter competition is equivalent to elsewhere.

Staying races are low on the priorities in Hong Kong. Waller originally made his name with staying horses but in 2017-18 there were only 19 races beyond 2000m at Sha Tin and Happy Valley. Mostly lower-middle grades although there is that weird little quirk in the calendar that 3 of those races are at 2400m - 2 G1s and a G3.

So, there would be things for Waller to get his head around but he has shown himself to be a good study. The bottom line is strong and there are some underrated positives that come from not having to worry about vets or bills or staff or from just having world class facilities and a Jockey Club with oodles of money to spend on getting it right - and it all adds up to getting back to basics.

To a successful horse trainer, being a horse trainer, not a glorified accountant, debt collector or human resources manager, and still have time to spend with their family.

That is why people want to train horses in Hong Kong. Maybe even someone like Chris Waller.

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