Freshman trainers engaged in their own end-of-season battle
Who has had a better season out of Hong Kong’s two rookie trainers?
At first glance most would say Chris So Wai-yin, as he has seven more winners than Benno Yung Tin-pang – 39 to 32 – but this mini mid-table battle does have a touch of tortoise-versus-hare about it and Yung is closing fast.
Comparing the pair provides a fascinating study of how both trainers have been equally effective in their own way, and how their styles seem to reflect that of their former bosses.
So most recently learned his trade as an assistant to Caspar Fownes, while Yung is a John Size disciple. While it is close between Fownes and Size at the top of the table, it could end up very close between their former students by the end of the season, yet they have taken very different paths to get there.
So arrived with a bang. Many queried how full his stable was with lower grade hand-me-downs, but he threw numbers at races early and came up with results. There’s something to be said in Hong Kong for getting a name as someone with “luck” – success begets success and So put his name in lights.
The way he did it was very Fownes, with shrewd race placement, and knowing when to have a horse “screwed down” for the day.
Yung, meanwhile, took the slow and steady approach – just as Size did when he started his dynasty in 2002.
Yung didn’t have a winner until the 12th meeting while So already had five, but he had only sent 26 horses to the races compared to So’s 41.
When Backbench Blues broke Yung’s duck on October 20 at Happy Valley, he was determined to stay true to the principles and processes Size had taught him, but he also admitted the reality of the situation – he was being judged and compared to So’s early success.
“Of course, people are going to compare us as we started on the same day,” he said at the time. “I noticed Chris winning, but I was taking my time. I work to the same theory as John. A lot of these transfer horses can have health problems and you just have to let them get better.”
After 21 meetings, Yung still only had one winner from 71 starters and the lowest strike-rate of any trainer with an anaemic 1.4 per cent. It was becoming a real test of nerves.
Meanwhile, So was riding high in seventh with 11 winners and the second best strike-rate, behind only runaway leader Size.
The limited horse population and strictly handicapped environment means Hong Kong racing has a cyclical nature, and there can be a severe price to be paid for a run of success – just ask last year’s champion trainer Dennis Yip Chor-hong. Wins come at a cost as horses rise in the ratings, which So is now finding out.
Halfway through the term, So was still riding high with 25 winners from 42 meetings, trailing only Size and John Moore, but Yung was beginning to make his move. He had climbed to 15 wins and past the performance benchmark.
Since then So’s horses have hit a handicapping wall and the success has dried up – he has had 14 wins since then and endured a terrible run.
So has won just once in his last 60 starts and has had two wins in the past two months, while Yung is on a roll. His double on Sunday took him to 32 wins and right to the edge of the top 10.
Still, So has had a tremendous season and was still in the top five until Sunday – the early flurry allowed him freedom and confidence to chase new horses and he will begin next season with some crucial Private Purchase Griffins. He did particularly well out of the most recent Hong Kong International Sale, receiving three horses to train.
Both are flying high in terms of strike-rates, with both yielding wins at a rate of 11 per cent – equal to Moore and only behind Size, who has a strike rate of 15 per cent.
The careers of So and Yung will always be inextricably linked but as time passes it will become more of a quirky piece of trivia that they started on the same day, and less a point of comparison – just as Fownes, Danny Shum Chap-shing and David Ferraris beginning on the same day is no longer raised a decade after their debut.
What is clear is that two fine horsemen have entered the ranks, well schooled by their former masters, and both look set for long and successful careers.