Small fry to feel heat now the guidelines are rules
The Jockey Club calls them criteria. Or guidelines. But now we know what they really are: RULES. And the Club made it clear yesterday that anyone who breaks the rules - not necessarily all of them, but especially the golden rule of 12 winners per season - will face dismissal.
Their strict application yesterday is sure to send a shiver of apprehension through the training ranks because it was a clear message that failure to follow the Club's rules will not be tolerated. In all three appeal cases heard by the Licensing Committee yesterday, the judgments were harsh simply because they took away jobs, homes, livelihoods, careers.
Decisions like that are not to be taken lightly, and the committee would not have done so. But, on the terms of reference set by the Club, Chris Cheung and Wylie Wong could have expected no other verdict because they had failed on every count and their dwindling stable numbers gave them virtually no chance of turning their position around.
For Bruce Hutchison, however, the verdict was especially harsh because he had a strong case on all counts except his number of winners and, linked to that, percentage of winners to runners. When the 'criteria' were introduced two years ago, the media latched on to the 12-winner target as the key indicator, but the Club stressed all along that such a view was too simplistic. Now, we know, it is that simple after all. The bottom line is winners.
There is a view that the 12-winner target is too high. The Club obviously had to set a figure, but several people have suggested that 10 would be a fairer number, especially for the smaller stables. Hutchison has had 10 winners for the past two seasons, so even by that measure he has not under-performed dramatically.
And, in any case, winners are not the be-all and end-all in Hong Kong racing, where the placed horses are just as important to punters. If the Club's intention was to protect punters' rights by ensuring it had a body of trainers who would consistently provide 12 or 14 competitive runners, then Hutchison measures up as well as many other trainers.
Although he had only 10 winners in the past season, he had 22 second places and 16 thirds. On the basis of those figures, for example, he has had the same percentage of runners in the first three as Andy Leung Ting-wah, who finished eighth in the trainer standings.
And if the Club's intention was to protect the interests of owners by ensuring they got value for money from a trainer, then Hutchison passes that test, too. Two of the Club's criteria - prize-money won and stable strength - appear to have been set to measure a trainer's performance on behalf of his owners, but Hutchison achieved almost double the $6 million target for prize-money and has nearer 30 horses than the Club's guideline of 20 sound horses in training.
The steadfast backing of Hutchison's owners, which was demonstrated in their letters of support for the trainer, was in stark contrast to those who deserted the sinking ships of Cheung and Wong, leaving them with only 18 and 10 horses respectively.
So, from the point of view of punters and owners, Hutchison has been performing at an acceptable level despite his low number of winners. And surely the Club had to consider the poor luck Hutchison suffered over the past season, with nine of his 22 second places coming in photo-finishes. If only two of those had gone Hutchison's way, he would have hit the target for percentage of winners to runners as well as the magic figure of 12.
In the end, that is what it came down to - the difference between losing nine photo-finishes rather than only missing out in seven. Surely no one would want to lose a job based on such slim margins, especially one held for 23 years and when a lot of people still have faith in your ability. In the circumstances, the fairest decision would have been to allow Hutchison to have another season. After all, when the criteria came in two years ago, the Club said trainers would be judged over three seasons. Hutchison, Cheung and Wong had only two seasons before the axe fell, though the Club would point out that it also took into account their previous records.
Hutchison could not have complained at being given one last chance, knowing that failure to reach 12 winners next season would mean the boot. But he can feel aggrieved at his treatment yesterday - and every remaining small-string trainer in Hong Kong can feel worried.