Frankie Lor is the shooting star of Hong Kong’s training ranks and on Sunday (17 March) the handler will saddle three leading contenders for the third, final and most coveted leg of the Four-Year-Old Classic Series, the HK$18 million BMW Hong Kong Derby (2000m).
Lor has bagged legs one and two: Furore stalked and sprinted to take the Hong Kong Classic Mile back in January; Mission Tycoon led and kicked to a shock win in last month’s Hong Kong Classic Cup (1800m); each time their high-profile stablemate Dark Dream stayed on with pressing intent.
Many of Hong Kong’s eager racing fans are hoping he can become the first “home grown” trainer to win the Derby since Tony Cruz 11 years ago, and the first ethnically Chinese Hong Konger to take the great race since Brian Kan in 2001.
“Last season I had no Derby runner and this season I have three,” Lor says. I know those three horses have a good chance so now I need some luck!”
Lor’s career already features Group 1 wins in the Hong Kong Sprint and Hong Kong Cup but luck, that slippery catch-all reasoning so often forwarded in Hong Kong racing circles, has had no more than a bit-part role. The circuit’s great local hope is anything but a fast-track sensation.
Hard work and observant patience have underpinned Lor’s way. A former jockey of the journeyman variety, he navigated the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s system for 36 years and was 51 before the Club granted him a licence to train. His first two applications failed.
“I’ve worked for the Club for a long, long time. I’m 53 now!” he says with a warm laugh and familiar grin. “I joined the Club in 1981 as an apprentice jockey and I rode in races until 1995. I didn’t have too much support so I changed to become a trainer’s assistant.”
A life in racing
Lor was raised within earshot of Happy Valley Racecourse, in the Jockey Club quarters on Blue Pool Road. His father was a mafoo – a groom – as is his older brother. But his early racing memories are not of going down the hill to peep over the race track wall as horses raced and the crowd yelled.
“My father needed to work so no one was there to take me down. Racing was always part of my life though,” he said. “On race day, they would turn on the TV and watch the racing. When I saw the jockeys wear the colours, I thought it was fantastic. I thought, ‘One day!’ because at that time I was just small and skinny, so I put in an application form to see if the Jockey Club would take me or not. They took me in 1981.
“I liked the speed!” he says. But, after 27 wins and 14 years in the saddle, he called time. “There were too many jockeys in Hong Kong at that time – local jockeys, apprentices and foreign jockeys – so it was hard to get support.”
So began phase two of Lor’s career in racing. He joined the John Moore stable for a two-season stint as a trainer’s assistant; then came promotion, to assistant trainer, spending one season apiece with Wylie Wong and Gary Ng before seven seasons in the same role with Manfred Man. He returned to the Moore yard as assistant trainer in 2007/08, a position he held for six terms.
“When I got the assistant trainers’ licence I started to think about how later I could try to become a trainer but it took a long time to get there,” he says. “I thought I wasn’t good enough so I needed to learn more. After I was turned down the second time, I needed to change trainer from John Moore to John Size and I worked for him for four seasons.”
He arrived at the stable of the man he still calls “the boss” in 2013. Lor absorbed all he could from the two men who rank in the highest echelon of Hong Kong’s all-time great trainers but it is to Size’s method he leans.
“Both are really good trainers,” he says. “I side a little bit towards Mr. Size’s approach. He takes things step-by-step with each horse, there’s no need to push too hard and then usually the horse is more consistent. I try to have that patience – I still use Mr. Size’s formula first.
“But everyone wants to win big races and Mr. Moore has shown over the years that he prepares horses for the big races, he’s very good at that, so I need to think about how to match together the two approaches.”
Master and pupil
Lor considers Size a friend as much as a boss. There is clearly comradeship as well as respect between former pupil and master.
“He’s a very good man and usually he will not get angry: If you make a mistake, he says ‘ok, you know for next time’ so he’s very good for the staff,” Lor relates.
“He always said you cannot push the horses too hard and if you do it makes things difficult. The horse, if he goes good, if he trials good and is healthy and happy, you can race him and he should run good.
“He didn’t give any specific advice (when I started on my own) but he said ‘Frankie, if you have any question you can come to see me and ask me and I’ll tell you if I know’. Also, he said ‘if any owner moves horses to your stable, no problem.’”
That is just as well. When Mr Stunning gave Lor his first G1 success in this season’s Hong Kong Sprint, it was 12 months on from the horse landing the same prize for Size. The gelding’s owners are not alone in wanting to support one of Hong Kong’s own, even if that means moving a horse from so esteemed a trainer as the 10-time champion.
And that same dynamic, of a Hong Kong lad making good in a historically expatriate dominated sphere, has been a key factor in Lor arriving at the Derby threshold with a trio of serious contenders.
The trainer has made remarkable strides in less than two seasons with a licence. His debut campaign brought second place in the premiership: his 65 wins set a new record for a step-out trainer, topping Size’s 58 set in 2002.
Each summer, Hong Kong’s owners seek out the horse that could bring them once-in-a-lifetime-glory the following March in the BMW Hong Kong Derby, the race they covet most of all. That impressive 2017/18 season instilled confidence in owners to trust their bright hopes to Lor. When this campaign kicked off, his stable had two exciting new residents, the G1 Queensland Derby winner Dark Dream and the G1 Rosehill Guineas third Furore.
“Furore and Dark Dream were bought by the owners and when they asked me to take the horses I was very happy. I had to start to plan step-by-step and look towards the Derby,” he says.
The duo made fine strides into the Hong Kong Classic Mile, the first big four-year-old test. Dark Dream sluiced to a 2000m Class 2 win and Furore progressed through two runs like a horse on the ideal trajectory, as his Classic Mile success proved. Now, along with the surprise package Mission Tycoon, they roll into the Derby.
“The 2000 metres should be better for Dark Dream,” Lor says, but Furore holds stable confidence. “He’s very good, Furore. I was happy with his run in the Classic Cup. The distance will be no problem for him.
“When Mission Tycoon was second in the Classic Mile it was a little bit of a surprise to me. Last time was a big surprise! I was thinking the 1800 might be a little bit long for him.
“I need to get them there in very good form and then, for me, it’s Furore,” he says.
Size, though, has arrived at the big one with a formidable rival. Waikuku skipped the first two legs of the series as he clicked four straight wins, the latest being an impressive 1800m score.
“I could see Waikuku in the last quarter: it looked like he could fly! He’s very strong,” he says.
The smile and the nervous laugh so evident through much of his conversation are absent. He knows his “boss” may have unearthed a gem but his hope is undimmed.
“Everyone knows that the Derby is important. If I can win I’ll be very happy; the whole stable will be happy.
“If I can win the Derby it will be fantastic and amazing.”