More than meets the eye with stampede of stable transfers
When a horse transfers from one stable to another, it can sometimes prove embarrassing for the former trainer
As far as a metaphorical kick in the guts goes for a horse trainer, they don’t come much more painful than a departed stable transfer improving out of sight for a new handler. When a horse “improves” for a new yard, the rather simplistic public perception has the new trainer down as “better” – or at the very least luckier – than the last, and reputations are adjusted accordingly.
In the close quarters of Sha Tin, where the same horses race against each other week-in and week-out, are stabled in the same buildings and trained on exactly the same tracks, it’s easy to fall into making a like-for-like comparison between two trainers on each end of a transfer.
Hong Kong owners have a ruthless reputation for moving horses: John Yuen Se-kit famously transferred Good Ba Ba – then the highest rated miler in the world and a six-time Group One winner – from trainer Andreas Schutz, reportedly on the advice of a feng shui expert.
It was one of eight times the champion was moved in 46 starts – and that’s before his ill-advised “post retirement” career in Macau and Australia. And even though owners get a bad rap here, it should be added that there are probably a few scurrilous trainers lurking in the owners’ bar who just happen to have transfer papers in their back pockets, ready to sign.
On Wednesday night at Happy Valley, Manfred Man Ka-leung threw in a few extra fist-pumps when he won a Class Two handicap with Tai Sing Yeh. Man purchased the horse as a yearling and won five races with the speedy Valley specialist, before the horse was transferred twice, spending two winless seasons at rival yards before eventually scoring on his first start back with his original handler.
Usually there is a certain etiquette when it comes to speaking to the media after winning with a transfer: you don’t dump on the former trainer, even if the obligatory “He came here in good health and the other bloke did a good job” quotes need to be delivered while smiling like a split watermelon and with a barely controllable giggle.
In between his celebratory fist-pumps and high-fiving random passers-by, it became clear that Man isn’t down with the code, or he just doesn’t care, delivering this missive to Tony Millard and Richard Gibson via SCMP Racing Post: “They pushed him too hard, he is only a skinny horse, but I know him and I don’t give him so much pressure,” he said, modestly, before pumping his fist again.
The first race featured an Andy Leung Ting-wah Class Five stable quinella of sorts – that is, two horses formerly trained by the retired Leung filled the first two placings – Telecom Top Star and Friends of Yan Oi, now trained by Francis Lui Kin-wai and Benno Yung Tin-pang, respectively.
It’s sad for Leung, because no one was better at getting them into Class Five and now others get the glory for getting them back out of the basement again, capitalising on the former trainer’s creativity.
In fact both of Lui’s running double to start the meeting were off-season stable transfers – the second winner being Supreme Tycoon, formerly in the care of the retired Peter Ng Bik-kuen.
Lui knows a thing or two about stable transfers, and not just because four of his seven individual winners this season were formerly trained by Leung or Ng. Unfortunately for Lui, his greatest claim to fame might be that he was the original trainer of a handy type named Ambitious Dragon – placed in two of four during his first season.
After a move to Millard, you could say the Dragon went on with things: two champion horse crowns, six Group Ones and more than HK$55 million in prize money. Does that make Millard a better trainer than Lui? Maybe he is, maybe not.
What’s simplistic about the perception is that an improved performance for a new stable is not necessarily indicative of training ability; of course sometimes it is, but it needs to be put in context.
Ambitious Dragon was clearly a more physically mature animal at four than three, and many stable transfers are made after a frustrating period of “acclimatisation” and a corresponding drop in the ratings.
Two such horses gave Dennis Yip Chor-hong crucial late-season victories in his historic title charge last term: Cheers Joy came from “the master” John Size and won first up, as did the former David Hall-trained Jack’s Gem.
Does that make Yip a better trainer than Size or Hall? Truth is, Yip may not have had to do anything different – Cheers Joy had dropped a massive 34 points in the ratings, and it is likely he won’t be reaching the 90s again, while Jack’s Gem had dropped 22 points over the course of one season.
Of course, Hall was also the beneficiary of the most notable stable transfer of last term. Solar Great nearly took out most improved horse of the season in 2012-13, his progression from Class Four to triple figures and Group racing providing a blow to Almond Lee and a boost to Hall.
It wasn’t the first time Hall was on the positive end of a stable move. The best horse he has trained in Hong Kong, Absolute Champion, also came from Lee, and that wasn’t the first time a top horse made a mid-career move.
Ricky Yiu Poon-fai has copped the rough end of the pineapple on three notable occasions with Electronic Unicorn (Size), Bullish Luck (Tony Cruz) and Fairy King Prawn (already a Group One winner and then getting even better with the late Ivan Allan). The best David Ferraris has had, Vengeance Of Rain, was a transfer before his first local start.
That sort of post-transfer improvement can have a flow-on effect as other disgruntled owners move their horses, as Lee is finding out after Solar Great’s success.
Invariably more of the transfers win, and the trickle of departures can turn into a tsunami, or as David Ferraris so colourfully put it a couple of seasons back: “The stampede of horses from your yard in Hong Kong when things aren’t going as well as everyone would like, well, it makes the wildebeests charging across the Serengeti look tame.”