Racing: Hard climb for Chapple-Hyam

RACING Former Manton trainer is struggling to come to terms with culture shock of Hong Kong
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The Independent Online
THEY RAN four international races worth pounds 2.5m at Hong Kong's luxurious Sha Tin racecourse yesterday in the presence of one of the former colony's newest trainers, Peter Chapple-Hyam.

Not so long ago Chapple-Hyam was regarded as one of Britain's outstanding young training talents, yet he was not represented in any of the prestige contests here. Instead he was scratching around on the undercard. It was a perfect illustration of a bathetic decline.

Chapple-Hyam is just two months into his Hong Kong career, but he has already contemplated throwing it all in and continuing eastwards to Australia. The heady days of a great Classic success at Manton, Britain's foremost training complex, from where he was dismissed by Robert Sangster in the summer, now seem horribly distant. "My whole career depends on this," he said yesterday. "If I don't do well here then I'm finished. I'll have to go back to being a barrow boy in Birmingham market."

Chapple-Hyam remains privately disgusted at his treatment by Sangster and John Gosden, his successor at Manton. "I don't hold grudges," he said, "but I never forget."

He is also frustrated by his new surroundings. Hong Kong can be a golden arena for racing folk. Those who succeed are feted like nowhere else on earth. Failure, though, leads to a very swift professional death. Chapple- Hyam arrived in the middle of October to a rather grim realisation. He signed with the Hong Kong Jockey Club as ostensibly the replacement for the suspended French trainer, Patrick-Louis Biancone. But by the time he first stepped into Sha Tin's tiered stabling block he discovered the former Biancone team had dwindled to 10 horses, and it was not the best ones which had been left behind. He reckons that Triple Expresso, the best of the residue, would be no better than a good handicapper in Britain. "When I saw the horses and the state of their legs that choked me," he says. "I couldn't believe they were still working. They had [damaged] tendons so I had to stop them and start again."

Since then there have been just two winners. And while the former colony likes to attract the celebrities of this sport it is a great meritocracy once they are here. If you don't perform, you don't exist.

It might be easier were it not for the alien environment into which Chapple- Hyam has been dropped. At Manton, he lived in a cottage set in 3,000 acres of Wiltshire downland. It was more a county than a training establishment. Now he finds himself in the most densely populated area on the planet living in one of the domino-row flats overlooking Sha Tin. That is just the beginning. Chapple-Hyam says he is also coming to terms with the culture, the methods of training, the climate and his new band of owners.

The formality of relationship with the latter hardly sits easily with the trainer. He is expected to share a spot of afternoon tea and chocolate cake with some of his clients, and dine out each evening in swanky restaurants with others. "It's not really my scene," he said. "I try to meet as many of them as I can altogether in the Mandarin [Hotel]. It's the trainers' office. You've got to keep going out [with owners] and basically prostitute yourself. They expect the trainer to be at their beck and call whenever they want."

Back home Chapple-Hyam's idea of relaxation would be to attend a West Bromwich Albion game or crash together a few beer pots with contemporaries. This week some of the boys have been in town and Chapple-Hyam has been the ringleader. "It will be lonely next week when everyone's gone," he said. "Among all these people it can still be quite lonely and I do get homesick. I miss my friends."

There has been no time yet to forge friendships either with his stable staff. Manton was no fiefdom during his tenure and both Chapple-Hyam and his wife Jane were on happy first-name terms with their lads and lasses. It would be easy to build a picture of the man simply from his hyphenated surname, but Chapple-Hyam remains more true to his stable lad nurturing. There is no arrogance with him. Indeed, he remains a nervous figure in any form of interview.

Not that many have been conducted this week. Visits to the track and into the presence of potential inquisitors have been limited. Discussion of a perceived failure both at home and in a new land is not amongst his priorities. He has preferred to recreate the old days with friends, spend time with Jane, Sangster's stepdaughter from the owner's earlier marriage. "If I were to put a ticket in front of her nose now she'd go," Chapple- Hyam said.

"And if we'd had two tickets a month ago I'd have gone, too. I couldn't stand the place. I asked myself what I was doing here."

There is the danger that Chapple-Hyam has his parachute tangled in this sport now and freefall may prove difficult to arrest. In the space of a decade he has learnt how capricious his field can be.

It was on Christmas Eve 1990 that Sangster pointed at the then 27-year- old Chapple-Hyam and informed him of his appointment as Manton's trainer. At that stage the young man's qualifications were as a former stable lad and assistant trainer to Barry Hills. It was a flimsy CV and his new posting was generally regarded as a yuletide gift within the family. Chapple-Hyam, though, quickly destroyed this notion.

Rodrigo De Triano was champion two-year-old in his first season, a Two Thousand Guineas winner in his second when Dr Devious also won the Derby. It was at once an astonishing and unsustainable beginning.

There were other great days, of course, with Classic winners such as Turtle Island, Spectrum and White Muzzle, but Chapple-Hyam's fortunes had been inevitably compromised by Sangster's policy of selling many of his most promising stock, largely to the Maktoum family.

For the last three years his winning total had not exceeded 37 and the rumblings of discontent in the camp grew ever louder. At the end of August came the dreaded call to the office.

At the time, a relocation to Australia, his wife's birthplace, was mooted. The message is now even stronger. "It will eventually be a toss-up between England and Australia," he said. "I will go to Australia one day. I nearly went there before I came here. I know the country well and I like the people. They're almost the same as us. All they've got to do is give back the loaf of bread and they'll be all right."

Hong Kong, it seems, will be the briefest of stopping points. "If I'm not training winners here there's no point staying," Chapple-Hyam says. "They wouldn't let me stay anyway. I could walk out tomorrow. They could ask me to leave.

"I would say that this is probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I've probably had it easy, but now I'm out in the big, wide world."