[A version of this feature appeared in the 2018 Goffs magazine: PHOTOS David Morgan].
A Panama hat mismatched with orange-trimmed blue running shoes is hardly a classic look. But it’s prudent to go with what works when showing horses beneath a searing sub-tropical sun, when the midday mercury is pushing close to 35 °C. Mark Richards has been in Hong Kong long enough to know that going with the unconventional is often the best approach in these parts.
A rumpled sky blue polo shirt, faded navy-coloured shorts and sunglasses wedged against the hat band complete the look. He holds a sale catalogue, a handy thing to have when presenting auction-bound stock to inquisitive journalists. Good, too, for when a powerful Charge Forward gelding lives up to its sire’s name and tries to bully a groom through one of Sha Tin Racecourse’s unbending running rails. Richards holds the book above his head and approaches: “Woah, da baba,” he says. The unraced three-year-old acquiesces.
The catalogue trick is not needed for a tidy bay gelding, listed as Lot 7 at the June Hong Kong International Sale for which the baking hot media event has been staged at a point close to the top of the track’s five-furlong chute. Richards, the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s (HKJC) Executive Manager, International Sale, purchased the son of Camacho for €100,000 at the Goffs Orby Sale in 2016.
The former jump jockey has been in his current role for eight years and is a familiar face around the world’s auction houses. His remit, along with HKJC consultant Nick Columb and their team, is to buy untried “Hong Kong types” for resale to Hong Kong owners at the Club’s own auctions – conceptually, a not-for-profit form of pinhooking.
The March, 2018 Hong Kong International Sale sold 26 lots for HK$135.3 million, (€13.9 million) at an average of HK$5.2 million (€536,756). The top lot, a Holy Roman Emperor half-brother to Wings Of Eagles, fetched HK$11 million (€1.1 million), which was a fine return on the €130,000 he cost at Arqana in August, 2016. But Richards says the auction is a service to Hong Kong’s owners – all of whom must be HKJC members – rather than a money-making enterprise.
“We’re about buying the best horses for our owners, it’s not about turning a big profit in our sale ring,” he says.
“Obviously, there is a lot of investment from the Club’s side when you consider what we pay initially and factor in the cost of things like pre-training and shipping, but the money they make at the Hong Kong Sales is a secondary consideration.”
With that in mind, the Club earlier this year dipped deeper into its coffers than ever before, venturing above the middle-market to secure a couple of seven-figure buys. That was at the Inglis Australian Easter Yearling Sale. Richards says the Club is always reassessing its place in the market.
“We weren’t getting our first buying choices very often, so we’ve been given a slightly changed budget that we hope will help us,” he explains. “The home market is strong and we feel we need to give the owners access to individuals that match up to the prices they’ve been prepared to pay at our Sale.”
Richards and Columb must work within tighter parameters than the average agent, trainer, pinhooker or racing manager. A Hong Kong profile is everything.
“It’s a big horse,” Richards says. “Over the scales more than in height, about 1100 pounds or so when they’re ready to race but nothing less than 15 ‘3.”
There are certain specifics he does and does not want to see. Typically, he’s after a horse with a loose, fluid walk that covers ground: “A-framed quarters” are out; good width across the hip “suggests speed,” he says. And while indefinable “presence” is important, it is not the be-all.
“They must be a well-balanced athlete with a powerful back end; good gaskin, too, is particularly significant for a Hong Kong horse that has to be able to deal with racing at speed on firm tracks. Most northern hemisphere sprinters have no problem stretching out to a mile in Hong Kong and that’s what we want,” he adds.
Sprinter-milers are Hong Kong’s bread and butter. Of the 807 races calendared at Sha Tin and Happy Valley in the 2017/18 season, 618 were between six furlongs and a mile; 81 were over five furlongs; 69 at nine furlongs and only 36 were staged at 10 or 11 furlongs. The circuit has just three mile-and-a-half races, a Group 3 handicap and two Group 1 contests, notably the end-of-year Hong Kong Vase.
“We don’t have the luxury of running a horse over two miles if it turns out to be slow, and we don’t get soft ground. It’s a much more precise end market that we’re buying for and therefore we have to cross out as many of the complications as possible,” he says.
Richards has noticed, though, that Hong Kong’s reputation as an arena for speed has led to a misconception. “People are under the illusion that we’re looking for sharp two-year-old types and we’re not,” he says. “We’re actually more drawn to a late foal that has the potential to fill its frame.”
Youngsters by what are deemed “Hong Kong sires” are most desired. Holy Roman Emperor is a classic example: while the Coolmore stallion has struggled generally to make his mark, his niche in Hong Kong is well-established thanks to Horse of the Year Designs On Rome and fellow Group 1 winners Beauty Only and Rich Tapestry. By contrast, the incredible Galileo is practically worthless with a 6.5% win strike rate in the lower grades from his 15 Hong Kong-trained starters – overseas raiders such as two-time Vase winner Highland Reel are excluded from those figures.
“We’re always very aware of how certain sires perform within the Hong Kong environment,” Richards says. “When we get hold of a catalogue, we start by putting down our ‘A-List’ sires – Kodiac, Dark Angel, Invincible Spirit, Acclamation, Exceed And Excel, Holy Roman Emperor – all the obvious speed influences and sires that have proven themselves in Hong Kong.”
He notes that first-season and unproven sires are not desirable, but there are exceptions, such as that first ever Hong Kong-bound Camacho from Goffs and a Noble Mission picked out of the Arqana Breeze-Up in May.
“They were both good individuals and I’m very respectful of what Juddmonte has done. And if Frankel’s such a superstar at the start of his stallion career, Noble Mission, as his brother, has to have a better than average chance of being a success. We’ll take a chance on exceptions like that,” he says.
When Richards and Columb arrive at a sale, they view all of the colts whose pages fit the bill, add any more that look the part, and then meet with their advance scouts, the “short-listers”.
“We put our heads together and see what’s missing, see where we can build on our first list – because often the short-listers will flag up individuals by sires we wouldn’t have had down to look at. We talk about it and draw up a list of second looks. That is when we start the vetting process.”
Vetting for Hong Kong is stringent and every Sha Tin trainer has a tale of how a good one got away. Richards is no different.
“That’s the worst time,” he says. “It is what it is – we miss so many successful horses but that’s not to say they would have been had we brought them to Hong Kong. Our vetting protocols are in place to try and ensure we bring in horses that do not develop problems quickly – durability is important.”
He observes that the win strike rates of Hong Kong International Sale graduates in the past two years are 71% and 67%: “This year we’re only 35%, of what sold last year, but it’s judged on a three-year basis, we give horses the time.”
Since 2010, HKJC has bought 23 horses at Goffs Orby, which has proven to be a source of winners out east. Among the youngest of that bunch to have raced are two bought at the Orby Sale in 2015, this year’s Sha Tin 1600m winner Smart Charade and the thrice raced maiden Impeccable Fellow. That sale will be on Richards’ agenda as usual this autumn, but this year he has also branched into new markets, buying yearlings for the first time in South Africa and Argentina as he seeks the next Pakistan Star, the Hong Kong International Sale’s latest pin-up boy since breaking through for two Group 1 wins in the spring.
Last year, when visiting Ireland, Richards had a rare opportunity to cast his eyes on Coolmore’s impressive stallion band. “Being in Hong Kong, I don’t get to see many stallions and it’s very hard for me to make judgement on stallions that I’ve never seen in the flesh,” he says. One young sire caught his eye and he is hoping to snare one or two of his progeny when the time is right.
Tight lips, upturned in boyish glee, would not impart the stallion’s name: “An impressive great thing with a huge set of quarters,” he lets slip, before adding the all-important: “He looks like a Hong Kong horse.”