'I must retire, but I love to learn . . . even after 50 years, the challenge never goes away'
Through eyes that have grown old in the busy haze of Hong Kong, Wong Tang-ping sees most of the road behind him and just one season of the journey ahead in the city where he grew up, watched change restlessly invade year by year and fell tirelessly in love with a mistress called racing.
Under Hong Kong Jockey Club rules, he must retire at 65 years - a demand that comes due with the completion of the current season and at an age when many racehorse trainers are peaking. It never was a young man's game.
'I have to retire - they are the rules and it is good to let the young ones come through. I am grateful for the wonderful times I have enjoyed with my owners. Most of them have stayed with me a long time, some even since I first held a licence. I appreciate their patience and the times we have had,' Ping reflects. 'I must retire, but I love to learn. The more I learn, the more I need. I am never satisfied. Even after 50 years, the challenge never goes away.'
Ping began training when the leading names were people like George Moore and P.C. Chan. 'I started in 1981 but my career with the Jockey Club is much longer. My father was a stable rider and I started in 1953 as a stable lad. I moved on to riding, but my body weight made sure I would never be a race jockey,' Ping says. 'I was riding them, breaking in what we called subscription griffins from Australia. A lot of them were terrible horses. I had many falls and broke my arm and my back.'
But Ping also had something that was not so common then. 'I could speak English. I didn't study it, I just picked it up around the stables. Listening to trainers from England or Australia, I listened and taught myself,' Ping says. 'Because I could speak some English, I was able to advance to a job assisting Major Grimshaw to teach the boys riding.'
The move was a step in the right direction but riding was not the end of Ping's rainbow. 'My ambition was to be a number one trainer. Then, when I started, I was surprised at how hard training was. One hundred times harder than I had ever expected, but I didn't think about giving it up,' he says proudly. 'It took a long time but I did become a number one trainer.'
Twenty years of training encompasses many great moments but Co-Tack, the dual Horse Of The Year, is unlikely to be displaced as the highlight of Ping's career. Co-Tack won 12 races from 1982 to 1984 and 10 in succession - a towering record in the professional era. 'No horse has won 10 races in a row since and I don't think it will be beaten. He started in Class Three and finished up carrying 154 pounds to win in Class One,' Ping recalls.
'He won the Derby, the Gold Cup - actually, he won everything there was to win. Co-Tack was a freak from Australia. His owner chose him and he was not expensive. There was nothing special about the blood, he just had the right engine.'
History is punctuated with great horses which sold cheaply and the myth of the sale ring blesses the magic of the racetrack. 'Spending big money is no guarantee, so the challenge is to buy what you hope is a good horse for not too much money - and you never know,' Ping says with that love of the dream that drives this whole crazy business.
'Horses surprise you. A good friend of mine says 'horses will always charm you'. They make you feel happy, sorrow, worried, excited, but they are always addictive - you can never get away from it. It's like opium smoking.'
Ping's preparation for his horses is unchanged this term, even with the knowledge that it is now or never for those in his care. 'You don't think about that. My plan of training is no different, to make a horse fit and to make it race well, the way I know best. And if it comes it comes,' he says. 'I am hoping Northern Gold Ball and All The Best will do well this year. And then there are the new, young horses.'
By and large, Ping does not talk about how the good times are past. The 'good old days' are now. 'Of course Hong Kong racing has changed a lot - the whole world is changing. It is not like the days when we raced once a fortnight, the jockeys were amateurs and the horses were poor,' he says. 'Now the standards of the thoroughbreds are rising every year, the jockeys are getting even better and the whole business is so professional. There was a time when you could run horses 20 to 50 per cent fit, now they have to be a minimum 75 per cent fit to race.
'The quality of the training facilities, the feeding, the medical side of racing are all so much better. In the 1950s, we didn't even know what a virus was. We knew a horse had a runny nose, but we didn't know it was a virus. And we didn't even take a horse's temperature unless it was really very sick. Now we do it every morning.'
In racing all over the world, the onset of progress usually means a slow bleeding of the larrikin character of the racing game, the more 'colourful' aspects. Ping is all for it. 'In the old days, everything was complicated. Horse dopers and so many scandals with owners and trainers and jockeys,' he says. 'Now Hong Kong racing is so clean, so professional and the Jockey Club is very dignified.'
Incomparable Co-Tack aside, Ping has had other top-line horses and includes among them Carry On Winning and current sprinter Best Of The Best, who has struggled to recover his premium form since a trip to Japan last October. 'He was outstanding, which is why we took him to run in Japan,' Ping says.
'But it was a wasted trip. I didn't know it was the rainy season - if I had, I would never have taken him. He couldn't handle the track and finished nearly last. Now Best Of The Best will have this season and if he cannot do something then maybe we will retire together.'
Retirement would mean the end of the line for the rising seven-year-old gelding but not the rising 65-year-old, who is planning an extension to his career. 'When I retire, I want to be an owner-trainer,' he says. 'I cannot do that in Hong Kong, but I will go somewhere - Australia or the United States. I will buy a few decent horses, not expensive ones but decent ones. And keep learning.'