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Golden Sixty, Romantic Warrior and Lucky Sweynesse are leading contenders at the Hong Kong International Races and not one is trained by an expatriate.
There is a rarity about this year’s Hong Kong International Races that could well be another harbinger of an emerging new normal, and no, it has nothing to do with the city and its jockey club’s belated, albeit advancing, moves to roll back strict Covid-19 pandemic measures.
The oddity is the fact that three local Hong Kong Chinese trainers are likely to have three of the four favourites in Sunday’s Group 1 races. Francis Lui has in his care the superstar Golden Sixty, the hot favourite for the Hong Kong Mile, Danny Shum has the Hong Kong Derby hero Romantic Warrior as the probable market leader in the Hong Kong Cup, and Manfred Man is the trainer of Lucky Sweynesse, who has the market edge in the Hong Kong Sprint.
From the time Brian Kan won the first version of the Cup in 1988 until the afternoon in 2018 when Frankie Lor won the Sprint with Mr Stunning and the Cup with Glorious Forever, the only Hong Kong ‘locals’ to taste success at the December international races were Tony Cruz, Ricky Yiu and Derek Cruz.
The event, from a Hong Kong perspective, was dominated by the expat stables, John Moore in particular, but also John Size, Caspar Fownes, Richard Gibson, Tony Millard, David Hall and, back in the day, Ivan Allan, Neville Begg, David Hill, David Oughton, David Hayes, David Ferraris, Paul O’Sullivan and Andreas Schutz.
But Lor’s Group 1 double four years ago seems to have marked an end to the expatriate trainer dominance of Hong Kong’s hand in major Group 1 races.
Trainer Frankie Lor (right) after Glorious Forever's Cup success in 2018. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)
Not only that, but also their predominance in the higher reaches of the trainers’ premiership. Yiu’s unexpected crowning as champion trainer in the 2019-20 season was seen as a bit of an anomaly, much like Dennis Yip’s success in 2012-13: both were seen as being the beneficiaries of one of those years when the big stables were in transition, while they themselves had the right numbers of lowly-rated horses with upside to carry their stables to a title triumph.
Then along came Lor. He was licensed ahead of the 2017-18 season and after an impressive second place in the title race that term – notching the highest ever first season tally – he earned a maiden champion trainer title in July 2022, outpointing his old mentor and 11-time champion John Size. His emergence came as old hands like Lui, Shum and Yiu put together top-five totals, backed up by newer trainers like Chris So, Jimmy Ting and Benno Yung.
The advancement of ‘Local’ trainers in recent seasons has been such that there are currently only three expats in the top ten of the trainer standings, and that number was two until Hayes crept into tenth spot this past week, on count-back, mind you.
“It’s changing but it still all depends on the quality of horses we have,” Lui told Asian Racing Report. “I think the owners now are supporting local trainers with better horses. It all depends on if you have shown you can perform the horse, then they will support us.”
Trainer Francis Lui, owner Stanley Chan and jockey VIncent Ho after Golden Sixty's Hong Kong Derby triumph. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)
Lui, third in the standings and now aged 63, has emerged as a leading trainer only in the past few seasons; Lor, topping the table again, is younger at 56; Man, who has long been a middle-ranking trainer is 65. All are former jockeys who have passed through the HKJC system, observing and learning from the techniques and practises the expats brought in.
“Hong Kong has improved out of sight since the 1990s when you had myself, Ivan Allan and David Hayes,” said retired champion trainer John Moore. “The assistants from that time are now trainers in their own right and they’re very good trainers. They’ve all spent time in our (expatriate) stables, learned about feeding and training methods, and they’ve improved up to international standards.”
Man is currently 13th of 22 in the standings with a stable of 52 horses (Lor has 68 and Lui has 65). Tellingly, the two trainers propping up the table are the Englishman Gibson and South African Millard with two wins apiece; Gibson, whose Wellington is champion sprinter and is a big rival to Lucky Sweynesse, has 38 horses and Millard has 39. Next above those is the newly-arrived New Zealander Jamie Richards, still finding his feet after only a few months, who has four winners on the board and 57 horses in his stable.
“Hong Kong is more about the owner,” said Man. “They will always want to support the top trainers but for the lower trainers, it is very difficult to build that support. But now we have more local trainers; they have shown they earned that support and the owners send them good horses more than before. I have good support from my owners and I still have more horses coming in January.”
Manfred Man's top Hong Kong Sprint fancy Lucky Sweynesse. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)
Communication is a key factor and the ability to speak in an owner’s native Cantonese is more of an advantage than ever before.
“I think one of the main things is that we have shown some ability to train the good horses,” said Lui. “But also we have the confidence to talk to the owners, we can have that communication and ask them to buy us good horses.”
Whether or not the Jockey Club’s recently-announced move to open up to selected overseas owners will make any noticeable difference to expat stable numbers remains to be seen.
Peter Lau, Romantic Warrior’s owner and a long-time supporter of the Shum stable, believes the rise of the local trainers will continue and that it is important for Hong Kong racing and its identity.
“You can cheer on a soccer team but if all the players are European it’s not as interesting to the local fans,” he said. “If you have a foreign trainer training an Australian horse in Hong Kong, it’s not as representative of Hong Kong as a local trainer.”
He noted that in recent years the focus in Hong Kong has shifted more towards China.
“Everything became more localised than before and we’re seeing more and more young, local trainers are now doing very well, so I think we will have more local trainers and local riders successful in the future,” he added.
Hong Kong’s multiple champion Size is currently fourth and will likely still have a say in this year’s title race – he has not been champion since 2019 – while four-time champion Fownes is fifth. But right on their heels in sixth is Size’s former assistant Pierre Ng, age 39, the son of a trainer and newly-licensed. That is the face of Hong Kong’s future.
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