Often emulated, but rarely bettered, master horseman John Size will start the 2022-23 season standing alone with 12 trainers’ championships and has reshaped an entire jurisdiction’s training methods.
When the lean new trainer strolled on to the Sha Tin course proper during the 2001 pre-season, aged 47, wearing his gumboots and wide-brimmed Australian ‘bushie’ hat, his new rivals did not know what to make of him; he was not only unique in style and manner, he trained horses differently.
Just how different the bloke in the hat was soon became apparent. It wasn’t just his laconic manner and ‘practical’ fashion sense: he didn’t seem interested in having a runner and four meetings went by without one. It was the first sign of his defining characteristic: patience. Just as he had when he shook up Sydney in the 1990s, Size showed a rare talent for improving older horses. In Hong Kong, he started slow, just as he has in every season since, but soon enough every owner in town wanted Size to train their older and out-of-form horses, too.
As Size surged to a title in his first season – the first of three in a row – the former champion trainer Ivan Allan was determined to know his new rival’s secret. Hong Kong is a controlled environment where everybody can see what everybody else is doing, all trainers use the same facilities and club-appointed vets tend to the horses. Despite the heavily regulated system, Allan was obsessed with the idea that Size ‘had an edge’.
The story goes that Allan hid in some bushes along the backstretch to spy on Size as he rode his horses through their morning gallops.
Allan fell asleep waiting for a rogue act that never came. Perhaps Allan was bored to sleep by Size’s style: his horses’ ‘fast’ work is closer to a three-quarter pace than the intense fast work most Hong Kong trainers were employing at the time. Years later when Size took his top miler Glorious Days to Japan for the Yasuda Kinen, a local journalist asked ‘What is wrong with your horse?” after watching the horse amble through its final workout. That was just Size’s style: no fuss, as a person and trainer.
As leading jockey Zac Purton said of Size, “It is one thing to know how John Size trains, but to have the patience to do it is another matter altogether.”
Another of Size’s trademarks is swimming horses, for longer and faster and more often than other trainers, even on race day. Before Size the Sydney and Sha Tin pools were underused, after him they needed full-time attendants. Then there are the barrier trials, and lots of them, before races and in-between, working through problems before the big day.
“John Size has been a complete game changer for Hong Kong racing,” Hong Kong Jockey Club CEO WInfried Engelbrecht-Bresges told Asian Racing Report after presenting Size with his 12th trainers’ championship trophy, a title that moved him one ahead of the late great George Moore. “He has lifted the standard and changed the way people train here. He has had an incredible influence.”
Size has won the championship in 12 of the 22 seasons he has trained in Hong Kong. There is an argument to say he should be credited for 13 titles given he finished level with Caspar Fownes in 2013-14 and lost on countbacks after the rule was changed from dual-winners being credited (one of John Moore’s five championships is for finishing level with David Hill). On the upcoming Asian Racing Report podcast Andrew Le Jeune and I discuss who will win this season’s trainer’s championship and it is a testament to Size’s consistent brilliance that the conversation must always start with him.
Can he do it again? The handicap system means repeating as champion is tough in Hong Kong, the cyclical nature of horses rising high in the ratings means that there is a price to pay for success. Not that it has stopped Size, who won four straight titles from 2015-16 to 2018-19. Size has mastered the art of replenishing his stable, especially with the increased numbers that the mainland training centre in Guandong allows, and as of this week 24 of his 65 horses in his stable are unraced, equal third most of any trainer.
Helping Size this season is what seems like a new ‘unofficial’ handicapping policy: that horses are to receive a maximum 12 points after wins. If that sticks, no trainer will benefit more than Size, who wins his titles by bringing unraced horses (Private Purchase Griffins, the so-called ‘PPGs’) through the classes from a rating of 52 – where all unraced horses start – to triple figures. Size’s ability to attract the best PPGs, many via ace bloodstock agent David Price, and deploy that trademark patience, means his wins come in threes and fours as horses string together consecutive successes.
If a cap is kept on those ratings increases and horses aren’t lumbered with 14-plus-point hikes as they have in the past, and treated more kindly as a rule, Size should win even more races, and that is bad news for his rivals. Those rivals now replicate Size’s style and include notable proteges like Frankie Lor – who beat his former boss to the title in 2022 and was second last term – and second-year standout Pierre Ng.
The wide-brimmed bushman hat may have not caught on at Sha Tin, but the rest of Size’s style did, and Hong Kong racing is better for it.
Author: Michael Cox from the Asian Racing Report
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