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New Zealand’s Champion trainer has spent his first month in Hong Kong laying a foundation and Danielle Johnson’s arrival sees his team take shape.
Jamie Richards is in the midst of perhaps the most casual yet altogether intense on-the-job learning of his career. The Champion Kiwi trainer is a month into his Hong Kong relocation and it has so far been a rapid round of making connections.
Hong Kong’s strict Covid-19 measures of early 2022 have been eased, so he has put on his face mask, headed out and engaged over many a lunch and dinner with the men and women who will have a huge influence on his success or failure, the city’s racehorse owners.
Those in-person contacts are a vital part of the business of any trainer or jockey in Hong Kong; the near-daily meet-ups are expected and without them any trainer would struggle for numbers and quality in their stable.
At the age of 32, Richards is already a three-time Champion in New Zealand where, as head trainer for Te Akau Racing, he set the record for most wins in a season (160), as well as most Group and Listed wins in a season (36), and guided the mare Melody Belle to a record 14 Group One wins.
But past reputation fades quickly in fast-moving Hong Kong and Richards is aware of the need to firm up connections old and new and do it without delay.
“It has just been about trying to get out and about and meet as many people as possible, pretty much just trying to organise lunches and dinners to meet as many owners as I can: I’ve had a lot of lovely food and good wine so it’s a good place to be,” Hong Kong’s newest expatriate trainer told Asian Racing Report.
“Thankfully, with the support and help of friends in Australia, New Zealand and further afield, I’ve been able to meet quite a few people, just getting around and getting my face in front of as many people as possible, so it’s been great.”
Networks and supply chains are essential to ensuring he has horses to train from his new base at Olympic Stables.
I’ll be sourcing horses wherever I can, from Australia, New Zealand or further afield.
“I’ll be sourcing horses wherever I can, from Australia, New Zealand or further afield,” he said. “It’s getting difficult to buy the horses that you would like to be trying to buy. Prizemoney in Australia has made the horses more expensive to buy for the Hong Kong clients and it is not easy to find nice PPs, you have to have the right people in the right places trying to source those horses for you.
“In terms of that side of the business, I have been very quiet at this stage. I probably need to get a few runs on the board before people are willing to spend that kind of money with us; a lot of the owners have their own systems and bloodstock agents to source their own horses, but certainly for the future, once we get up and going, I would like to be able to control my own destiny with having some input into the horses that are coming into the stable.”
The horses are starting to assemble, though, with three transfers and five imports fresh out of quarantine, so far.
Among those are the winning New Zealand three-year-olds Charmander – trained by Richards already – and Quicken Away, as well the Moonee Valley winner Benczkowski.
Stocking his stable will be as challenging for Richards as it is for any new expatriate handler. He is coming in cold in comparison to his fellow rookie, Pierre Ng, who has behind him years of making connections as an assistant trainer for his father Peter Ng as well as to Paul O’Sullivan, John Size and Francis Lui.
And, with stable transfers being the initial meat and drink for new trainers, Richards might face some competition from Ng to secure the best of the departing O’Sullivan’s string.
“I’d say we’ll have somewhere between 20 and 30 horses,” Richards said. “Once you get to the last day of the season there can be a number of transfers between different stables, with owners looking for new opportunities or a change of luck, or change of scenery or something like that, so we’ll just work through it and go about trying to get the right systems in place for the staff, so we can hopefully get it right from the start.”
Under the Hong Kong system, the new handlers cannot start training from their stables until the day after the current season ends. Then the track will close for a two-week break, so it will be August 1 before Richards is able to get into the real business of training horses again.
“Horses take a little while to get fit, so I don’t see us rushing out of the blocks in September but hopefully through October and November, and leading into Christmas time, we’ll be able to get a few runs on the board,” he said.
Aside from meeting owners, much of his time has also been spent working to build his team of stable personnel, which includes his new assistant trainer Jones Ma, who has assisted Richard Gibson for a number of seasons.
And one key team member has just landed from home.
“My fiancée, Danielle Johnson, just arrived up and we’re fully committed to making this a success,” he said. “We don’t have any dependents or children at this stage so it’s just about getting our heads down and getting set up and working as hard as we can to make the stable a success.”
Johnson is a Champion jockey in New Zealand, who has ridden nine Group One winners, including four for Richards, but she has been out of action since a race fall on New Year’s Day. Should she wish to become the first female rider to gain a licence in Hong Kong since Kei Chiong officially quit the saddle in January 2018, she would need to apply for a licence and gain approval from the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Licensing Committee. But her focus is on helping the Richards team build a foundation.
“She’ll be staying here long-term,” Richards said. “She had quite a bad fall so she’s doing rehab on a broken leg and the plan is to have her riding a lot of trackwork to help the business, so hopefully that will go well. She’s a great rider in her own right.”
Having put behind him his Matamata-based days he said he is ‘thankful’ and ‘honoured’ to have been given the ‘privilege’ to make the leap to Hong Kong and also to train from Olympic Stables, which are at the opposite side of Sha Tin racecourse from the main stables. Douglas Whyte and Michael Chang are his near-neighbours.
David Ferraris vacated his Olympic block when he resigned in December 2021, while Michael Freedman was based there during his short and unsuccessful tenure, which ended in November 2018. In the past, the site was wrapped in controversy when incumbents Sean Woods and Andreas Schutz complained that the facilities and nearby construction work put them at a disadvantage.
Since then, the construction work has been completed and an equine swimming pool is in place.
The stables we have are world class, they’re lovely boxes and it’s a good set-up.
“The stables we have are world class, they’re lovely boxes and it’s a good set-up,” Richards said. “We’re a little bit further from the track than the main stables but I think in terms of where I’d rather be, I’m in the right place. It’s a great facility and I’m looking forward to getting a few more horses in the boxes.
“Obviously, there’ll be some teething and it’ll take a little while to adjust, mainly because of the heat and the humidity and the firmness of the tracks, but look, you can’t train them like you do in New Zealand. You’ve got to adapt to how things are done up here and that’s important with the culture as well.”
How well Richards adapts and how successful he can be in the long run will depend a whole lot on the connections he is making now.
“It’s a great opportunity to test ourselves up here,” he added. “We want to be here for the long term: it’s not a hit and run mission, we’re here to try and establish a base and make a success of it.”
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