Striking a balance between being able to relate to both horses and humans is half the battle for most trainers, but affable Englishman Richard Gibson seems to be winning on both fronts. It takes hard work and knowledge to get a horse fit and firing, but convincing someone to part with US$2 million for a racehorse requires a different set of skills.
John Size tops the win tally or comes close year after year and John Moore’s runners won more than HK$100 million in prize money last season, but there’s still plenty of room for both to thrive as they find their own happy niche within the healthy Hong Kong system – so much so that despite competing in the smallest of pools they don’t even seem like rivals much of the time. The two Johns have completely different approaches, but imagine a trainer combining Size’s patient horsemanship with Moore’s ambitious appetite for feature races – and ability to attract big-spending owners.
With three genuine hopes heading to the Hong Kong Derby later this month and a crop of promising “PPGs” coming through, could second year trainer Gibson represent the best of both worlds? He is building the type of team capable of one day winning the championship but has also attracted the high-end horseflesh that could eventually dominate the upper grades and feature events. Size and Moore aren’t done yet, so he will have to wait in line a few years, but rest assured – his time is rapidly approaching.
Gibson is building towards being the premier trainer in Hong Kong one day – he is only 43 so has more than two decades ahead of him if he chooses to make Sha Tin his home for that long.
Moore is 62 and approaching compulsory retirement at 65, while Size is 58 and has won the championship seven times in 11 seasons. The two Johns do what they do consistently, and Tony Cruz and Caspar Fownes can mount a championship challenge from time to time – as they are this season – but Gibson is creeping up the ranks and could soon join them near the top of the standings.
After being handed a stable of mostly leftovers, Gibson produced a rookie season rated by many to be second only to Size’s astonishing debut in terms of impact. This term Gibson has re-tooled, combining the flashy European imports, with a host of previously unraced southern hemisphere buys. He has educated the new horses with Size-like judiciousness, but is forming his own system; at least three trials, one on each surface and then thoughtfully placing the newcomers in races with a view to the future. He hasn’t quite mastered the art, but you sense that it may only take some fine tuning. Just like Size, a lot of what Gibson does is common sense, but as Bart Cummings famously said; “Patience is the cheapest thing available to trainers, and the least used.”
All being well, Akeed Mofeed will start favourite in the Hong Kong Derby later this month and his stablemates Gold-Fun and Mizani are solid hopes.
Is it possible for a US$2 million purchase to be described as “astute”? The seven-figure sum forked out for Akeed Mofeed looks a lot less extravagant now. After Sunday’s dominant Class Two win, Gibson breathed a massive sigh of relief – even though the HK$1.5 million Akeed Mofeed has banked, including a novelty cheque for a first win bonus worth HK$600,000, didn’t touch the sides of the Pan Sutong’s initial outlay.
After the Derby, Akeed Mofeed will become Gibson’s first real marquee performer in open company here, at least during his current incarnation as trainer. Of course Gibson has already proven he can win the big ones – Doctor Dino won back-to-back Hong Kong Vases in 2007 and 2008.
A few of Gibson’s contemporaries refer to Gibson as “Sir Richard”, possibly feeling a pang of jealousy at his rapid ascension. The nickname infers he carries an air of aristocracy, but it doesn’t seem to fit with a trainer that works side-by-side with staff riding trackwork in the mornings.
Last Wednesday at Happy Valley, Gibson pointed out that one of his mafoos had a nickname of his own, albeit an ironic one: “Lucky”. Lucky had spent a number of seasons at Moore’s yard, yet had never had a “winner” – he had never handled a horse on raceday that had past the post first. In most of the superstitious set ups at Sha Tin, it’s the sort of streak that would have you banished from leading anything other than one you wanted to get beaten or dropped in grade.
After Gibson told us Lucky’s take of woe, this hack quipped that poor old “Lucky” wouldn’t ever be going near Akeed Mofeed. But come Sunday, who was leading the odds-on shot around the parade ring? Lucky - with Gibson determined the kid would get his winner, superstition be damned.
Even if he is proving to have the winning touch with horses, early this week Gibson gets another test of his human skills – and of Hong Kong racing’s politics – when he announces who will ride Akeed Mofeed.
Douglas Whyte replaced the suspended Olivier Doleuze, who handles most of Gibson’s top runners, on Akeed Mofeed last start. Does he go with the 12-time champion and last-start winner Whyte, risk denting the confidence of Doleuze and end up being perceived as ruthless by outsiders?
The decision may have already been made, but it will have been handled with care – using the same people skills and patience that will propel Gibson into the top echelon of trainers here.