While much of the focus has been on the jockeys’ championship, there is much more at stake at the bottom of the trainers’ table as the “Conghua era” threatens to further expose the gap between the haves and have nots.
There is no prize money on the line in the battle between Zac Purton and Joao Moreira for the jockeys’ title, just pride and prestige, yet careers are on the line for struggling trainers Derek Cruz and Almond Lee.
Hong Kong is unique in that trainers at the bottom of the championship are subject to performance criteria, a three strikes and you’re out system that requires stables to reach a minimum benchmark of wins each term.
Both Cruz and Lee need 16 wins to avoid a third strike, and the clock is ticking with seven meetings to go in 2017-18.
The situation looks dire for Cruz and it would seem the popular horseman needs a minor miracle to avoid losing his license to train next season.
The 63-year-old needs seven winners from as many meetings to reach the benchmark and that seems incredibly unlikely with just 22 horses on his books.
Cruz is only eligible for two more seasons before an age-enforced retirement and has already notified the Jockey Club he will retire if he does not reach 16 by season’s end.
That has opened the door for the tentative appointment of Jimmy Ting Khoon-ho as Cruz’s replacement – even if it doesn’t give the new trainer much time to manoeuvre when it comes to recruiting owners for his first season.
Danny Shum Chap-shing’s long time assistant did not know he was getting a call up until after last week’s dramatic licensing committee meeting and will probably be starting from scratch, on very short notice, on July 16.
Given the dearth of trainers and the tricky situation Ting finds himself in, could the licensing committee lend a sympathetic ear to Lee even if he fails to hit the benchmark?
To Lee’s credit, he hasn’t stopped trying once he has reached the minimum win mark over the past few seasons, a trick some struggling trainers in the past were suspected of pulling.
The theory goes that a perennial underachiever is better off “saving wins” for next term once the benchmark is reached and survival secured.
What might be concerning for the Jockey Club is the long tail that is developing in the lower ranks, a gap that could stretch even further next season.
David Hall’s victory with Mr Lumieres helped him to 16 and Michael Chang Chun-wai’s success with Presidentparamount boosted his chances of avoiding a first strike, leaving him just two short.
Chang’s Olympic Stables neighbour Michael Freedman also had a much-needed victory with Lightning Speed, taking him to 13, although surely the licensing committee will not slug the first season trainer with a strike.
As if it isn’t hard enough for the battlers at the bottom, now nine higher-ranked trainers will be given a significant boost with 10 extra horses and first crack at the brand new training facility at Conghua.
Eventually all trainers will operate out of Conghua, situated just outside Guangzhou, but nine trainers will get a one-year head start.
It’s not so much the state-of-the-art centre that will provide an edge, as the “Conghua nine” will have to work through the logistics of how best to utilise the facilities.
However, having 10 extra horses for a full season could create a momentum that takes the top group further away from the field.