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The Hong Kong Jockey Club's announcement of next season's trainer roster is imminent, with at least one local assistant trainer set to be promoted for the first time since 2018.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club will hand out the equivalent of its ‘golden tickets’ on Thursday when the licensing committee is slated to convene and announce trainer and jockey rosters for the 2022-23 campaign.
Additions to the trainer ranks would be most timely. The roster has been weakened in the past two years by retirements and resignations, and the next five years could see as many as 11 trainers either reach compulsory retirement age – 65 for most or 70 for selected high-achievers based on season-by-season performance – or fail to reach the minimum benchmark requirement to retain their licence.
Among those ageing trainers are a pair of heavyweights, 11-time champion John Size, who will hit the cut-off age of 70 in July 2024, and Tony Cruz, who will turn 70 in December 2026. Then there is their fellow champion Ricky Yiu (64), the late-blooming high-flyer Francis Lui (63) and mid-table stalwart Manfred Man (64), none of whom is guaranteed to be granted an extension to 70.
Much-needed fresh blood is already guaranteed for next term: New Zealand’s champion trainer Jamie Richards was signed up earlier in the year and is at Sha Tin putting together a team to launch from Olympic Stables come September.
The odds of another expatriate handler being announced at this late stage would be a left-field move given that Richards follows on from David Hayes and Douglas Whyte as the most recent sign-ups and each was given several months to prepare.
Under the former licensing committee secretary Steve Railton’s watch, any information about incomings and outgoings was guarded more securely than bullion at Fort Knox. Nowadays, his fellow Australian Terry Bailey fulfils that role.
What seems likely is that at least one local assistant trainer will be promoted for the first time since Jimmy Ting was invited to the party in 2018.
The two leading contenders this time seem to be Cody Mo, long-time assistant to Cruz, and Pierre Ng, assistant to Francis Lui and the son of retired Hong Kong trainer Peter Ng. The word around Sha Tin is that Mo’s appointment, at least, is expected.
Others thought to be in the mix are Man’s assistant Ip Wing Hang, and Adrian Chow who, as Size’s assistant, would be looking to follow in the footsteps of Frankie Lor and Benno Yung.
The applicants have already gone through a difficult sifting: annual staff performance ratings are considered, as well as attitude and skill set, before they go before a licensing committee panel. Lor, currently vying for the premiership, famously failed that interview and had to wait until he was 51 to get the nod.
Trainer Chris So told Asian Racing Report that it takes ‘two or three seasons’ of consistent good performance to prepare for the panel.
If more than one assistant trainer is successful this time, they will face the added difficulty of vying with each other to secure horses. That was the scenario for So and Yung when they were granted licences in 2013.
“You need good connections with owners; Benno worked for the club for 30 years before he got his licence but I had only worked for 15 years,” said So. “I asked my wife, where will I get my horses? I didn’t have strong connections and then Benno was there also trying to get horses for his stable. I had only 23 horses on the first day of the season and I was so nervous.
“But the process is very thorough, the Club has a good system in place to try to make sure they get the right trainers coming through because this is big business, it’s international.”
That being so, the resignation in December of David Ferraris and Paul O’Sullivan’s imminent retirement, two years earlier than required, heighten the need for replenishment.
Only 21 licensed handlers make for a thin line-up at present. Rewind 10 years and 25 trainers were on the books. Since then, Conghua has opened with more than 600 extra boxes yet trainer numbers are down after the comings and goings of recent times.
Peter Ng and the now warned-off Andy Leung retired in 2013 to be replaced by Yung and So; Andreas Schutz and Sean Woods both failed to meet performance expectations in 2016 and were asked to show cause before being kicked out; Gary Ng retired in 2017, enabling Lor to step up; Almond Lee had a third failure to hit the minimum benchmark and was shown the door in 2018, the same year as Derek Cruz opted to retire rather than face the same fate; Ting was licensed in 2018 and Whyte joined the ranks in 2019.
John Moore left a large hole when he was compulsorily retired in 2020, to be replaced by Hayes who has not matched his predecessor’s prodigious Group One heights; and, amidst all of that, Michael Freedman came and went, licensed in July 2017 only to pull the eject lever in October 2018 to end a torrid experience.
The rewards are huge, potentially, for any trainer or jockey given the opportunity: total prize money and incentives for next season amount to HK$1.62 billion (AU$285.7 million).
But cashing in the ‘golden ticket’ requires hard work, a hard business sense, thick skin, strong contacts and a healthy slice of that elusive notion – often bandied around the racing game and nowhere more so than Hong Kong – good luck.
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