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A sixth-place in the premiership last year has given Caspar Fownes a prod and he believes his stable is well-placed to push for the title this season.
Caspar Fownes lost his ‘King of the Valley’ crown as well as his ‘top five’ status last season, but the four-time champion trainer is exuding positive vibes as he outlines an intention to make amends this term. In fact, he believes his stable just might have the right make-up for a title push.
Francis Lui usurped him last season as the man with the most wins for the campaign at Happy Valley, but Fownes – renowned for ruling that domain in more seasons than not – got off the mark in this campaign’s second race at the downtown track on Wednesday night: Valhalla and South African newbie Keagan De Milo paired up and delivered.
Valhalla’s win was at once an exhibition of Fownes’ shrewd understanding of the Hong Kong system, and a lesson for any watching jockey on how the idiosyncrasies of Happy Valley can challenge an unwitting rider.
De Milo will have learned that only the unknowing and the foolhardy try to slip down the fence in the home straight when the rail is in the ‘A’ position: thankfully for him, this time his mount had enough in hand to switch out when the gap closed, then accelerated to victory.
Valhalla popped in after a three-day back-up, having placed fifth of 12 at Sha Tin on Sunday. The six-year-old has been, as Fownes put it, “disappointing” since he was bought out of the Hong Kong International Sale: an opening mark of 52 had dropped through 16 defeats to a rating of 24.
“Valhalla was on a nice mark to start the season and he’d had that first run, which helped him,” the astute trainer said. “On the line he won quite softly; it’s about time he went on with it now and snagged a couple more for us, that would be lovely.”
First ride at Happy Valley; first Hong Kong win!@kdemelo01 finds space and Valhalla surges clear in the season-opening race at Happy Valley. 🔥 @SAJockeyAcademy #HappyWednesday | #HKracing pic.twitter.com/NHBmVdiWbt
— HKJC Racing (@HKJC_Racing) September 13, 2023
Patience was rewarded with Valhalla, and Fownes believes he has others of similar ilk that are ready to hit form. If the newly-arrived PPGs (Privately Purchased Griffins), unraced on their 52 ratings, and the new PPs (Private Purchases), the already raced imports, can acclimatise and do their jobs as well, these stock old stagers in his team could provide the platform for a realistic attempt at the title.
“I think this year I’ll be up there fighting for another championship,” he said, admitting to a degree of disappointment at how last season played out.
“I was aiming for a top five finish and I set myself a goal, from what I had, of 50 winners; so I hit the target, I had 51,” he continued, with a rueful tone. “I was very unlucky on the last night of the season at Happy Valley, I should have had two or three winners but it just didn’t fall my way. That’s racing.”
And he knows racing as well as any: he knows the season ahead will be difficult, regardless of how good he thinks his title chances are.
“You need your horses to stay sound, you need the jockeys to ride well. There are so many factors here and it’s just getting tougher and tougher,” he said.
Hong Kong’s blossoming homegrown trainers are making sure of that. The Australian John Size might have been the 2022-23 champion, but the next four trainers in line were Frankie Lor, Francis Lui, Ricky Yiu and Tony Cruz.
“The local boys are flying, they know how to train now and they’re really good,” Fownes said. “It’s exciting, so many stables have got 60-plus horses, so realistically they all have a chance at racking up some really big numbers. Competition is good.
“They’re finally getting the respect they deserve: they’re training well, they’re presenting their horses well, the horses are consistent for most of them, which is a big thing in this environment, and they’re hitting the numbers on the board.”
The dynamic is different to a decade ago when John Moore, Size, Fownes and Cruz were the only trainers considered serious title contenders, and Dennis Yip’s 2013 title was seen as an anomaly. But in the last four seasons, Lor and Yiu have been crowned champion and Lui has risen to become a challenger.
That means the quality horses and the major owners are spread around the stables more than in the past, although Fownes believes the Hong Kong system means any trainer could find themselves with a good horse in their stable.
“There’s always that chance in Hong Kong,” he said. “No matter who you are, the chances are there through your connections, or you might get a horse transferred out of a bigger stable where they felt things didn’t work out, or you’ve a chance of making a good horse from scratch. And we’ve only got 21 trainers so you could get something.
“The very best of our horses are all with the local boys at the moment, and they’ve done well, respect to them. What Francis has done with Golden Sixty, you have to respect that. He’s had the horse up for a long time, performing exceptionally well. These boys can train, they’ve proven it, and that makes it tougher for the rest of us.”
Fownes has the potential of an extra card up his sleeve, though, as the season goes on into the new year: in May he was given the responsibility of guiding Hong Kong’s newest 10lb apprentice, Ellis Wong.
Knowing Hong Kong’s programme as he does, he understands the value of a good claimer.
“We know what the handicap system’s like: if they can ride, then the 10lb claim is very valuable,” he said.
Wong rode three winners from 35 rides to see out the season in July, and Fownes sees him very much as a “work in progress” who, like all apprentices, is “going to make mistakes” so early in his Hong Kong experience.
“It’s going to be hard for him: right now he’s only eligible to ride at Sha Tin, so we’re limited as to what we can give him,” he said. “It would be nice if I could get him riding around Happy Valley soon enough because I can give him more support there with some nice horses that can get on speed and he can learn a bit more.
“He’s not getting much support from outside, but once he gets a couple of wins they’ll all jump on the bandwagon, so I’m not in any panic for him. We’re just bringing him along and I think from October he’ll start to get some better-quality rides and snag a few wins; then we can get him to the Valley and I think he’ll be more suited to the Valley than Sha Tin.
“It can happen overnight. You get a handful of nice rides and the claim really kicks in. He’s a good boy so we’ve got to nurture him and try to give him confidence, and there’s a chance for him to make it.”
But whether Wong develops enough in time to aid the stable’s campaign in any appreciable way, or not, Fownes is positive about the horses making a bold bid.
“It would be nice to win the fifth title and I’m looking forward to giving it a big shake this year,” he said.
“I feel I’m well-placed to hit some good numbers. You just need some luck where the new ones can come and get you the extra wins, and then you’re in business to have a go.
“We’ve got nice horses from all over the world,” he added. “I’m just hoping they can bring it when it counts.”
Valhalla stood up and was counted; there are no guarantees that his stablemates will do the same, but a sixth-place season has prodded Fownes. He wants to be king again, and not just King of the Valley.
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