From start to finish, Fownes forces rivals to play catch-up

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 July, 2007, 12:00am

If they were betting on the trainers' premiership at this time last year, the quinella of Caspar Fownes and Paul O'Sullivan would have been at decent odds because of the John Size factor. The champion Australian horseman had been in Hong Kong just five seasons for four championships and runner-up to Tony Cruz in his record 2004-05 term.

But Size endured the quietest of his six terms to wind up in ninth place with 32 winners - his previous worst was 50 - and his 2006 rival, John Moore, was beset with a series of setbacks to the health of the team.

In contrast, Fownes, in his fourth term since being licensed in 2003, hit the ground running, winding up with 61 winners.

O'Sullivan was really the only possible rival for Fownes from a long way out but, in the same way that Douglas Whyte proved too strong in the jockeys' title chase, Fownes ruthlessly edged clear and rammed home the advantage in the closing meetings.

Ultimately, the difference between the pair was the way they handled the city circuit at Happy Valley. For Fownes, it was the foundation of his championship, winning 33 races on the idiosyncratic track at a strike rate of 17 per cent.

If that was where Fownes won the title it was also where O'Sullivan lost it, winning just six races at Happy Valley from 114 runners (5.3 per cent), though two of his 'winners' had it taken off them on protest in the stewards room. However, at Sha Tin, O'Sullivan was supreme.

He trained 46 winners from 287 starts at a strike rate of 16 per cent, putting Fownes (28 from 402, SR 7 per cent) in the shade.

When O'Sullivan reflects on a great season and on how he might improve next term, his approach to Happy Valley must be at the forefront of his thinking.

With only 114 starters on the island course, O'Sullivan seems to be deliberately avoiding Happy Valley in favour of the wide, open spaces at Sha Tin and it will have to be a policy he revisits if he wants to become number one.

Tony Cruz, who finished third to Size and Moore in 2006, maintained that position on the ladder, despite training 10 winners fewer. However, it was very much a building year for Cruz, highlighted by his late-term win with exciting private purchases like Royal Prince, Helene Brilliant, Survey Survey and Leading Ahead.

Dennis Yip Chor-hong had another solid and admirable year, with perhaps his signature horse being Down Town, a former West Australian racer who went through most of the season and competed from 1,000 to 2,000m. Yip also had the most runners of any trainer (590), although it was in dispute until the last meeting with Fownes starting 588.

Almond Lee Yee-tat was the big improver, from 27 winners and 11th place in 2006 to 44 winners and fifth place this term, vindicating all the confidence placed in him by his former boss, two-time champion David Hayes.

Moore had a quiet term by his championship standard, finishing sixth with 40 wins, but he got the money when it counted and completed the term as leading trainer by prize money once again, with the barn earning HK$63.92 million.

The Mr Consistency award goes to Ricky Yiu Poon-fie, whose small team reaped 24 wins - but it was achieved from just 181 runners, at a benchmark-setting strike rate of 13.3 per cent.