Derek Chin’s small stable now in the “Big Leagues”

The world of soft muzzles and gleaming flanks and brightly coloured silks took hold and never left…….And there’s nothing better than watching your colours (rider’s silks) shine in the sun aboard a horse you own, Chin said.

Photo above: Owner Derek Chin (right) with Trainer Kevin Attard and Chin’s 3 year-old filly, Bossy Madam

By Beverley Smith

Finally, horse owner Derek Chin was exactly where he wanted to be: at the Queen’s Plate, with a horse entered in it, standing shoulder to shoulder with Sam-Son Farms, Gary Barber and even Qatar Racing in that willowed walking ring at Woodbine.

This day had been decades in the making. Chin started out as a small owner from a small island, who couldn’t make himself heard for a long time. And now he has.

To top off Plate day, Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell, the Queen’s representative, paused to speak to Trinidadian Chin in the walking ring before the race as his horse Jammin Still circled.

“She asked me about Jammin [Still],” he said. “I said: ‘Jammin has to do with music. You see in Trinidad, there is pressure and difficulties, but Trinidadians all say, “We are jammin’ still.”

Owner Derek Chin’s Jammin Still in the walking ring before the Queen’s Plate with jockey Alan Garcia in Chin’s vibrantly coloured silks

Chin started out life in Guyana, where he was born, but he and his parents fled to Trinidad when he was eight to avoid growing violence. His grandfather, Alexander Chin, had been in the dry goods business, importing things like cooking oil and biscuits. But over and above all this, they loved the horse racing game in Trinidad, an island of only 1,841 square miles that once had three turf racecourses.

With Trinidad and Tobago being Commonwealth countries, the owners of the plantation estates “were bored,” Chin said. And with many of them natives of England, they brought over horses from England and would have races among themselves.

Racing seems to be in Chin’s blood. His grandfather and father are all over the Trinidad racing history books from the years after World War II. As owners, they won major races. Chin’s father, James,  worked for Ladbrokes, the bookmaking business, and had a lot of nice racehorses, including one that won the Gold Cup.

The racing folk in Trinidad would buy horses off the Timeform, with agents in England, notably the British BloodStock Agency and bring horses to Trinidad “so they can beat their chest, to say: ‘We have the best horse,’” Chin said.

Chin was 6 or 7 when his father, James, would take him to the racing paddocks in the mornings. He was close to his father. And he became enamoured of the scene. The world of soft muzzles and gleaming flanks and brightly coloured silks took hold and never left.

Chin didn’t forget about racing when he migrated to Canada to attend Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ont., back in 1971. At the time, Sandy Hawley was dominating the jockey ranks, and Chin couldn’t help but notice George Hosang, a jockey of Chinese heritage (like Chin) who dominated riding in Jamaica before coming to Canada, too, and winning two titles. And then there was Jamaican-born Laurie Silvera, he of the white hat. Chin was too shy to say anything to these people.

Chin got his Canadian citizenship and a degree in business administration at the University of Western Ontario before taking a job as an accountant. “But I was never very happy,” he said. “I always found myself looking to become my own boss. I would go to all the trade shows, but I didn’t have the money to invest in say, MacDonald’s or anything like that.”

He worked at all sorts of odd jobs, too, but would always come to the races on weekends, buy a newspaper with the racing entries, and see how islanders Emile Ramsammy and Jono Jones were doing. At the time, he had no money to buy horses. He owned a few in Trinidad, but that was only because his father put his name down as the owner and paid the bills himself.

After living in Toronto for about 15 years in the 1970 and 1980s, Chin ended up back in Trinidad where an oil boom offered an opportunity for him to take his accounting skills to audit the energy sector. He still wasn’t happy. It still was not his cup of tea. But Chin found a way. It didn’t happen overnight.

Eventually, he got into the arcade business. (Think Pac Man and Space Invaders.) He was the first person in Trinidad to set up an arcade.

And he got involved in racing at home, always owning one or two cheap horses and with racing administration there, too, through his father.

Then he set up a successful lottery in Trinidad that he called the Jackpot Six, something Trinidad didn’t have during the 1980s. Dabbling in lotteries, he found himself in Las Vegas, where he saw huge electronic boards. “At that time, we were a very backward country,” Chin said. “We didn’t have all this stuff back in the 1980s, or 1990s.” So he decided to invest in a board.

Through this venture, he met people who talked about multiplexes, theatres with not one screen but eight or 10, even 20 screens. “It fascinated me,” Chin said. Finally by 2003, he found a bank to back him. He sold them the idea of MovieTowne, which is nothing like the multiplexes in North America. Chin’s MovieTowne is a colourful, atmospheric entertainment experience. The cinemas are embedded in a complex of shopping malls, taverns, pubs, restaurants (Chin owns some of them), casinos, live stages for entertainment, children’s playgrounds. They are anything but dull, adorned in bright purples and oranges, with signage that is not subtle. It’s the Caribbean way.

Chin now has five MovieTownes, all of them designed around the concepts of life and the joy of life. They are major projects, expensive developments. People flocked to them in droves. During 16 years from 2003 to 2019, they have become the biggest thing in that part of the world.

He just opened the last one in Guyana, his country of birth. When he started the project five years ago,  Guyana was a struggling country. But it has just struck a motherlode of oil, which comes on stream this year. “It makes me look like a guru,” Chin said. “But it’s all luck.

“I wish I could have the luck in the Queen’s Plate.” (He finished last of 14 with Jammin Still, but the horse wilted after making a move around the final turn, suffering dehydration.)

Now, Chin is a household name in Trinidad. He’s just been inducted into the Trinidad Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame for his entrepreneurial gift for spinning straw into gold. The whole country was watching when Jammin Still ran in the Queen’s Plate.

It was a huge step up from 2004, after Chin was able to set his MovieTowne in motion. Finally, he approached Silvera in Canada. “He’s from Jamaica and I’m from Trinidad,” Chin said. “We have island togetherness.”

He told Silvera that he wanted to get into the racing game but he was too nervous about it. He knew about Trinidad racing, but not North American racing. So he and Silvera bought a cheap maiden filly and raced her together. They called her Island Allure, and had fun with her.

“He got me into the game and I would buy a few horses a year,” Chin said. “I was a small owner.”

Eventually, he turned to Dan Vella and with him he had the filly Trini Brewnette, his most successful racehorse. She got him to the big leagues, finishing fifth in the Canadian Oaks. Along the way, she won the South Ocean Stakes, collaring the filly that won the Oaks the following year. She also won the Algoma Stakes in 2018 (Chin won two races that day at Woodbine!) and was second in the Bison City Stakes, the second jewel in the Filly Triple Tiara.

All in all, Trini Brewnette won three of 25 races and $273,956. She had been a $50,600 yearling purchase.

Chin’s biggest year as an owner was last season when his stable won more than $400,000, with eight wins. “That was huge for me,” he said. In most years, his horses have earned $50,000 collectively. He currently has 10 horses, stabled now with Woodbine top trainer Kevin Attard – he enjoys Attard and they get along well – and another five at a farm. He doesn’t want to get into the breeding business, but he has somehow found himself in it in a minor way. He has two mares in foal.

The previous year, Chin won 10 races, and only two so far this year, but his horses haven’t raced that much yet. Owning a racehorse means a great deal to Chin. “Nobody can ever say that when you win a race, big or small, that feeling of joy and excitement can’t be replaced by anything much,” he said. “It’s a great feeling.

“Secondly If you see the horses from the time they are babies, and you breed them, and you watch them like little children grow into racehorses, you get emotional.

“It’s rewarding and takes up a lot of your time,” Chin said, smiling. “And it keeps you out of trouble.”

He spends as much time as he can at the stables, talking to the grooms. A comradery grows. “A lot of grooms are from the Caribbean, so we have a lot in common,” he said. “They know me from then. So we talk a lot about the old times. It really creates a whole new community as you get involved.”

And there’s nothing better than watching your colours (rider’s silks) shine in the sun aboard a horse you own, Chin said. You cannot miss the Chin colours: bright yellow with hot pink. As bright as his MovieTownes.

“I race for glory,” Chin said. “I love to know that those are my colours racing against Mr. Stronach and Mr. Barber, and these are the greatest owners in the world and I’m talking about my little colours in between. That’s a big thrill.

“I don’t race for the money part of it,” he said. “I race for the joy of my colours and winning trophies.” At home, he has a growing trophy room. He has won lots of trophies over the years. “They are my greatest pride and joy,” he said. He also prizes and displays his racing photos.

He loves Canada and it’s the home for his racing stable. But he never forgets his roots, particularly when he names his horses. Trini Brewnette goes without saying. So does Jammin Still. “Full Extreme” is another of his charges but it is actually a song by Trinidad group Ultimate Rejects, so popular in 2017 that it has been adopted as sort of a Caribbean anthem. It’s a fast-paced carnival song, full of energy.

Then there is Carlos Sixes, a reference to West Indies cricketer Carlos Brathwaite, famous for his heroics in a 2016 World Cup final against Britain. Brathwaite hit four consecutive sixes to nail victory. No matter what country you are from, that is not easy. He was the first player from the West Indies team to do it. Hopefully the four-legged Carlos can do the same.

With business thriving back in Trinidad and Tobago (and Guyana), Chin has been able to lay out a little more money for horses. Still, he buys only two or three a year at the yearling sales. The most expensive yearling he has ever bought was $110,000. A young filly racing this season at Woodbine, Bossy Madam, cost him $90,000. Most are in the $85,000 to $90,000 range. And he’s bought a couple of nice ones at $50,000 to $60,000.

“I don’t like to spend $500,000,” he said. “It just bothers me. And my wife would kill me.”

He loves to pick out the yearlings himself. And he has. “That’s another part of ownership,” he said. “I love to buy my own. I love to go. It also gives you bragging rights. Most times I don’t have time. But my own horses that I buy seem to be all right. It’s a big joke.”

Last fall, at the September yearling sale in Toronto, Chin laid out $90,000 for filly by Souper Speedy out of Cumulonimble, a daughter of Stormy Atlantic – a half-sister to One Bad Boy, recent winner of the $1-million Queen’s Plate. The filly, called Blessed Truly, is worth far more than $90,000 now. Both Chin and Attard like her.

“I was looking for another Souper Speedy because they can run,” Chin said. This one, I didn’t have much change to vet her, but to other people who were buying, she was obviously a horse of some interest.”

So Chin jumped into the bidding at $85,000 and got her for $90,000. “One more push, and I would have gone,” he said But his bid stuck.

She’s sparked hope in all around her. “She’s talented,” Chin said. “I hope she can be good enough to run in the Plate, because you know, fillies have won the Plate. Maybe it’s a possibility.”

Chin says he’s more or less semi-retired now, and spends a lot of his time with horses, his first love. He’s been invited to become a member of the Jockey Club of Canada and offers interesting diversity and experience.

“I come from a small country,” he said. “I love Canada so much. It’s a beautiful country. I try to promote it and do business with Canadians, if I can.

“I found that Canadian people – they need to pat themselves in the back. They’ve made it very easy for me. I’ve never had problems here. They’re very accommodating and hopefully, we can go from strength to strength.”