Former leading New Zealand jumps jockey turned trainer Craig Thornton is relishing his time in China. The experienced horseman is doing his bit to upskill participants in the emerging racing nation as he oversees a stable of 32 horses at the impressive Yulong racetrack, located in the county of Youyu, south of Inner Mongolia.
Thornton is four months into a year-long contract as a private trainer and the hands-on horseman said the experience is a positive one, despite a few teething problems.
“I was approached by Alex Teng, of Horse Feng Bloodstock, and he offered a position to me. I thought it sounded like an exciting venture,” Thornton said.
“I am the principal trainer for a gentleman called Hongwei Chen. He owns pretty much all the horses and we’ve got 32 in training at the moment. We have got some nice horses from Australia and New Zealand that we are looking forward to racing.
“It is how it is done here. They principally employ a trainer and the bulk of the stables are owned by a sole proprietor. It has had its challenges, but I enjoy working with the horses and I just focus on the job ahead and I am enjoying it.
“I have had a bit of exposure internationally, so I am comfortable, and everyone has been very welcoming.”
Although the facility at Yulong is somewhat isolated, some familiar faces have made Thornton feel at ease on his Chinese adventure to date, with Mauritian-born rider Kevin Kalychurun in his second season in the region, while Luke Danis, father of jockey Darren, is also training there.
Also enjoying a brief stint in Youyu is New Zealand trainer Clint Isdale, who, like Thornton, is assisting in upskilling local horsemen and women and consulting with one of the many stables domiciled at the training and racing centre in Yulong on a fly-in, fly-out basis.
The racing season at Yulong lasts for 19 weeks before stables relocate to other racetracks in China, akin to many training and racing establishments in the United States.
Thornton has been impressed with the quality of horses competing on the circuit, with racing taking place over four distances – 1000m, 1200m, 1600m and 1800m.
‘Good calibre of animal’
“There are some extremely well-bred horses and there are some quality animals around,” he said. “You see them in the mornings at trackwork and it is a really good calibre of animal.”
Thornton has thrust himself into the role and can be seen riding up to seven lots a morning in trackwork around the 1600m sand track.
Through an interpreter, he is enhancing the skills of his staff across all elements of stable routine, including nutrition, farriery and riding.
“Essentially, I have taken over an existing stable. A lot of the staff come from Mongolia or have some Mongolian background, and many of them have grown up with horses. It is a developing industry, and that is challenging in itself. It is progressing rapidly, and it is exciting to be part of.”
Thornton has been impressed with the overall facilities at Yulong, the brainchild of global racing enthusiast Zhang Yuesheng, a prominent businessman in Shanxi with interests in coal, electricity, construction and chemicals.
“We spent a month in Wuhan before coming here and we had a lot of rain initially, which made training difficult,” Thornton said.
“The track conditions weren’t ideal, but since we have been in Youyu we have had better weather and we’ve been able to get some good work into the horses.
“The facility itself is purpose-built by one gentleman, Mr Zhang. It is owned solely by him. He has invested a lot of money in it and the facility is satisfactory and it is progressing further still.
“I have adapted my training style to suit the track conditions. I watched a lot of trainers in the morning and I have just got a feel for the horses and I have just learnt as I have gone along.
“The horses here are in very good condition. We have access to good quality feed. The grain is a very good quality and, on the whole, the horses are very well presented.”
The first two meetings at Yulong have been conducted for the season and Thornton has had just a handful of runners, with the first of them narrowly beaten into second.
With five or six races on each card the norm, the minimum prize money is 50,000 RMB (US$7,200), while the richest race over the 19 meetings, the Chairman’s Cup (1600m), contested at weight-for-age, is worth 2 million RMB ($288,000).
The China Horse Owners Alliance have recently announced that from 2020, a 1200m 2-year-old race worth 3 million RMB ($432,000) will be introduced.
“The prizemoney is generally funded by the pool of 20 or so owners, a little bit like an old fashion sweepstake,” Thornton said. “There is a bit of support from some of the sales companies sponsoring races, but a lot of it is private funding.
“It is a great market for Australia and New Zealand. A lot of our horses are here, and it is a great outlet for us as an industry.
“We’re working with the Chinese racing industry, helping each other essentially. I am doing my best. I am trying to get involved with everybody and help them out as much as I can.
“I think once they get racing properly established here, the development will generate more interest and a number of the owners will look at racing options abroad as well.”