'I wouldn't mind going one better than usual and we're aiming for 40 wins'
In the treacherous seas of horse training, long experience has taught trainer Lawrie Fownes to be proud of consistently steering a safe passage and he is not about to stray off the map - but he is hoping for some buried treasure this season.
Last term's 32 wins and $27.5 million in prizemoney was enough to make Fownes the sixth-ranked trainer in Hong Kong's highly competitive championship, but it also mirrored a level which has become the trainer's glass ceiling in the past decade.
'That was on a par with probably the last 10 years,' Fownes said. 'We usually have about 30 to 35 winners and I'm happy that we've been able to maintain a pretty steady performance, which is no easy task in this business. Still, I wouldn't mind going one better than usual and we're aiming for 40 this season. My best year was 39 winners and I finished third, one behind John Moore and David Hill. That was as close as I've been and it is more competitive now.'
That across-the-board consistency last season was reflected in the fact that Fownes' 32 wins were produced by 21 different horses and made up of wins in every class except the griffins.
'I'll start with about the maximum but I dare say that within a few weeks we'll have said goodbye for the season to a few for various reasons - injuries, retirement, those sorts of things - and that will leave me with a nucleus of about 50,' Fownes said. 'And that's a nice overall string. We've some young horses from last season, some who didn't race at all because they were just looking for time. And then we've got others coming in.'
Those 'others' are an intriguing mix of untried and hopeful, to performed - and also hopeful. 'Well, you can buy horses that look to be able to run but if they don't acclimatise here they're not going to perform,' said Fownes. 'Then you need a bit of luck with them to win the races they should win. That said, we've bought a couple of nice horses and I'm still on the lookout for another good one.'
The highlight purchase is Cauvoury, a Group-placed three-year-old with a rating of 104, and Fownes has high hopes he might develop into a big-race contender, possibly even a Hong Kong Derby horse next spring. 'He has some form up to a mile at this stage of his career but if he can acclimatise and he can keep improving a little, there's no reason why he couldn't be tried at 2,000m,' Fownes said. 'To win those races you need so much to go right but he is a horse with a future.'
Urban Legend and Baccura come here perhaps with lower expectations but Fownes anticipates they will at least pay their way if he can bring the best from them.
'Baccura is a compact sort of horse and he has fair form in the United Kingdom,' Fownes said. 'Urban Legend is the winner of one race in Ireland. I think he's a horse on the way up, a nice horse in the making.'
Fownes also has a griffin from New Zealand with an eye-catching pedigree, by O'Reilly from Jesmond Lass, making him a half-brother to two multiple Group One winners in Australia, Canny Lad and Canny Lass. 'He's got a bit of size about him, a very nice type of horse, and he's won a trial in New Zealand,' Fownes said.
As he finished last season, Kenwood Melody will open this one as the top-rated Fownes stable horse and a chance in anything he contests provided the now six-year-old remains sound.
'We don't usually have the Class One ammunition of say David Hayes or Ivan Allan but Kenwood Melody is a genuine Class One horse. He was a little bit jointy towards the end of the last season,' Fownes said. 'But he has responded very well to treatment and seems very well. He's racing against the best and that's always tough, you need a bit of luck, and he didn't always get that last season. He should have won one of the big sprints.'
With a versatile team again across the board, and the tight stable partnership with jockey Wendyll Woods, it is steady-as-she-goes for the Fownes team in 2001-2002, at least.
'We are hoping for more this year, and 40 winners would be nice,' he said. 'But if we find that we have worked hard and done our best and finished with 30 to 35, I'd say we've done a good job again.'