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John Size is being 'out-Sized' by his former assistant Frankie Lor, who is marching towards his first premiership at his old boss’s expense.
Frankie Lor Fu-chuen had missed out again. For the second time in his life, he had gone through the difficult, testing process of applying for a full trainer’s licence with the Hong Kong Jockey Club, and once more, he had failed. Something needed to change.
It was the Hong Kong spring of 2013, Lor was working as John Moore’s assistant trainer (AT) and the Club’s licensing committee had opted for Chris So, AT to Caspar Fownes at the time, and Benno Yung, John Size’s long-time AT, to step into the coveted spots about to be vacated by the retiring Peter Ng and Andy Leung.
Lor had missed out eight years earlier when Michael Chang and Me Tsui got the nod. That first failure was almost expected: “You’re lucky if you get it the first time,” Lor says.
But the second was a disappointment. He was 47 and time was running out.
“I remember that day when Steve Railton rang me, I had the day off, and he said, ‘This time you will not be promoted but maybe next time,’” Lor recalls, “And then he told me Benno and Chris got a licence.”
Yung had been Size’s assistant for 12 years, ever since the Australian landed in Hong Kong in 2001. From the moment Size arrived at Sha Tin, he quietly but assuredly influenced – by his success – the way trainers approached their methods. Lor recognised that a rare opportunity was before him.
“I straight away called Benno and he said, ‘Okay, let me talk to my boss.’” But Lor wasn’t going to sit and wait: he had been an AT for 17 years already, learning how to run a stable, always with the ultimate goal to hold that licence that said he was the boss. His very ambition impelled him to move.
“I just went to his stables,” he says. “It was at five o’clock, I just went and talked to Mr Size. He said to me, ‘I’m not like Mr Moore, winning big prize money,’ and I said, ‘No, no, it doesn’t matter, I just want to learn from you.’ The same day: I didn’t get the licence but I got a new job.”
Nine years on, he is not only leading the Hong Kong trainers’ premiership and closing on Size’s record for most wins in a season, but is also positioned at the forefront of a buoyant cohort of local Hong Kong-born trainers, re-shaping perceptions and redefining roles within the local/expat trainer dynamic.
Lor’s move from one great Hong Kong trainer to another was to be the making of him. Four years later, at the ripe age of 51, he sat in the Sha Tin clubhouse – the press with their notepads and flashbulbs before him, Size beside him – and was presented as an HKJC licensed trainer.
Size stated that Lor would ‘make a seamless transfer’ and ‘make very fast progress into the job.’ Lor was more cautious and said that he expected to ‘start a little slowly’ and would be ‘happy’ if he could win ‘between 20 and 30 races’ in his first season.
Size was right. Lor burst from the traps and at the end of his debut season he was runner-up to his mentor in the premiership. His 65 wins was a record for a trainer in their first campaign, topping the 58 Size posted when he turned things upside down with a championship triumph in his first season, back in 2001-02.
Lor has been a high achiever each season since: majors came quickly as he won the 2018 Group One Hong Kong Cup and Group One Hong Kong Sprint, and then all three legs of the 2019 Hong Kong Classic Series, including the coveted Derby. That Derby success was achieved with the expensive import Furore, proving he could mix the Size model of developing an unraced PPG from scratch with the Moore strategy of succeeding with already highly-tried, big money, PPs.
As he heads into the final three meetings of the 2021-22 season, he is six ahead of the chasing Size with 90 wins on the board, just four short of his old boss’s record.
“Frankie has been pretty remarkable this season, He just keeps pounding away – body blow after body blow – he just doesn’t stop,” says Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) executive Bill Nader.
“It’s been fun to watch the two of them because they’ve put up huge numbers. Frankie is from the Size school, he’s a real disciple of that system.”
Watching closely from Australia, Mark Reed, the professional gambler, racehorse owner and former bookmaker for whom Size worked as an analyst before his training career took off, told Asian Racing Report: “Frankie Lor clearly is the new John Size. His performances since he got his own licence are worthy to put him in the same class.
“You know they’re both phenomenal trainers because we measure their horses’ performances scientifically and there are only two or three trainers in Australia, or anywhere, that can match the consistency of performance and the longevity of performance that both John Size and Frankie Lor are achieving now.”
Lor is a second-generation Hong Kong racing professional. His father, Lor Cheung, was a mafoo and the family lived in HKJC quarters on Blue Pool Road, just up the hill from Happy Valley racecourse. But his was not a childhood spent peeking over the wall to see the horses in action, he was hooked by Saturday afternoons at home watching the action on TV, and the cut of the jockeys’ jib entranced him.
“When I was 10 or 11, from that time I just thought about becoming a jockey,” he says. “So, when I was about 14 years old, I said to my father, ‘I want to try to become a jockey, so I will need your permission to let me go to the apprentice jockey school,’
“Before that, my elder brother wanted to go there but my father said, ‘No, no, it’s too dangerous.’ It was a few years later that I asked him and he said, ‘Ok, you can try.’”
Lor became an apprentice in 1981 and had a modest career as a jockey, picking up nothing more than scraps mostly. He rode until 1995 when the continuing lack of opportunities forced him to take another path and he retired to become a trainer’s assistant with a career total of only 27 wins.
His first trainer’s assistant role was a two-season spell with Moore, after which he was promoted to assistant trainer and had one season each with Wylie Wong and Gary Ng before moving to the Manfred Man yard where he spent seven seasons. Ahead of the 2007-08 season, he returned to the Moore yard as assistant trainer and remained there for the next six campaigns until he switched to Size.
“John Moore, he was a really good trainer and everything needed to be done perfectly,” Lor says. “He was a trainer who would target a race and he could push the horse towards that target and win.
“Mr Size, you can see his horses are very consistent and that’s why I picked Mr Size’s style of training, because I want horses to have that consistency. Mr Moore is different: he will push and push the horse to reach their 100 percent to try to win the race and then after one or two more races the form might drop.
“So, when I saw what Mr Size did, I wanted to do it his way. I still call him boss.”
Lor is at the forefront of a strengthening bloc of local trainers that includes the two-time champion Tony Cruz and has in recent seasons seen Ricky Yiu win his first premiership at age 62; Francis Lui, now in his mid-60s has emerged as a top five trainer and the handler of the standout champion Golden Sixty; and Danny Shum has skilfully handled the Derby and QEII Cup winner Romantic Warrior. There is solid achievement too, from Yung, So and Jimmy Ting, each of whom has benefited from rising support among owners.
Strikingly, this season, Size is the only expat trainer in the premiership’s top six, while this season and last, six of the top ten trainers were local.
What is more, Lor has accrued HK$102.3 million in prize money – only Size has more this term – suggesting that his wins are not so much in the middle to low class races where local trainers traditionally picked up their wins. Cruz regularly is a high earner but Lui and Shum have also broken the HK$100 million barrier this season.
The powerbase seems to be shifting towards the native Cantonese-speaking trainers. Much credit is often given to the expat trainers for having ‘taught them all they know’ but while most of the current local trainers did learn a great deal from expat handlers, there is more to the reality than that basic take, not least a working lifetime of acquired knowledge.
Four-time champion jockey Zac Purton has been in Hong Kong for 15 years and he has seen advances in technology, in nutrition, and sports science all come together to enable the local trainers to close the knowledge gap.
“I think they have more information available to them now to form a more informed and educated view on how things should be done,” the Australian said.
“Even 15 years ago the internet wasn’t as good as it is now and I think the world has become a much smaller place. We have information at our fingertips: if you want to study what Chris Waller does you can do it from afar. That is what Jamie Richards did from New Zealand – you can watch trials and some trackwork, and you have got the race replays too.
“The feed companies and the pre-mixes – you just buy and put it in the feed bin, whereas previously they had to do their own feed. The locals probably weren’t on the same playing field as some of the bigger and better trainers.”
Nader sees the advancement of local talent as a major plus for racing in the city: “It paves the way for a solid foundation: I think to have guys like Frankie and Tony, and Ricky and Francis and Danny punching above the kind of weight you’d expect from the local trainers, that’s a big plus for the club. You want the highest quality of racing and the best horses but you need the building blocks and these guys are part of that.”
Lor is expected to be crowned champion for the first time when the 2021-22 season ends on July 16 – although he is not yet accepting that Size is beaten – and that would make him the second local trainer to win the championship in three seasons when, in the previous 20 campaigns, the title went to a local only four times.
When Dennis Yip won the title to much local pride in 2013, it was, it seemed, a one-off occurrence for a trainer who took advantage of having everything fall just right for him; it was a similar story for Yiu two years ago.
But Lor is different, he appears to have the attributes and the support to take Size’s mantle and make it his own. That failure nine years ago looks to have been the making of the man who could perhaps be Hong Kong’s next great trainer.
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