John Bell was missing from the New Zealand training ranks for 13 years, but he's certainly making up for it.
The Cambridge horseman, formerly of Kihikihi, experienced a personal record as a trainer last season with 13 wins, including two Group Three victories by Julius, and already this term he has bettered that win tally with 16 victories and the promise of more to come before the end of the season on July 31.
His stable has been consistently churning out the winners with Noble Star, Ata Rangi and Yorkshire Dales providing three on end over the recent Te Rapa meeting and the exciting Helena Baby careering away to complete a hat trick of wins at Ellerslie.
After seconds in the first two of his five starts, Helena Baby has won his other three starts by a total of more than 16 lengths and he prevailed by four lengths when climbing to a rating 72 1400m at Ellerslie on June 1.
Helena Baby was destined for Hong Kong after a series of trials wins, but an injury has resulted in him doing all his racing in New Zealand with Bell believing he is "a Group One winner in the making".
The 4-year-old son of Guillotine is a reminder of the reason Bell renewed his trainer's licence eight seasons ago. Owned by C Y Lee, Tang Hoi Lun and C Y Lee (who also races six-race winner Athena Baby from Bell's stable), Helena Baby is just one of a line of former Hong Kong gallopers who have joined Bell's stable and been successively rejuvenated.
Yorkshire Dale, the winner of five races for Bell (all within his last seven starts), is another Asian-owned import, having won twice in England before one start in Hong Kong. His owner, Wilson Wong Ching Ho, is keen on getting him back for the Gr.1 Hong Kong International Mile (1600m) at Sha Tin in December.
It's no coincidence that Bell has formed a successful link with Asian owners. It stems from the time he was a horse-feed sales representative during his absence from training.
"I spent 20 years selling haylage to the Middle East," Bell said.
"I travelled all over during that time — Dubai, Qatar, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan — and I established a lot of contacts and made a lot of friends."
That travelling and contact with clients led to Bell being encouraged to renew his trainer's license.
"I had been buying a lot of horses for Asia and having them pre-trained here then sent up," Bell said.
"In the end I decided to do the training myself again and I started with a few Asian owners. Benedict Sin has been a client of mine for 15 or 16 years and there are others, too."
The Paul O'Sullivan-trained multiple black type winner Fellowship (Walsburgs Pride in New Zealand) was one of the best horses Bell sold to Hong Kong.
"Another one I sold up there was Pizzaz," Bell said. "He did well (winning five) and I got him after that and won a Listed race at Te Rapa with him. Trading horses is something I'd done right from the early days. I was buying and selling horses up to Singapore, Malaysia, Macau and Hong Kong back when I started out breaking-in horses. It was Nelson Schick (of Windsor Park Stud) who talked me into getting my trainer's license."
Bell began training in the late 1980s. Cast The Gauntlet and Manhatten Fire were his first two good horses, both winning five races with the latter giving Bell with his first black-type win when taking the Gr.3 Counties Cup (2100m) at Pukekohe after finishing third in the Gr.3 Waikato Gold Cup (2400m).
"It was a family business for me back then and when the others went off to other businesses I backed off from training," Bell said. His first winner on comeback was De'Colletage, who recorded the first of his three wins at Rotorua in May 2011 and two seasons later Bell prepared 12 winners with Mosse emerging to win his first five starts, culminating with victory in the Gr.3 Concorde Handicap (1200m) at Ellerslie.
Bell again won the Concorde Handicap this season with Julius, who has won seven races and finished no further back than third in 13 starts. He backed up from the Concorde to also win the Gr.3 Darley Stallions Plate (1200m) at Ellerslie and was beaten by a nose by star mare Melody Belle in the Gr.2 Foxbridge Plate (1200m) at Te Rapa last August.
After being retired, Julius is now on a possible comeback and Bell is also excited with the quality of his 38-strong team.
"I'm really enjoying training again," he said. "I've got very good track riders and my staff are all so experienced and dedicated. It's a system in place that works really well. We're all a team and it's coming through with the success we're having.
"I believe in giving horses the time they need and having happy horses. We've also got some really nice 2-year-olds coming through and it's exciting for all of us."