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The start of another Hong Kong season is upon us, prompting David Morgan to consider five questions as the anticipation builds among the protagonists.
The last few days leading into any new Hong Kong season are best appreciated from the ringside environment of the Sha Tin sand yard, even in the heat of the subtropical early autumn. After the lull of summer, the place is alive with chatter and the busy sights and sounds of horses moving this way and that at various speeds: familiar faces have returned from much-needed escapes, and new arrivals have landed – jockeys, trainers, and horses – into a bustling hive of activity and expectation.
There’s a ‘back to school’ feel: smiling salutations, chat about holidays, and a bit of passing banter. Don’t be fooled, though, the stakes are high and the pressure is intense. The protagonists are just one bad ride, one injury, one sub-par spell, a run of bad draws, a few out-of-form horses, and, most lethal of all, a dreaded whisper of ‘his luck is bad’ away from failure.
But make the right moves and find favour with the fates, and the rewards can be huge in a jurisdiction that offers a lucrative HK$875,000 (US$111,000) purse for a lowly Class 5. Zac Purton, John Size and Golden Sixty were the kings of their divisions last season, but every new campaign brings hope to the challengers, and in Hong Kong, a star can be rising high one season and falling the next.
John Size’s record 12th premiership last season secures his place in the ‘living legend’ bracket, but Caspar Fownes is a Hong Kong icon in his own right and his hunger for a fifth title might just give him the edge this season.
The ‘top five’ stables of Frankie Lor, Francis Lui, Tony Cruz, and Ricky Yiu cannot be overlooked, but it is probably too early in the developments of Pierre Ng and Jamie Richards for those sophomores to be title contenders.
Fownes slipped to sixth in the final standings last season with only 51 wins, but that does not make him a spent force. In fact, a look at his stable of 70 horses, as it stands, suggests he is in a good spot to bounce back.
The man who has been in Hong Kong since his youth, speaks Cantonese and knows the system inside and out, has 10 horses rated 80 or higher and three in triple figures. Of the 64 horses currently listed under Size, 14 are rated higher than 80 and five rated above 100.
But Fownes and Size each has 15 brand new PPGs to go to war with; Fownes has four new PPs to Size’s five; Size has five second-season PPG maidens to Fownes’ seven. And it could be telling that Fownes has 34 horses rated to return in the bread and butter of Class 4, whereas size has 24 rated for that grade.
Fownes is adept at getting wins out of older handicappers, and he has a number of horses that failed to win last season. They dropped down the ratings accordingly and he has seven experienced gallopers that saw their marks drop from anywhere between six and 17 points from this time last year. In some cases, they may simply be horses on the unstoppable slide, but in others it could be that they struggled to find their groove last term and might come back refreshed from a summer break.
Size is well-placed to defend his title, but the vibes around the Fownes stable suggest a fifth premiership is top of the wish list this season and he might just make it happen.
Peter Ho’s time was up last season after he failed to meet the base criteria for a third time and lost his licence. Alongside his departure, expat trainers Richard Gibson and Tony Millard called time on their Hong Kong careers, choosing to leave as their respective stables struggled for numbers and winners.
Millard was always seen as a solid mid-table trainer capable of finding, nurturing, and readying a quality horse, and his drop to the foot of the table would not have been envisaged only a couple of years ago. Such is the ruthless swiftness with which Hong Kong racing can turn.
As is always the way in Hong Kong, when those at the bottom move on, those above drop down, struggle for support, and face a usually terminal fight to try to ensure their careers survive. Among the jockeys, Alfie Chan and Dylan Mo face a battle to continue beyond next July and Luke Currie and Antoine Hamelin need to step it up sharpish. And it’s anyone’s guess how the new boys Andrea Atzeni and Keagan De Melo will fare: that’s always one that can go either way.
As for the trainers, Michael Chang managed a Lazarus move last season, but both he and Me Tsui are in danger this time.
Yet the man who is under the most pressure going into 2023-24 has to be David Hayes. He arrived three years ago to fill John Moore’s boots; he was bold in expressing his expectation to be a top three finisher and then push to be champion; but the hard reality is, he’s barely filled the space in which Moore nestled his big toe.
He has had the benefit of significant investment, and high-profile horses have been and gone from his stable without making much of a ripple. Last season he was 13th with 34 wins, and in the past three campaigns his big-race impact amounts to a couple of National Day Cups for Super Wealthy.
Hayes was a big success in his first stint in Hong Kong, winning the title back-to-back, but his second spell has been poor by his standards and the result is that his numbers at present are down to 52. As many trainers before him have found out, once the slide begins, it is incredibly difficult to halt.
Golden Sixty has won 25 of 29 races across five seasons. Through four of those he has competed at a very high level and for the past three he has been the dominant champion. That in itself is a rare feat, but it would be rarer still should he continue to hold the edge through another season, at the age of eight.
Francis Lui’s stable star is now hitting middle-age: if he were a human, he would now be something like a 36-year-old Lionel Messi strutting his stuff; but even Messi had to step down in class to Major League Soccer to continue showing his magic. It’s worth recalling as well that the great Michael Jordan struggled with injuries in his late-thirties during his NBA comeback with the Washington Wizards. The body can only keep performing at an athletic peak for so long.
With that in mind, connections have a light campaign planned. First-up into December’s G1 Hong Kong Mile is a brave move but one that could pay. A Good Ba Ba-matching third G1 Hong Kong Mile win could be on the cards, and given that he is well ahead of his closest rivals on ratings points, even with natural decline, expect him to retain his domestic pre-eminence through the first half of the season, Beyond that, a younger star should reel him in.
Most likely, yes. But that doesn’t mean the six-time champion is about to be passed by a rival or two – as happened to the great Douglas Whyte – only that the margin of quantitative superiority will reduce, and make the championship race more interesting again.
The top rider of recent times pushed himself hard to break Joao Moreira’s record season tally last term and he is unlikely to get close to that mammoth 179 total ever again. Yet he is still the top man on the scene.
All things being equal, he should have enough ammunition to keep the best of the rest at bay. With Vincent Ho returning from a fracture to his spine, Hugh Bowman is expected to be the man pushing Purton closest; the experienced Australian enjoyed a profitable first season in Hong Kong and expanded on the relationships he had forged over several years of fly-in-fly-out visits.
Bowman is also a steely competitor, but what counts against him is his weight. Purton, for all that he cannot get down to ride the low weighted horses, still has a few pounds more to play with than his fellow Australian.
Not 21, it seems. That is the number of trainers on the Hong Kong roster right now, after the departures of Ho, Gibson and Millard, and the additions of new arrival Mark Newnham from Australia and Tony Cruz’s promoted former assistant Cody Mo.
Certainly, the talk around Sha Tin is that 21 is not enough – especially if the horse population climbs back to the 1,300 of a few years ago – and the Hong Kong Jockey Club knows it. There are still a couple of expat slots to fill, and perhaps another local could be added, and while the club is unlikely to bring in a trainer once the season is underway, expect more incomings before this time next year.
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