'I'd been asking for a licence for so many years, when I finally got it, I wondered what I had let myself in for'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 August, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 August, 2001, 12:00am

Sunday's start of a new racing season will mark three decades in Hong Kong for trainer Geoff Lane, who has packed several careers into that time and borne witness to the massive changes that have swept through the territory.

'I came here as a jockey on an eight-month contract in 1971 at the time when Hong Kong racing switched over from amateur to professional. There was no Sha Tin - where the course is now was all water - and so much has changed in those 30 years,' Lane, 62, recalls.

'I was very heavy for Australia, I'd always had weight problems and retired and come back a couple of times. I was riding trackwork in Queensland when they asked me to come here.'

Lane came for eight months but rode for eight years, albeit on a limited basis. 'I was still heavy, mostly rode around 130 pounds so you can imagine the opportunities were limited,' he said.

'I was always keen to train and I'd started applying for a trainer's licence even before I finished riding in 1979. While I was waiting, I worked for four years teaching the apprentices and working as the assistant starter, then another six years as a stipendiary steward.

'So I was 50 when I finally started training. I'd been asking for a licence for so many years, when I finally got it, I wondered what I had let myself in for.'

Being a late starter to the business might explain why Lane is still hitting new peaks now, just three years from the Jockey Club's mandatory retirement age.

'I'll have about 50 horses which is up on last year because that was probably one of my best seasons, finishing sixth with 34 wins,' Lane said. 'I've got some new owners, some new, younger horses. Unfortunately, there is not one there in the real top bracket, the types who might be looking towards the Derby or the International races, but I've still got space for a top horse if someone wants to give me one.'

However, much as the Jockey Club offers incentives to buy high-rated horses, there is still the matter of extreme asking prices.

'Unfortunately, I don't have owners with the kind of budgets that you're talking about for these horses but I'd love to be training one or two of them,' Lane said.

'The exciting horse in the stable I would have to nominate as Grandioso. I bought him as a yearling at the Karaka sale and left him there in New Zealand to grow. He caused a surprise the first night at Happy Valley when he won at huge odds but then he won again second up and he could go on to something good if he continues as he has started.'

An imposing sort by Kaapstad from the Australian Group One winner, Miss Clipper, Grandioso's unbeaten two-start career in short sprint races augurs well for a horse who might be expected to be better when he moves up to a mile.

Nevertheless, even for an experienced horseman like Lane, singling out the 'likely lads' in the team is a pursuit fraught with pitfalls. 'Twelve months ago, if you'd asked me the same question, I would have said the horses I was expecting the most from were Rebel Leader and Kev Bushido,' Lane said.

'Kev Bushido got hurt, so his season suffered, although he did win a race. Rebel Leader, on the other hand, was really a bit of a disappointment. I suppose he is still fairly young so there is still the chance he could put it all together this season.'

The horse who really surprised Lane last season was World Star. 'He was on the verge of retirement then all of a sudden he won three races,' Lane said. 'Because he did, he might be too high in the handicaps but he really looks particularly well. He's had a good break and perhaps he could surprise us again.'

Front-running Slotop was regarded as a little disappointing until he won towards the end of the season at his eighth start. Still, Lane feels the gelding is a possible improver.

'He really just took a while to put it together last season and that makes me think he has some scope to go on.'

Lane and his wife did some travelling in Europe during the break but not to look at European horses. As usual, Lane has concentrated the search for his next batch of winners on New Zealand's lush limestone paddocks.

'I've got five young horses coming in from New Zealand shortly. I always go back to buy in New Zealand simply because I've had so much luck there,' he explained. 'People there are sellers of horses, it's their business, and the prices are realistic because of that.'

He might be coming off one of his best seasons but Lane is optimistic that he can at least replicate that sort of form again this term. But even if he does set new highs in 2001-2002, Lane warned that he was unlikely to do it in September.

'I generally start the season fairly quietly,' he said. 'I don't like to push the horses too hard at this stage. The weather is so hot and they have got a long season ahead.'