Leader's bias puts John Moore in box seat for trainers' championship
The Hong Kong racing season is winding down and for many, thoughts turn to the accolades that will be determined come the last meeting on July 12.
Last week, we focused on the race for Horse of the Year, and opinion was split down the middle between Able Friend and Aerovelocity with angry emails and notes strongly advocating one or the other. That will be an arbitrary decision, in the hands of three Jockey Club executives and three Cantonese journalists.
This week, let’s turn to the other big race through the final five meetings, one that’s not so arbitrary – the battle for the trainers’ championship between the two Johns - Moore and Size - and Caspar Fownes.
Wins (after 78 meetings): 61 (first)
Moore is known as Hong Kong’s big-race trainer, the man who has three or four runners in every feature and dominates the Group events like no other.
Incredibly, though, this was not the way it always was; until 10 years ago Moore was far from a big race trainer, with horsemen like Ivan Allan, David Hayes, Patrick Biancone and even Brian Kan Ping-chee more likely to be seen in the winner’s circle after features.
In fact, the eight years from Makarpura Star's Gold Cup in 1996 to Tiber's Classic Mile in 2004 saw a Group One drought for Moore, with only a smattering of Group races in between. He has reinvented himself to the point where he is the Gucci or Prada of horse trainers.
By its very nature, Hong Kong trainers’ championships are rarely won by those who succeed in the big races. As Moore himself puts it, “My stable is very top heavy. There is a lot of class in there, but there aren’t too many opportunities for them throughout the season. Now, all of them are on ice, which puts me at a disadvantage.”
Of course, Able Friend’s six victories are a big contributer, but it is the Class Three and Class Four horses that will carry Moore’s hopes in the final weeks. And the efforts of camera-shy “chaff bandits” like Griffindor and Smart Man are just as crucial, given they are building Moore’s total in an area which is generally not his strength.
Moore says there are a couple of horses he’s yet to unveil that could be critical to his title bid. Looking at the entries for the next two meetings, he will be hoping for wins from debutants like Noble Buddies and Midnight Rattler.
With a three-win lead over Size, he’s already in the box seat. As Size himself says, "The trainers' championship is a race run on a track very much biased towards leaders" - and if Moore's lesser lights fire, he will clinch his seventh championship.
Wins (after 78 meetings): 58 (second)
Size could not be more different to his compatriot, both in terms of style and horse flesh. Size is the quirky, quietly spoken horseman with a reputation for his ability to develop a raw galloper into something special. He rarely stacks features and he has not had the big names Moore has had.
However, anyone who wanted a blueprint on how to win championships would follow Size’s model. He dominates with middle-of-the-line gallopers, getting three or four wins out of Class Four types.
Size’s 58 wins can be broken down into two Group Ones, one Class One, 10 Class Twos, 25 Class Threes, 19 Class Fours and one Class Five.
By contrast, Moore’s 61 wins have involved 15 Group races, two Class Ones, nine Class Twos, 20 Class Threes, 13 Class Fours, one Class Five and one griffin race.
It is Class Three and Class Four that will win it for Size, should he score his eighth title. And luckily for the trainer, it is Class Three and Class Four that dominates the programme at this time of the season.
What might play against Size is his extreme patience. For instance, if a horse like Thewizardofoz was in most stables, he would be running again without a doubt, more than likely taking his rating into triple figures after just four runs. It’s the same with a number of horses who look to be headed higher.
Still, with a number of nice types like Sun Jewellery, So Fast and Amazing Kids all potentially having a win or two left in them before the end of the season, he will be making a late charge at Moore.
Wins (after 78 meetings): 56 (third)
Reigning champion Fownes has also built his stable around winning championships, and to still be in the running for a second consecutive title after a number of his horses reached their mark last year is quite extraordinary.
Fownes looks to have held back a number of his horses for the late season meetings, and he appears to have a number of opportunities across the next two meetings.
Accepted holds the fort on Saturday, while Gun Pit and Vanilla look strong chances in the dirt Class Two over the extended mile at next Wednesday’s day meeting.
Still, his Achilles' heel is that the majority of the remaining 52 races are at Sha Tin.
Of the five meetings remaining, there is only one at Happy Valley, traditionally his stronghold. This season, Fownes has trained 29 winners from 191 runners at Happy Valley at a strike rate of 15.18 per cent. This is not only nearly double his Sha Tin strike rate (8.21 per cent), but also ranks as far superior to Moore (9.52 per cent) and Size (10.24 per cent) at the city track.
So with only nine races at Happy Valley, he’s at a severe disadvantage. His saving grace there may be the Sha Tin all-weather track. There are eight races left on the dirt, where he has a 18.75 per cent strike rate.
Still, though, he’d need to punch above his weight at Sha Tin and then produce a night beyond expectations at Happy Valley on July 8 to have any chance of being in the finish.