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What Hong Kong owners want: five buyers describe the attributes needed for Sha Tin

Temperament? Soundness? Size? Experienced Hong Kong buyers reveal what attributes they look for in a horse purchased to race at Sha Tin and Happy Valley.

Hong Kong Sprint-winner Wellington was a $70,000 purchase for Lauriston Thoroughbred Farm from Kia Ora Stud draft at the 2018 Magic Millions Gold Coast Yearling Sale.(Photo by Kenneth Chan)

There was a little flex of Hong Kong buying power on show during Tuesday’s first Magic Millions session at the Gold Coast and with a record number of PPG permits floating around, there should be more yet between now and Inglis at Easter as prospective owners seek value in the Australasian yearling market.

It remains to be seen just how many of those Hong Kong owners will splash out on yearlings as sources suggest a number of permit holders are waiting to see how the market plays out, given the uncertainty around the city’s economy within a global economic downturn. But for those with the will and the ready resources to buy, the appeal of untried horses is easy to see when a quality import with proven race track form might set an owner back HK$10 million (US$1.28 million) or more.

“We’re starting to buy a lot more horses from the sales now because it’s hard to source (raced) horses from Australia or anywhere with half decent form: it’s costing an absolute fortune,” said Hong Kong’s four-time champion trainer Caspar Fownes, who believes there will be opportunities to pick up suitable yearlings in the AU$300,000 (US$206,700) to AU$400,000 (US$275,600) price bracket.

“I suggest to my clients, if they’re a syndicate of guys with plenty of money then we go out and buy a top-class proven horse; if you’re an individual, try to buy your own and make your own or buy a really nice trialled horse and then try to qualify them, that’s the other option we’ve been working on.”

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Hong Kong trainer Caspar Fownes. (Photo by Trish Dunnell)

But when Hong Kong buyers do decide to buy and import a young, untried horse, what exactly are the standout attributes that will draw their bids?      

“A good-looking horse, an athlete, one that is sound and has good feet, of course, is what I like to see but I prefer to focus first on the temperament, that’s the most important for me,” said trainer Francis Lui, who purchased the Hong Kong champion Golden Sixty as a two-year-old out of the New Zealand Bloodstock Ready to Run Sale.

Dean Hawkes, the man on the sales ground for another Hong Kong champion trainer, Ricky Yiu, offered a similar opinion.

“Temperament is almost number one,” Hawkes said by phone from the Gold Coast. “You look at their temperament almost immediately. If they haven’t got a good temperament, you might as well sack them straight away.”

The Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Australasian purchasing team, Danny Rolston and agent Craig Rounsefell, took the plunge during the opening session as they forked out a relatively high price for the HKJC budget at AU$600,000 (US$413,400), for a Pierro colt.

But what they believe is a good sort will need to have the mind to cope with everything Hong Kong will throw its way. As Lui was quick to point out, “It’s difficult because even when we pick up a quiet horse over there, they come to Hong Kong and in this different environment, sometimes they change and they become very difficult.”

Mark Richards previously had the job of leading the HKJC’s sourcing of stock for its international sale and among those he purchased was one of Hong Kong’s most talented horses of recent times and also its quirkiest, Pakistan Star.

Pakistan Star was the ultimate enigma. (Photo by HKJC)

The Hong Kong International Sale at Sha Tin. (Photo by Kenneth Chan)

“He was a quiet horse at the sale. I had no qualms about his temperament as a yearling,” Richards said. “I spent a lot of time at the sales with temperament in mind: before I would buy a horse for the Hong Kong Jockey Club, I’d watch it four or five times without pulling it out, I’d sit back and watch it being shown for other people, to see if there were any kinks.”

Pakistan Star, whose first trainer Tony Cruz described him as a shy horse, showed his inner foibles when he planted his feet in the Sha Tin turf before his Hong Kong International Sale breeze, long before he famously stopped in two of his races.

“I would say temperament and general demeanour are more important to a Hong Kong environment than to anywhere else in the world because of the confines that they’re kept in there,” Richards added.

That environment is built up and bustling; some stables are one storey off the ground; it is humid and hot for much of the year, with the constant drone and pollution of a busy multi-lane highway running by the back door. It is also grassless; horses at Sha Tin do not have relaxing paddocks to be turned out in, and much of the relatively short time outside their air-conditioned boxes is spent with their hooves on sand, dirt, tarmac or manmade cushioned walkways.

For a horse to enjoy the benefits of a limited number of grass paddocks it must be driven five hours north to the HKJC’s rural training facility at Conghua, across the border in Mainland China.

Horses trial on the grass at Conghua. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

Hong Kong-trained horses spell at the Conghua facility in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province of China. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

Richards believes that a good Hong Kong horse is one that “eats, sleeps and gallops without any worrying in between,” a laid back horse that is not “revvy” and, just as important, is sound.

“Temperament and soundness really are intertwined, insofar as what the most important thing is you’re looking for in any horse you’re buying for Hong Kong,” he added.

Soundness, though, is the paramount factor for Tony Millard, two-time Hong Kong Derby-winning trainer with two decades of experience buying and training horses for Sha Tin and Happy Valley.

“Temperament, for sure, is important but he has to be sound,” Millard said. “These are the hardest tracks I’ve seen anywhere, so conformation and soundness are essential.

“It’s unforgiving, you can have the horse with the right temperament but if he’s got the wrong conformation, he’s not going to stand up for five minutes here.”  

Tony Millard, Zac Purton and Ambitious Dragon's owner Johnson Lam. (Photo by Kenneth Chan/Getty Images)

Robbie Fradd wins the 2000 Hong Kong Derby aboard the Tony Millard-trained Keen Winner. (Photo by Robert Ng)

Millard also favours a horse that has a bit of size about it and made the case that a small horse will more often struggle in Hong Kong’s handicap system.

“They’re found out at the top of Class 3,” he said. “He might be good enough to be a Class 2 horse but he can’t get out of Class 3 because as soon he has to carry the weight, and the young horses are coming through at the bottom, he can’t do it. That’s the crux. When they can win through Class 3 with top-weight, they usually go right up to Class 1.

“Hong Kongers like the bigger horses and if it’s under a thousand pounds, most of the owners don’t want it, forget it.”

Fownes said he likes a horse that weighs in at around 1100 pounds but acknowledged that a good horse can come in different shapes and sizes.

“You can get a horse that is 950 pounds that is performing well and horses up to 1300 pounds doing the same. There are no rules, the key is just to have horses that you can train and they’re not sore all the time or having injuries.”

Champion miler Able Friend's peak racing weight was 1,315 pounds. (Photo by Vince Caligiuri)

Lui said he ‘does not want a horse with a heavy body’ and Richards said his opinion is that a horse with a smaller build could still perform well in Hong Kong, particularly European horses racing a mile and beyond, even though the overall trend is for bigger, stronger, sprinting types imported from Australia.

Hawkes and Yiu stick to their trusted method, believing that a consistent approach yields consistent results over time.

“We like buying horses that are not too big so they grow into themselves,” Hawkes said. “Sometimes we find if you buy them too big, they stay too big, whereas somebody like John Moore liked to buy the bigger horses. It just depends on their training styles: John was a bit more aggressive whereas Ricky is a bit more patient, so you buy styles of horses to suit their training.”

But while the general consensus is that temperament and soundness are at the top of the list, beyond that, each buyer will always have their own preferences.

“One person’s trash is another person’s treasure,” added Hawkes. “And one person’s treasure is another person’s trash.”

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