Triple-Blow Couldn’t Stop Yiu’s World Racing Voyage

Ricky Yiu has helped change old prejudices in Hong Kong with his achievements at home and abroad, but not before three stars slipped through the champion trainer’s hands.

Triple-Blow Couldn’t Stop Yiu’s World Racing Voyage

Ricky Yiu has helped change old prejudices in Hong Kong with his achievements at home and abroad, but not before three stars slipped through the champion trainer’s hands.

RICKY YIU KNOWS AS WELL AS ANYONE the ups and downs of training racehorses in Hong Kong. He is a champion trainer there with more than 1000 wins, he has trained the world champion sprinter Sacred Kingdom, as well as other overseas Group 1 winners Ultra Fantasy and Amber Sky; and he has a Hong Kong Derby winner in Voyage Bubble.

But then there are the three that got away.

In the early years of this century Yiu fell foul of a common Hong Kong phenomenon: when a local Chinese trainer got a really good horse, chances are he would lose it to a trainer with a higher profile, often an expatriate. Francis Lui lost Ambitious Dragon before he became a champion; Yiu lost Fairy King Prawn, Electronic Unicorn, and Bullish Luck. 

He prepared all three for their racecourse debuts. He trained them with patience and developed them as athletes destined for the top. But Fairy King Prawn was taken away to Ivan Allan, Electronic Unicorn was handed to John Size, and Bullish Luck was removed to Tony Cruz.

“It was very disappointing, of course,” Yiu says, recalling the day in the spring of 2000 when the first of those, Fairy King Prawn, was taken away from his Sha Tin stable.

“It was worse when I saw Fairy King Prawn’s groom, she burst into tears,” he adds. “Hong Kong racing was a bit different back then…top horses moving to an expat trainer’s yard wasn’t rare. As the leader of the stable, the only thing I could do was to pull myself together asap and guide my team out of the dark.”

This was after Yiu and his team had prepared the son of Danehill through 14 races for six wins and six seconds; and the horse had won the Hong Kong Sprint for Yiu just a few months earlier.

Hong Kong champion Fairy King Prawn
FAIRY KING PRAWN / Chairman’s Sprint Prize // Sha Tin /// 2001 //// Photo by HKJC

To rub salt into the wounds, less than three months after Allan took delivery of Fairy King Prawn, the horse went to Japan for the Yasuda Kinen and made history as Hong Kong’s first winner of an important overseas race.

A quarter of a century later, the good-humoured Yiu is long since over it.

“Losing the opportunity to achieve more with Fairy King Prawn was not so much a pity, but I do have a regret in my mind,” he said. “It was one morning after a gallop, Steven King, my retained jockey, came to me. He said we had got a new ‘super-car’ in the stable and suggested that I ride Fairy King Prawn in the morning.

“I thought I’d have plenty of time so there was no rush to do that and time passed. Who’d think the horse would leave my stable after winning the Hong Kong Sprint? Because I didn’t take that opportunity to ride Fairy King Prawn, a few years later, when Sacred Kingdom arrived in my stable, I was almost the first one to have a ‘test-drive’ on him. I’m telling you, champions are champions, they are just exceptional.”

Yiu has a well-deserved reputation as an excellent judge of an unraced horse. At the 1997 Inglis Easter Sale, Hong Kong owner Philip Lau Sak-hong gave him a budget of AUS$400,000, to try to buy a son of the super-sire Danehill. He got one for AU$180,000.

“I found a few Danehill colts interesting in the sale but they were just out of my budget,” Yiu recalls. “Fairy King Prawn was one of the last 20-30 lots of the day. He was a big, beautiful horse with nice stride and good coordination, he was the kind of horse that gives people that ‘feeling.’

“We believed he was not gonna be sold cheap, but perhaps because his colour was not the typical bay of a good Danehill, he was more on the brown side of bay, and because many buyers had got what they needed and had left, he was sold at quite a low price.”

Hong Kong horse trainer Ricky Yiu

Fairy King Prawn’s preparation for a career in Hong Kong was not straightforward. He had minor leg issues that required patience, and he was not an easy type to deal with either.

“Griffin races used to start in November back then but Fairy King Prawn’s debut was postponed to March. Many thought it was his leg problem dragging him back but actually it was the barrier trial. The horse made a U-turn at the jump and was required by the stipe to pass multiple trials before entering a race. It took him seven trials to get a green light.”

When the green light came, the gelding didn’t look back.

Within the first 12 months Fairy King Prawn had seven runs for four wins and two seconds. Then came a big test, the May 1999 running of the Chairman’s Sprint Prize. Yiu told the owner: “We’ve beaten some good horses before, but this race is different, they are champions. If your horse manages to win, he must be a freak!”

Fairy King Prawn defeated no less than Oriental Express and Holy Grail, the 1998 and 1999 Hong Kong Derby winners, receiving only 1lb. Three defeats followed but he ended the year with his victory in the inaugural Hong Kong Sprint.

Fairy King Prawn’s loss to Allan was Yiu’s first blow. The second was Electronic Unicorn, who, to be fair, was sourced by John Moore for US$200,000 at Keeneland in September 1997 before going to Yiu to learn how to be a race horse. The gelding won four from 19 and was then moved to John Size, becoming champion miler.

The third loss, Bullish Luck, was another bred in the US. He won one from seven in his debut season for Yiu as he learned his trade. But owner Wong Wing Keung gave him to the Cruz stable and the gelding proved to be a star. His big race wins included the Yasuda Kinen in Japan, but even more famously before that, in the 2005 Champions Mile, he was the horse that ended the unbeaten streak of his stablemate Silent Witness.

John Size and Electronic Unicorn
ELECTRONIC UNICORN, JOHN SIZE / Sha Tin // 2001 /// Photo by K.Y. Cheng

Yiu was a classmate of Cruz in the very first intake of students at the Hong Kong Apprentice School in 1972.

He had no background in racing: his father was a policeman. But he was late maturing and at age 15 he was 85lbs and only 5 ft in height. He loved dogs and cats, loved animals and sports. When 16 kids were selected from 500-plus to join the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club’s new training school, Yiu was one of them.

He had to go with his parents to the interviews where club officials predicted his future height and weight. “They even checked my palms and feet,” Yiu laughs.

He rode as an apprentice to Jack Gosling and continued into the 1980s. He was then a work-rider and assistant trainer to Gordon Smyth, and assistant to Jeff Lane, and Eddie Lo Kwok-chau before gaining his own licence in 1995.

He made a fair start but after 10 years circumstances turned and the winners dried up. At the end of the 2005-2006 season he failed to make the minimum benchmark number of wins and was given a warning, the first of a possible three strikes that could lead to withdrawal of a trainer’s licence.

“I had only ten winners in that season,” he says, unruffled at the memory. “To be honest, I could have avoided the letter if I gave a few young horses a push in the summer but I didn’t. I reflected and spotted out some problems with myself and my stable. I believed my stable would come back as long as I focused on the right things.”

Most people think of Sacred Kingdom as the stable’s saviour, but Yiu sees Flying Bishop as the one that laid the foundation.

“Flying Bishop was a good bargain. I only spent AUS$60,000 to buy him,” he recalls. “When I returned the remaining budget to the owner, the boss really hesitated and doubted if we had bought the right one.

“In September 2006, Flying Bishop won three races for me within four weeks. It did boost the morale and confidence of the stable a lot.”

A few months later, Sacred Kingdom stepped out for the first time and won the first of his seventeen-race haul that would include the Hong Kong Sprint and the International Sprint in Singapore.

Champion sprinter Sacred Kingdom
SACRED KINGDOM / Sha Tin // Photo by Kenneth Chan

He even took Yiu to Royal Ascot, and although he ran a below-par fifth, it was a big step for the trainer.

“The owner (Sin Kang-yuk) is a good friend of mine so it was special to train a champion for a friend,” he says.

“Sacred Kingdom could have gone further in the international arena, he is better than what we saw in Royal Ascot in 2009. We were sent to a quarantine and training centre located to the west of London. The track was massive and the scenery was beautiful but the thing is, it was way too big.

“Sacred Kingdom was the only horse there for weeks and he was feeling very bored and lonely. Perhaps that was part of the reason why he did not fire on the big day.”

A year later, the Sprinters Stakes at Nakayama was earmarked as his big overseas target.

“We planned to send him to Japan, with stablemate Ultra Fantasy as company, the next year after England but we had to call it off as Sacred Kingdom had colic not long before the boarding time,” Yiu says of the fateful occurrence that shaped history.

“It was fortunate that it happened when it did: not too late and not too early. If he was sick a few weeks earlier, Ultra Fantasy might have been scratched as well. We would have lost the opportunity to write the history of winning it as a local team.”

That 2010 Sprinters Stakes was the first time a Hong Kong horse trained by a Chinese Hong Kong trainer and teamed with a local jockey, Alex Lai, won an overseas race.

Ultra Fantasy wins the 2010 Sprinters Stakes
ULTRA FANTASY / G1 Sprinters Stakes // Nakayama /// 2010 //// Photo by JRA

Yiu, with his astute buys and training successes taking Hong Kong raiders overseas, has been a leading figure in the rise of locally-born trainers in Hong Kong since the mid-2000s. 

Dennis Yip rocked the boat when he was crowned champion in 2013, then Yiu defied expectations and was champion trainer in 2020. Frankie Lor confirmed the move away from expat trainer dominance when he was crowned champion in 2022.

“It’s not up to the trainer to fight for the championship or not: you have to have some luck during the season,” Yiu says with matter-of-fact modesty. “Your horses, especially the young ones, will tell you, around March or April, whether the stable is strong enough to go for it or not.

“I’d say there is never much between expat trainers and local trainers regarding their ability to train horses. We all train in the same track every day and we run the same horses at the same racecourses every week, it is easy to observe and learn from each other.

“What really matters is the quality of young horses and how trainers plan to renew the young blood. I am glad that Chinese trainers are getting more recognition from owners in recent years and I believe we will be as competitive in future.”

Few would bet against that. The days of the best local trainers playing second best to the big-name expats look like they’re over.

Voyage Bubble wins the Hong Kong Derby
VOYAGE BUBBLE / Hong Kong Derby // Sha Tin /// 2023 //// Photo by HKJC

And with Voyage Bubble’s Hong Kong Derby win in 2023, which was followed by a 2024 G1 Stewards’ Cup win and a narrow second to Romantic Warrior in the Hong Kong Gold Cup, Yiu showed yet again that he has the eyes to spot a good young horse, the patience to progress them through the grades and the knowhow to prepare them for the top races. 

“It is satisfying to select a horse, then  develop them from the start like that,” Yiu said. “And it is even better that I get to enjoy the big race wins with him. Hopefully the best is yet to come.” 

Roy Li is a Reporter at Idol Horse. A young veteran of the Hong Kong racing scene with Oriental Daily and then the HKJC SpeedPower team, Roy subsequently took on a jockey liaison role within the HKJC, managing early bookings for expatriate riders.

View all articles by Roy Li.

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