On The Rails

Hong Kong system is a forgiving one

With 83 meetings per season, raising of the trainers' benchmarks to a more reasonable level could hardly be cause for complaint

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 May, 2013, 3:58am

The reforming of the trainers' performance criteria was overdue but there is a view abroad that perhaps it is too simple and doesn't go far enough.

Considering the Jockey Club went from a season capped at 78 meetings to a season capped at 83 meetings four years ago, it might have been expected the adjustment would have come then. Better late than never.

The benchmarks were introduced in mid-1999, when the following season contained 658 races and every trainer's requirements were for 12 wins and HK$6 million in stakes.

There was some tweaking over the ensuing years, clauses relating to prize money and win percentages came and went, and a trainer in 2011-12 season needed only 13 wins to get a pass - 13 from 769 races - so he was better placed than when the criteria were introduced.

Have the benchmark criteria done what was intended with their introduction? Probably not, on face value, although they have caused some turnover in the participants which could not be tied directly to them.

Technically, the only trainer to have failed under the system and to have been thus refused a licence was David Hill in 2005, after a third failure to meet the measuring stick.

The first to go in June 2001 - trainers Chris Cheung Ting-pong, Bruce Hutchison and Wylie Wong Wai-lit - had their licences pulled even though they had not failed three times. That would have been impossible, since the benchmarks had been introduced only two years earlier, but the Jockey Club's line was a retrospective judgment that each had failed frequently to meet the benchmarks during the course of his career.

In 2003, Peter Chapple-Hyam had failed to meet the criteria for a third time but was never refused a licence - he chose to withdraw his application and return to England - and others have taken a similar path, forfeiting their licences for alternative reasons rather than go through the process.

And the Hong Kong system is a particularly forgiving one for trainers, in any case.

It is a handicap system in every respect - as we shall see in the remaining meetings when it is usually the case that the leading trainers up till now find themselves handicapped, with winners harder to come by. They will have horses in their yards which have climbed the ladder with two, three or four wins during the season, maybe more, and which will now be finding the company they keep a touch strong, the air too rarefied.

Those trainers battling to meet the criteria, on the other hand, have yards filled with horses which have not performed, for various reasons, and many have steadily fallen down the ratings. That built-in safety net will often lead to a struggling trainer or two running on strongly late in the season, achieving their benchmarks against the odds, as if by magic.

So the raising of the benchmarks to a more reasonable level could hardly be cause for complaint, and some believe that a flat 15 wins across the board has only been a job half done and that the expat trainers should be looking at a different set of criteria.

The rationale behind this is straight forward - most of the foreign trainers come to Hong Kong as champions in their own backyards or at the least, very competitive at home and winners of significant races under their own names. They come with a wealth of experience and achievement that is not available to the local trainers until the locals become trainers here.

The local trainers may have significant experience under some good mentors, both overseas and here, but they are not burdened with the decision-making processes as assistants. That responsibility, on which any yard rises and falls (no matter how many stories you've heard about how such and such wouldn't train a winner but for his assistant), is ultimately that of the trainer whose name is in the book. A responsibility that comes easily to expat trainers who have been there and done that under their own names for years, probably built up and got used to it with smaller strings in their early days.

Meanwhile the newly promoted assistant trainer has to get his head around being in charge of his staff for the first time, as well as directing the training of the horses and trying to fill his boxes, and there is no soft opening with a handful of runners while he gets the hang of it.

Anyone can have a bad year - it's hard to believe now and was at the time, but Ricky Yiu Poon-fai trained only 10 winners in 2005-06, yet he has been one of our better trainers either side of that period, and there are myriad other examples - so the three strikes policy is a sensible one, allowing rectification of the reasons behind an uncharacteristically poor season.

But if the club is serious about its standards and it has seemed to be for some time past, in a situation with limited space and opportunity, then the benchmark criteria are necessary and possibly they should reflect the two speeds within the training personnel more accurately.

The compulsory retirement age cannot help but push out some trainers who would be regarded as at the peak of their powers in other jurisdictions, so the club's policies need to be just as rigid and demanding in other areas.