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Lucky Sweynesse is a late high point in the career of Manfred Man Ka-leung who has been part of the Hong Kong Jockey Club for 48 years and a consistent, middle-ranking trainer for more than two decades.
Manfred Man’s Sha Tin stable is not renowned as a home to the stars but in Lucky Sweynesse it has a rising talent that could be Hong Kong’s next big-name sprinter. The thing is, Man might not have a stable at all by the time the maturing four-year-old reaches its peak.
At age 65, he is operating in the unknown. After 23 years as a trainer, the former jockey has reached the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s ‘standard retirement age’ and that means the next five and a half months might well be his last on the Hong Kong roster.
“At this moment the Jockey Club hasn’t told me if I need to retire or if I will be able to keep training, so if they give me the application form, I will apply each year,” he tells Asian Racing Report.
“I’ve got nothing to lose by applying. At my age, to retire, there is nowhere to go if I want to train the horses, and also, I have many owners who want me to keep training for them.”
You see, a trainer can in fact continue past 65 in Hong Kong, but they must measure up to a bizarre set of ‘if’ and ‘or’ measures. The ‘John Moore Rule’ enables an extension to age 70, if certain criteria are met to the satisfaction of the HKJC’s licensing committee, and, beyond that, the ‘John Size Rule’ introduced last July offers the chance of an extension to 73 and then 75 for the circuit’s very highest achievers.
But Man is not one of the Sha Tin trainers’ stand’s big hitters. He does not meet the criteria to train beyond the end of this season in mid-July. To continue, he would need to have achieved one of the following: placed top five in the last three seasons; been a top five prize money earner in the same period; have been champion trainer in one of those three seasons; or met a convoluted average number of Class 2 wins plus been champion trainer or finished top five in wins or prize money.
Manfred Man and Gerald Mosse discuss a win in 2003. (Photo by Kenneth Chan)
Man is a stock middle ranker, the kind of trainer that can be relied on to give bolster to the system with a stable of predominantly Class 4 foot soldiers that keep the whole show rolling. And every now and then he gets one that he can progress up the handicap ladder towards the elite.
He did it with the brilliant straight track bullet Eagle Regiment, a back-to-back winner of the Centenary Sprint Cup that took connections to Dubai, and with the G1 Chairman’s Sprint Prize second Big Time Baby, and he’s doing it again with Lucky Sweynesse, last season’s champion Griffin, who is a leading contender for Sunday’s G1 Centenary Sprint Cup.
Given that the HKJC has the power to amend its rules as it sees fit, and therefore move goal posts when providential, there is always a chance that a Group 1 win popping onto a trainer’s CV might just bring a stay of execution. After all, who would the club recruit for July that could be guaranteed to deliver 25 to 35 winners season after season?
“The Club decide what they’re going to do,” says Lucky Sweynesse’s jockey, the multiple champion Zac Purton. “But what you find in any sport anywhere is that some people are at the top, some are at the bottom and some are in the middle, you need to have that mix.
“Manfred’s been a good trainer over a long period of time; he’s always been very consistent, his horses hold their form well, he places them well, he’s doing really well. Any time I ride any one of his horses I jump on with a great deal of confidence, believing they’re going to produce their best and most of the time they do.”
Zac Purton and Lucky Sweynesse. (Photo by HKJC)
Man is comfortably ninth of 22 in the current premiership standings with 21 wins, the equal of hotshot rookie Pierre Ng and more than past champions David Hayes and Dennis Yip. Last season he was 11th with 35 wins; his average number of wins for the five seasons prior to the current campaign comes in at a solid 28.6; his 601 career wins in Hong Kong average out at 26 per season.
And his stable is rarely low on numbers: he has 54 in his yard – 60 is the maximum he can have – which is testament to the support he receives.
Man Ka-leung was raised in Yuen Long, a rural market town in the western New Territories that since the 1970s has been developed as a built-up, working class new town district. He was born the middle of five children, two sisters either side of him, into ‘a poor family’. His father worked away on ocean-going ships.
When it was plain that his family could not afford for him to continue in his education, Man, then 17, found work at the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club.
“When I first joined the club, I was the riding boy for George Moore and when he saw how hard I was working, he gave me the chance to be an apprentice,” Man says.
He would go on to be Hong Kong’s champion apprentice under Moore’s guidance in the 1978-79 season, riding against the likes of Alan Tam, Samson Lau and fellow trainer Frances Lui. His biggest success came in the 1979 QEII Cup on Go-getter.
“Manfred rode with some success without hitting any grand heights at the time,” recalls John Moore, who would take over the Moore stable from his father and promote Man through the ranks. “He was an affable guy that dad always said would make it in the business.”
Trainers John Moore and Manfred Man share the spoils at Sha Tin in 2011. (Photo by Kenneth Chan)
Moore senior gave Man his ‘English name’ taken from the pop band of the 1960s, Mannfred Mann.
“He was a very tough guy,” Man says of George Moore. “He would keep asking you to do the job and keep learning, he was quite hard. But that was all very good experience, and his knowledge and the way he operated his stable, it helped me to develop. I knew my job in the stable and even though it was hard work, it made sure I had the horse knowledge I needed.”
Man graduated to being a fully-fledged jockey until he retired in 1983. He then spent a further 17 years working for the Moore stable as work rider and then assistant trainer until 2000 when he was granted his own licence to train.
“Manfred was a little bit different to the other assistant trainers I had,” John Moore says. “He probably had more leadership skills when he was coming through. He was good at managing things.”
Man ticked along as a trainer. His best season, in 2009-10, brought 43 wins, including five apiece for the griffins London China Town and Tai Sing Yeh. Then came Eagle Regiment.
“He was one of the best sprinters I ever had the chance to ride,” says Olivier Doleuze who partnered the big but fragile gelding to wins in the Centenary Sprint Cup in 2012 and 2013, back when it was a straight 1000-metre dash carrying ‘Hong Kong Group 1’ status.
“All-time, if there had been more races down the straight, he would have been as good as Silent Witness: he was a champion. And he was such a nice horse to ride,” Doleuze adds.
Man took Eagle Regiment to Dubai for the Al Quoz Sprint in 2012 where his problematic feet forced his scratching. The horse took 11 months to recover fully and when he had, Man pitched him first-up into the Centenary Sprint Cup.
“To do what he did, to win the Group 1 two times in a row after such a long break, I was surprised, it was phenomenal. And then the way he won it was amazing,” says Doleuze.
Olivier Doleuze celebrates his Centenary Sprint Cup win on Eagle Regiment in 2013. (Photo by Kenneth Chan)
Man again attempted the Al Quoz at Meydan and again the feet flared up. Somehow, he got his charge to the big race, despite the gelding being unable to exercise properly in the days leading in.
“It was just lucky,” says Man.
Doleuze believes Man would have had a major Dubai victory on his CV but for that issue.
“The horse was not 100 percent and he still was third,” he says. “If we had had the chance to have him at his peak, I think he would have won in Dubai. Over the straight he was such a machine, and he would do exactly what you asked him to do; he was quiet and you just pressed the button, he was a dream of a ride.”
Now, in possibly the final months of his career, Man has an opportunity to earn a first full-blown Group 1. Just as he guided Eagle Regiment from an initial rating of 52 to a peak of 122, Big Time Baby from Class 3 dirt tracker to 120-rated G1 runner-up, and Pleasure Gains from a 57 rating to Group 3 winner, so he has plotted Lucky Sweynesse from an initial rating of 52 up to 125, thanks to eight wins from 12 starts, including the G2 Jockey Club Sprint and last time in the G3 Chinese Club Challenge Cup.
The gelding’s sixth in the G1 Hong Kong Sprint was a blatantly luckless run from an awkward gate. But Purton finds himself allotted gate eight of eight this time and fears another tricky assignment.
“Manfred thinks this is the best horse he’s trained and we missed the opportunity in December so we need to try and make up for that. That’s what my job is,” the Australian says.
“Manfred’s handled him extremely well. Early on in his career when he needed to space his runs and give him a little bit of time, he did that, whereas a lot of other trainers would have felt the pressure that they had to continue to race the horse.”
Another Group success for the Manfred Man-trained Lucky Sweynesse. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)
Purton, Moore and Doleuze all speak of Man’s affability and easy-going nature, as well as his straight down the line black and white way of talking and dealing with people.
“What I do notice is that he’s very well-liked among all the trainers as well,” Purton adds. “There’s not a trainer out there that I’ve ever known of that’s had a whinge about him or a bad word to say about him, so I think that tells a lot as well.”
Man himself lives up to the easy-going, unflappable image.
“I think when I was promoted to be assistant trainer, I was never thinking to be a trainer. It was step by step, taking each chance as it came,” he says, and makes the point that he feels “no pressure” going into Sunday’s race. After all, “the horse is ready.”
Doleuze observes that Man “is able to get inside of a horse,” if he has a good one, and that “he’s not the guy who will miss it, if he has a good horse, he will make that good horse.”
He has made Lucky Sweynesse thus far. But the chance to polish the edges and reap the rewards of a fully mature sprinter, a potential champion, looks like falling into the lap of someone else unless the Jockey Club top brass takes the view that the trainers who make the solid middle are just as vital as the powerful top.
From showman to scribe: Olivier Doleuze has a new passion away from racing
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