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Less than a week out from the start of his first season in Hong Kong, Mark Newnham speaks to Asian Racing Report about how his team is shaping up ahead of the season opener.
There was a seemingly minor detail on the invite to new Hong Kong trainer Mark Newnham’s bai-sun ceremony that speaks volumes about the Australian’s attitude to his new home.
A bai-sun is a ceremony where joss sticks are burnt and suckling pigs are served in order to bring prosperity and good fortune, and it is traditionally held at the start of the racing season in each stable, but is of particular importance to the opening of a new stable like Newnham’s.
The start time of 4.28pm – not 4.30pm – for the Newnham stable bai-sun on August 19 was not a misprint.
“That was the time that my staff said was the luckiest time to start, it was better than 4.30pm,” Newnham told Asian Racing Report this week. “I asked ‘why 4.28pm?’ and all I needed to hear was ‘it’s more lucky’ … I have got to fit in here, I am not here to impose my will on the place.”
While most of Hong Kong’s 21 licensed trainers took a break during the off-season, Newnham has been hard at work establishing his new stable ahead of the season opener on September 10.
“I got here early enough to be organised and observe a lot of different things, whether it be things on raceday or at trackwork that I thought were to be to my advantage or disadvantage.”
Newnham will be based out of the ‘Olympic stables’ – the four barns situated near the top of the Sha Tin straight and at the opposite end of the racecourse to the older multi-story stables.
Alongside him are Michael Chang, Douglas Whyte and last season’s first year success story Jamie Richards, who rocketed through the latter part of his first campaign after a deliberately slow start.
Even though 15 of Newnham’s 35-horse team are unraced – leaving plenty of upside – he is keen to hit the ground running and not try and replicate the cautious approach favoured by most new expat handlers.
“Hopefully the transfer horses can carry the load while we bring the new ones along,” he said.
Some forward showings during pre-season trials indicate Newnham has found some handy transfers that could strike early. A horse like nine-year-old Right Honourable, a winner of six from 66, might not seem like ‘horse to follow’ material but a favourable drop into Class 5 and change of scenery could spark multiple wins.
Also joining Newnham’s yard, at the other end of the ratings spectrum, is Tourbillon Diamond, whose rating has dropped from a peak of 119 last season down to 102.
“He was second behind California Spangle and Romantic Warrior in his first two starts last season,” Newnham said. “I’ve been on his back in trackwork and he feels good. Obviously there are only a limited number of races he can contest with his rating but I think he would be well-placed in a race like the Group 3 Sasa Ladies’ Purse in October.”
“Mission Bravo and Massive Talent are a couple of other transfer horses I have been happy with early.”
Perhaps Newnham’s most important recruitment isn’t a horse, but rather his assistant trainer Henry Wong.
Assistant trainers play a key role for expat trainers in Hong Kong but their ability to communicate with staff and attract owners is particularly important for a first season trainer.
Wong comes via time with Ricky Yiu, where he was based at the mainland training centre in Conghua in Yiu’s championship season, and most recently with Chang. The former apprentice is best known for his time as a lead trackwork rider for former trainer John Moore, where he rode gallops on a succession of Horse of the Year winners like Designs On Rome, Able Friend and Werther.
“Henry has been great,” Newnham said. “He did the staff recruitment which has been terrific. We have a young, enthusiastic and engaged staff. From mafoos, to work riders and right up to the head lad.
“I do things a bit differently, the way I feed horses and work them, so we have to get people who want to be part of that journey, but having a young and open-minded team, they are more open to change.
“If your staff are not willing to accept change, you are probably going to fail.”
The Olympic stables were at one time considered a disadvantage – and even unlucky – after the struggles of departed trainers Andreas Schutz, Sean Woods, David Ferraris and Michael Freedman, not to mention Chang, who narrowly avoided a career-ending ‘strike’ last term.
The success of Whyte and now Richards ensures that the ‘other’ end of Sha Tin is no longer considered unlucky, and has moved on from a time when a Feng Shui expert advised the owner of champion miler Good Ba Ba to move his horse away from Schutz twice.
Newnham said he is aiming to make the stable location an advantage
“I got here early enough to observe a lot of stuff,” he said. “I think the trot to the Olympic stables, along the riverside gallop is a much better warm-up than trotting around in circles next to the main track with 80 other horses at once. The horses get a long walk on the way home.”
Of course in Hong Kong sometimes it is more important to be considered lucky than good, so Newnham is hoping the 80 people that turned up for the bai-sun on August 19 at 4.28pm – not 4.30pm – is a sign of prosperity for the season ahead.
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