First Chinese trainer in WA still cutting laps four decades after maiden victory
Byford Harness Club regular Henry Li has never been afraid to take on a challenge. It was his strong sense of adventure and a few fateful twists that saw him discover his passion for harness racing in Kalgoorlie 40 years ago.
Henry knew little about Western Australia when he left the concrete jungles of Hong Kong for the red dust of the Goldfields in 1975.
He came to Australia as a 24-year-old with his then fiancé Kitty to work as a nurse. He grew up in the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong and wanted to try something different.
He chose the famous gold mining town almost on a whim and said it was a huge culture shock.
“We went to the Australian embassy in Hong Kong and they said Australia needed nurses,” Henry said.
“We did not want Sydney or Melbourne so they suggested WA. We had not heard of Perth but did not want to be in a big city.
“So I said ‘what about the second biggest city’ – that was Kalgoorlie. That’s how we ended up there.”
Henry and Kitty lived in Kalgoorlie for nine and half years and grew to love the town and its people.
But their initial introduction was an eye-opener.
“When we landed in Perth we had to walk all the way across the airport to a little hut for immigration and we were like ‘this is Perth?’,” Henry said.
“We were only in Perth for four days then took the Indian Pacific to Kalgoorlie and we got the shock of our lives.
“It was just so different to anything we had experienced. We lived in the nurses quarters at the hospital – me in the men’s quarters and Kitty in the women’s.
“But we had jobs so our financial security was assured and the locals went out of their way to help us once they knew we were there to stay.
“We were the first Chinese couple to get married in the brand new courthouse in 1975. It was a big deal and the mayor was there.
“There were four Chinese families in Kalgoorlie and we knew them all. There were two Chinese restaurants and they were both closed the night we got married because they were all at our wedding.”
Henry said it took time to settle in but he knew it was a good decision the first time he discovered harness racing.
“I love horses and I was hooked on harness racing the first time I went to the Kalgoorlie trotting track,” he said.
“I started working with horses in 1980. I worked in the operating theatre and there was an orderly called Ron Pinner who had a couple of pacers.
“Ron was the son of Tom Pinner, who was really well known in harness racing.
“I used to go to the races in Hong Kong at Happy Valley – we weren’t allowed in so we climbed a tree to watch – but I had not handled horses at all until Ron asked if I wanted to come and help him.
“I started getting up at five o’clock in the morning to help out and after a couple of weeks I asked if I could learn to drive them.
“Ron had a horse called Wallatoba that he said I could use to go through the reinsman’s school.
“He used to pull like a bloody train. I got my licence on him and a horse called Dorman Chief – they were both Ron’s horses.
“Herb Softley was the driving master. I had to take the book to him after every trial and he would say ‘oh Henry, what did you do’ and then he would give me a tick.
“I went through the school with Mario Condipodero. The sport was thriving at the time.
“Bill Powell and Sue Roberts were up there, also Eugene Harris and Bernie James. Bernie gave me a few drives.”
Just two years after he first patted a horse, Henry trained and drove his first winner – Prime Condition.
The horse won four races that season, including the 1982 Nickel Mining Cup.
“Bob Godecke advertised Prime Condition for lease in the newspaper so I gave him a call,” Henry said.
“He had been to Hong Kong and China so we got on straight away and he sent the horse up sight unseen.
“It was my first horse and I had to muddle my way through. He had ability – he was a brother to Mint Condition – and he got me through because I did not know a lot at that time.
“One night he hit his knee and it blew up but he just kept going. He gave me a lot of joy.”
That was the start of a long association with Bob Godecke and encouraged his keen interest in breeding and standardbred bloodlines.
Henry, Kitty and their son Jonathan moved to Perth in 1984 and bought two and a half acres in Wattle Grove.
“I had been studying part time in Kalgoorlie and got a degree in accounting but decided to stay with nursing when we came to Perth,” he said.
“I built the stables myself and started looking for a horse.
“Peter Connolly advertised a three-year-old filly, Rayena. She had crook legs but I was happy to give her a try.
“I floated her to Orange Grove track every afternoon to work. Geoff Winston was there and I used to work her with his horses. Mike Goode worked there too and a lot of other trotting people.
“She broke down in a trial at Byford but I was keen to breed from her because she was well bred – by Captain Hook out of Lolly Poppins.
“At that stage, Bob Godecke had Judge Hanover and he talked to me about breeding. He explained about the importance of genetics and conformation and that is when I got hooked on breeding.”
Henry said he was hopeless at “looking at their legs” but he immediately clicked with the genetics because of his medical background.
“Computers had just started to come in and I thought we should create a computer program for the breeding and bloodlines,” he said.
“I decided to go to WAIT – it is Curtin now – and study for a computer degree. I eventually wrote a program that matched up stallions with mares on their genetics.
“It was like the mating programs they have now but I had to get the breeding from the stud books and transfer it onto the computer. I spent many, many hours developing my database. I had to physically type in the breeding of every horse.
“I wrote an article that was published in the West Trot magazine about the X factor, which looked at the importance of genes and how they are inherited through the X and Y chromosomes.
“Trevor and Kat (Warwick) still get me to look over the breeding of the yearlings they have picked out at the sale. I analyse the genetics and give them a tick or a cross.
“They judge them on conformation and temperament before buying but the genetic analysis gives them more information to work with.”
Henry’s first foray into breeding produced a filly out of Rayena by Judge Hanover but she died as a yearling and Allen Mitchell gave him a half share in her younger brother.
“I met Allen Mitchell when I trained Rayena and used to go to his stables every Saturday morning,” he said.
“He taught me so much about horsemanship – how to break-in and how to mouth the babies.
“He had Rayena with a foal at foot when the filly died and offered me a share. That was Mister Leonardo,” he said.
“He won his first race at Bunbury and we were really excited but then he broke down.
“Tom Sheehy took him and won 13 races working him on the beach.
“After that, I bred Raydon Light who won a few races.”
Henry said his association with Trevor Warwick began through Raydon Light.
“I beat Trevor in a trial with Raydon Light – I think he was on Canny Lombo, who turned out to be a good horse,” he said.
“I sat behind him and when I pulled out we left him for dead. I don’t think he even knew my name at the time but noticed the horse.
“A couple of times after that, Trevor asked me how Raydon Light was going and I offered him the horse for lease.
“He was keen and that is when I started helping out at the stable.
“It was 1994 and I went every Saturday morning – never missed – except for those years that he went to America.”
Henry has retired from his job with the Health Department but still helps at the Warwick stables in Byford three days a week. And he does not plan to stop anytime soon.
“I hope I will be in my eighties and still working horses out here with Trevor.
“I would have loved to drive a winner at Gloucester Park but I probably missed my chance with that one.
“I think trotting would be a success in China because there is still a lot country towns around the cities. If you put a trotting track there and got people to own and train their own horses it would be popular. It could be based on family outings like we used to with the non-TAB circuit.
“We have seen Aussie Rules take the game to China. If you only got one percent of the population involved in trotting you would be laughing.
“I would love to go there and have a drive.”
Things you didn’t know about Henry
- He spent the last 10 years of his working life as a computer guy.
“In 1988 I was working as a nurse manager at Armadale hospital but because of my computer degree I also starting looking after the computers as they started to come in,” he said.
“Eventually, I moved away from nursing. I spent the last 10 years of my working life in the IT department with the Health Department.”
2. He was the first Chinese trainer driver licenced in WA. He has never experienced racism in harness racing.
“Trotting people like horses first and people second,” he said.
3. His son Jonathan is a lecturer at Monash University.
“It is my fault he did not get involved with horses. He had a bad experience with a neighbour’s pony when he was young and that was it.”
4. The first time he went to a harness racing meeting – in Kalgoorlie – he bet on a six-horse race and four of them fell over. But his horse stayed on its feet and he had a collect.
5. His jog track on his Wattle Grove property was just 280m around.
6. He didn’t win a trial when he was going through the reinsman’s school. He still has a licence to drive in trials.
7. He almost got to train $100,000 earner Microfiche.
“When I took Prime Condition back to Bob Godecke he had a young unraced horse for sale and said I could take him back to Kalgoorlie if no-one bought him. I was going back on Monday and Ray Duffy bought him on Sunday. Turned out to be Microfiche, who went to fast class.”
8. The last winner he trained was Straittothebar, a horse he got from the Warwicks.
Henry’s breeding formula
Henry Li is a keen student of standardbred breeding – he has even written a computer program to refine his choices.
“Every breeder has his/her own idiosyncrasies and theories on breeding,” Henry said.
“I look for the X genes of Tar Heel in broodmares as the main criteria.
“I rarely recommend a broodmare which has not produced at least one $100,000 winner within the last three generations (ie the dam, 2nd dam and 3rd dam).
“Generally, I try to avoid stallions of over 15 years of age. For the foal, outcross is first choice followed by line bred. I try to avoid inbred yearlings.
“I also am a firm believer of the Golden Cross theory on breeding, such as Bettors Delight on Christian Cullen mares, Adios on Tar Heels mares, Classic Garry on Windshield Wiper mares and the recent Western Hanover on Artsplace mares (among others) because they are the wisdoms of numerous breeders in the game.”