An Analysis of Leading Hong Kong Trainer John Size's training methods
One of the most successful, and more interesting trainers in the world is the Hong Kong based trainer John Size. John started training in Australia but for a short while worked as a form analyst for leading bookmaker Mark Read and then returned to horse training in Queensland before relocating to Sydney. He quickly established himself as a top trainer in Sydney before his arrival in Hong Kong in 2001 with a reputation for improving and rekindling the enthusiasm to race in his horses. He broke records immediately in Hong Kong, one of the most competitive training environments in the world by winning the trainers' premiership in his very first season there.
I spent a bit of time when I lived in Australia working for Mark Read myself and the link between John Size working for Mark Read was the legendary trainer Henry Davis whom Size started working for and was considered one of the best "betting" trainers in the country. Mark Read had a number of horses with Davis and while I never met Henry, Mark would explain to me at least what he thought Henry's training philosophy was which John Size, has taken and extended to a fine art.
While I had seen him train in Sydney, I wanted to see the consistent pattern to the way that Size got his horses fit to race so I went to the Hong Kong Jockey Club and gathered together 42 horses that were trained by Size over the past 18 months. The HKJC enter the track work for all the horses that are there so it wasn't difficult to find the horses, nor scrape their track work records and have them all aligned in a excel file by date and type.
An interesting aspect of racing in Hong Kong is that for a period of time in the middle of the year, there is no racing. The racing season ends in the middle of July each year and horses don't start racing back until the first week of September. This allowed me to look at the records of horses as they are preparing for races from a base of reduced fitness through to their first start back from this break to get a better idea of what he does to get them fit. By gathering the 42 horses and aligning their dates with the first day of training after the break, it was pretty clear what his overall pattern to get horses fit is and what was the most common pattern once they were fit.
Now obviously there are some caveats with the data. Firstly, we are relying on the ability of the employees of the HKJC who track each of the horses each morning. Horses at track work have to wear their saddlecloth with their individual horse ID numbers so it is relatively easy to see what horses are doing what, but it is still subject to human error. Secondly, we cant give any detail as to what type and how much feed each horse gets - you feed to your work, you work to your feed is pretty much a universal maxim for training horses, but while we know Size has a reputation for giving one large feed a day, I can't tell you what it consists of.
Size is noted for walking a horse, a lot. I remember in Australia when he first got down to Sydney the trainers there were amazed at how long he walked a horse for before and after a work. Almost all of it was hand walking but obviously as he got bigger and more successful some of it moved to a walking machine. Size is also noted for swimming a horse. He does this regularly and as the analysis shows the only time he doesn't swim a horse is at the beginning of the preparation (he seems to want to see them get some fitness into them before he starts swimming) and the day before a horse runs. The rest of the time they are in the pool, every day. There are one or two horses that are exceptions to this but I suspect that is because they don't swim well (some horses are hopeless in a pool) and it is counter to getting them fit. Again, I cant tell you how many laps or how long he swims the horse for, but if other trainers in Australia are an indication it is probably either 2 minutes, twice (with a minute in between) or 3 minutes, twice. The science behind swimming is unclear in terms of its relationship to racetrack success but Size (and many trainers) believe it does have an effect in getting them fitter and keeping them happy as an alternate or supplement to training on the track (why more racetracks in North America that have horses trained on them don't have a pool is baffling to me)
The other interesting aspect is how amazingly slow his works are (relative to North America). While they are twice a week, with generally a two day gap in between, the works are usually what would be described as "4 evens, easy 2". In North American terms that is a two minute lick from the 4 pole and a little faster but on the bridle for the last two. The works are usually completed in 32 seconds for the first two furlongs (16 spf) and then 28 for the last two (14 spf). Its very consistent so the riders have obviously been well trained to do it to his specifications. That results in a 4f "work" of somewhere around a minute flat. As I said, when compared to American standards where a 5f work is required near a minute to get a horse off a vet list, this is a different way of getting horses ready to race.
It is interesting that once they are somewhat fit, his horses usually do this twice over a four day period, with canters in between, and then have another three days of light work before doing the same again. This 4 day on/3 day off work is very similar to some of the studies completed by Dr Allan Davie who did a comparison of cumulative effects of Four Days of alternate or continuous training on expression of Mitochondrial Genes in skeletal muscle. Allan Davie has for some time said that this method of working is optimal for getting the mitochondria and muscle to adapt to training and Size seems to follow this type of work pattern regularly. This obviously also sits in stark contrast to training in North America where a weekly work pattern of Walk-Jog/Trot-Gallop 1 mile (16spf)-Gallop 1 mile (16spf)-Gallop 1 mile (16spf)-Gallop 1 mile (16spf)-Breeze(fast) and repeat, is the norm.
Size is also a proponent of Barrier Trials or gate works. If you look at all of the trials for the horses I studied (I did....and it took a while!), it seems that the first gate work is usually over 4 or 5f while the second is always over 5 or 6f. The first gate work the horse is usually asked to work for the first two furlongs of the trial, get into the field and then just coast to the line under its own fitness, while the second barrier trial/gate work, the horse is obviously a lot fitter and is more competitive but asked to settle early and then work home the last three furlongs.
Barrier Trials/Gate works seem to be the only time that the horse is asked to get near coming off the bit and working hard, The only other exception to this is the last work prior to the second barrier trial, where a "4 evens, easy 2" becomes a '4 Evens, fast 2" and the work on the last three days prior to starting, Size will ask the horse to work two furlongs that time. Sometimes the horses doing this will jet down relatively quickly (for him), maybe in 24 seconds, while other times they are closer to 26 seconds, but it is usually appreciably faster than the "easy 2" in other works. Here is the base he uses to get a horse fit to race.
Once he has them fit, the pattern between races is similar. If the horse is on a 14 day cycle, which is pretty common in Australia and Hong Kong, the work pattern is below.
If he needed an extra week in between runs he just repeats days 4-7 on Day 10, puts in another Canter day and then does the 2f fast work three days prior to a run. If the horse isn't presumably doing well he has a longer 40 day cycle which is the same as days 44 through 78 in the prep cycle with a couple of Walk/Swim days tacked on to the beginning to let the horse get over its last run.
It was quite interesting looking at the pattern he uses and when it is successful and not. It was interesting to note that when horses strayed off the pattern quite a bit, where they didn't work as frequently or they worked a little faster than normal, they were getting beaten. I'd say with these horses he was probably struggling with some soundness issues.
One thing that needs to be noted is that Size is generally training horses that are sprinter/milers on the turf. This obviously requires a different style of training to that which is found in North America. Dirt racing relies on managing fatigue and getting really fit to handle the tiring effect of dirt and I suspect that much of what Size does and the way he does it, is about keeping horses sound and happy and relying somewhat on the trials/gate works to bring them on, knowing that Turf racing is much more forgiving and more about turn of foot than fatigue. One of the criticisms of Size in Australia is that while the way he trains is terrific for sprinters and revitalizing older horses, it isn't very productive in getting them to stretch out beyond a mile. Presumably the conversion of muscle fiber type doesn't occur with the way his horses are worked. I'm not sure that would matter to Size, but for anyone looking to replicate his success in some way by using this training pattern would need to be aware that its obviously excellent for sprinter/milers, but sub-optimal for horses of different genotypes.
POSTSCRIPT: A couple of questions that were raised by readers after first posting this.....
Firstly, he does put horses back on a 7 day back up. He rarely does it with horses that are sprinters though, more when they are horses that are running at 1400m or 1600m. The track work in between races is the same .
Day 1 - Walk
Day 2 - Walk
Day 3 - Walk
Day 4 - Walk - Trot & Slow Canter
Day 5 - Walk - Trot & Slow Canter - Swim
Day 6 - Walk - Canter 1400m (20s/f) - Swim
Day 7 - Race
Secondly, for horses that are not sprinters, once they get through to day 71 and have had their second trial he will repeat the days 61 to 71, but extend the distance of the trial out to 1200m and sometimes (when they are run) to 1700m trials. Horses that will race over a mile or more will sometimes have 4 trials in total before running even if their first start is over 1200m.
Finally, this is a type of 'meta-analysis' over the 42 horses in the study not a precise description of each one individually. Each of them had nuances along the way where a day of a Canter could be added or there was only 1 day between the '"4 evens, easy 2" works instead of 2 . This is most likely due to race programming or soundness issues with horses but the overall 'average' work pattern is described above.