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  • Writer's pictureTina Chan

From Oil Trader to Horse Trainer: Wesley Tong's Inspiring Journey of Transformation

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." - Golden Rule

Let me introduce you to Wesley Tong, an extraordinary individual I met at a delightful foodie event. Over shared meals and tea, Wesley revealed his incredible transformation from an oil trader to a horse trainer. Wesley's journey is a spotlight of inspiration to all who may be contemplating a career change or embark on a new path in life. His story encourages us to listen to the whispers of our hearts, to take that leap of faith, and to embrace the unknown. Wesley's transformation into a horse trainer serves as a shining example that we can uncover incredible opportunities for growth and personal fulfillment with passion, perseverance, and willingness to embrace change. His unwavering dedication and love for horses remind us of the profound rewards that await us when we fearlessly pursue our true calling.

So, if you find yourself at a crossroads, unsure of which path to take, remember Wesley's story. Let it be a beacon of hope, motivating you to follow your dreams no matter where they may lead.

What inspired you to transition from a career in oil trading to horse ownership and training? Why did you decide to retire from oil trading, and what advice would you give someone considering a career change in their 40s or 50s?

For 25 years, I dedicated my life to the fast-paced world of the oil and gas industry. As a trader, I take great pride in what I accomplished during my career. But looking back, it's remarkable to think that when I first stepped into this business, I had no idea what it entailed or even what the industry was about. The years rolled by, and I gradually became one of the most sought-after traders in the field. Prominent oil giants like BP, Sinopec, and ExxonMobil enticed me with their "Golden Packages." These packages included a substantial salary and offered me the opportunity to jet-set around the globe at will. I reveled in the unlimited entertainment allowances that allowed me to savor fine dining experiences in the most exquisite restaurants. It was a lavish lifestyle, but it came with a price. Every year, without fail, I was expected to deliver positive financial results for my company. The pressure was on to generate millions of dollars in profit.

Initially, the job was exhilarating, and I poured my heart and soul into helping my employers maximize their profits through buying and selling oil and gas. However, as the years passed, my job morphed from a passion into a duty that eclipsed my personal identity. My circle of friends primarily consisted of fellow oil traders or individuals connected to the industry. Conversations revolved solely around wealth accumulation, comparing cars, luxurious condos, and other material possessions. Deep down, I couldn't help but question the notion that one person could possess such superior intelligence to predict market movements in stocks or commodities. Furthermore, I grappled with the fact that when traders profited, someone else inevitably suffered. In the bull market for oil, it was the consumers who bore the burden of skyrocketing prices at the gas stations. It was a zero-sum game, where someone's gain meant someone else's loss. Over time, this insatiable greed gnawed at my soul, leaving an indelible mark on my conscience.

Don't misunderstand me; I consider myself fortunate to have been granted incredible opportunities and to have learned valuable lessons while mingling with extraordinary people throughout my career. However, at the beginning of 2022, a realization dawned on me. The world was still grappling with the pandemic, and I felt an undeniable longing to pursue other passions in my life. One of those passions had always been working with horses. Ever since I was eleven years old, I found myself captivated by these majestic creatures. My love affair with horses began during my first year in the United States after immigrating from Hong Kong. As a newcomer, devoid of friends and unfamiliar with English, a farmhouse down the street caught my attention. Inside that farmhouse, two magnificent horses resided: Dusty, a young chestnut colt, and Butterscotch, a graceful appaloosa filly. Those two names became the first English words I ever learned and spoke. In a stroke of luck, I managed to convince the farm owners to allow me to care for the horses, an opportunity that brought immeasurable joy. While other children rode their bicycles and played sports on the streets, I dedicated my afternoons to cleaning stalls and grooming these beautiful creatures. Those moments at the farm were the happiest times of my childhood.

In March 2022, with the pandemic still looming, I made a life-altering decision. I bid farewell to the oil industry and rekindled my passion for working with horses. Thanks to my foray into horse racing during my trading years, I had established connections with horse trainers at the Singapore Turf Club. I reached out to one of them, and before I knew it, I found myself immersed in the stables, surrounded by the very animals that had ignited my spirit as a child.

My goal now is to become a certified thoroughbred trainer in Singapore.

Each morning, as the dawn chorus greets me, a profound sense of purpose fills my heart. My life is no longer driven by the pursuit of wealth or recognition; it's now about the deep connection I share with these majestic creatures. Working with horses allows me to tap into the raw power of nature, nurture these beautiful beings, and experience an unparalleled bond of trust and companionship. Greed no longer dictates my actions; I've learned that genuine happiness lies in pursuing my passions and finding inner harmony. Even if my journey as a horse trainer meant working without monetary compensation, I would gladly dedicate myself to this calling.

Life is about finding fulfillment and making choices that resonate with our deepest passions. Today, as I breathe in the scent of hay and feel the gentle warmth of a horse's muzzle against my hand, I know I've found my true calling. My previous role as an oil trader shaped me, but my new path with horses nourishes my soul. Through this pursuit, I've discovered that genuine happiness lies not in the pursuit of riches, but in embracing authenticity, fostering connections, and experiencing boundless joy by living in harmony with my true purpose.

Can you describe your daily schedule as a horse owner and trainer at the Singapore Turf Club?

As a groom, or 'Sync,' my day begins bright and early at 3:30 am, ensuring I reach the stables in Kranji by 4:00 am. With 50 horses in training, myself and four other grooms each taking care of 10 horses. Upon arriving, I make my way through the stables, checking on each horse in their stall. I ensure they are in good health, have finished their feeds from the previous night, and haven't sustained any injuries.

Preparing the horses for exercise riders comes next. We brush their sleek coats and equip them with saddles and other necessary gear, readying them for galloping on the racetracks. While not all horses will run, some will take a leisurely walk, while others require swimming as part of their training regimen. Swimming builds their stamina, though it can be quite nerve-racking. Around 6 am, when the sky is still dark, there are already numerous horses bustling about the track. Horses are easily frightened, and managing their emotions can be challenging, given their massive size and weight. Additionally, convincing them to swim when they're not inclined can pose its own difficulties.

By 10:30-11:00 am, I've completed the exercises for my ten horses. I take a well-deserved break and enjoy my lunch before the next phase of the day begins. Around 2 pm, I return to the stables, bringing the horses out once again. This time, I embark on the longest phase: grooming. With meticulous care, I brush their bodies from top to bottom, tending to their manes and ensuring they look and feel their best. This process typically concludes around 4:30-5:00 pm.

Working with racehorses demands significant time and physical exertion. Yet, time seems to fly by effortlessly when I engage in what I truly love. After a long day's work, I head home, rest, and eagerly prepare for the next day.

How do you select and train horses, and what qualities do you look for in a successful racehorse? How does the horse racing industry in Singapore differ from other countries where you may have worked or traded in the past?

Typically, I leave the horse buying decisions to my trainer, Michael. As a budding trainer, I am still learning to recognize exceptional qualities in horses. However, there have been two rare occasions when I chose my horses. One was Don Platense, a 2-year-old colt I bought in 2011, and the other is Takanini, a 3-year-old chestnut colt I recently acquired from Argentina. The moment I laid eyes on them, I could sense their confidence and their interaction with me, and I knew I wanted to own them. While pedigree and bloodlines hold importance in the horse racing industry, I believe luck plays a significant role in this sport.

The horse racing industry is prominent worldwide, particularly in Hong Kong, Australia, Japan, and Korea, rather than Singapore. However, one notable distinction I've observed is that in the United States, young people under 18 can attend racetracks. I recall going to the races with my family as a child, enjoying picnics in the infield while watching the thrilling competitions. It was a family-friendly event. In contrast, Asian racing circuits primarily focus on gambling, and children of certain ages are not permitted entry. The association with gambling in Asia creates a stigma surrounding careers in horse racing. In the United States, on the other hand, many young individuals aspire to become renowned jockeys, trainers, or participate in the sport.

Have you had to adapt your management style or approach to training horses as a result of the pandemic, and if so, how? How important is it for you to develop a bond and trust with the horses you work with, and how do you go about building this relationship?

The horse racing industry in Singapore has been profoundly affected by the pandemic. The livelihoods of many individuals, including horse owners, trainers, jockeys, stable hands, and track maintenance workers, were devastated as racing events came to a halt for nearly three years. In this industry, where individuals are often paid based on racing and prize money, the absence of races meant a complete loss of income. Even before the pandemic, the Singapore Turf Club had been reducing purse money and limiting funding for prestigious races, such as the Singapore Airlines Gold Cup Race.

The Singapore Airlines Gold Cup Race was a highly anticipated event in which top horses, jockeys, and racing enthusiasts from around the world would gather. The race carried a prize of SG$3 million and symbolized the pinnacle of horse racing in Singapore. However, the race was eventually eliminated, and with the arrival of the pandemic, many other high-profile races met a similar fate. The racing scene today is but a shadow of its former glory, and the hope remains to restore the excitement and grandeur of the past.

Adapting to the circumstances, the Singapore Turf Club currently holds racing events only once a week, compared to the pre-pandemic schedule of two days. The purses are less attractive, leading many talented jockeys and trainers to seek opportunities in other racing circuits like Hong Kong, Japan, or Australia. Some individuals were even forced into early retirement due to the diminished financial rewards. I consider myself fortunate to have entered the industry during this period, as the exodus of professionals created an opportunity for me to pursue an apprenticeship as a horse trainer.

Working with horses entails building trust and establishing a bond with these magnificent creatures. Like any animals, horses can be unpredictable and even aggressive, putting me in potentially dangerous situations. Nonetheless, it is my responsibility to care for them to the best of my ability, even if it means risking my own safety. Horse racing is widely recognized as one of the world's most dangerous sports, requiring ambulances to closely follow competitors during every race, including practice sessions.

Statistics from the Singapore Turf Club reveal over 500 cases of serious injuries related to horse racing annually, with a mortality rate ranging from 5 to 10 cases each year. Many of my fellow grooms have experienced handicaps due to horse-related injuries, ranging from being kicked in the face to losing fingers or toes from accidental or sometimes deliberate trampling. While building trust with the horses can minimize accidents, they cannot be entirely avoided. Occasional mishaps are an unfortunate reality of working with these powerful animals.

While accidents can happen despite building trust, I devote extensive time, around 9 to 10 hours a day, to understanding the horses' preferences, moods, and behaviors. Establishing this bond is similar to nurturing and teaching one's children, rewarding good behavior and providing discipline when necessary.

Despite the challenges and risks, my dedication to the horses is fueled by love and passion. Witnessing their progress and observing their strength and grace on the racetrack is immensely rewarding. The bond we share goes beyond words; it is an unspoken connection built on trust and mutual respect. I strive to create a harmonious environment and mitigate potential dangers, leveraging my deep understanding of their individual personalities. Working with horses is a labor of love that brings incomparable fulfillment.

What have been some of the most rewarding aspects of your new career, and how has it enriched your life in ways that your previous career did not? How do you practice mindfulness during your horse training time and daily living?

Embarking on my new career as a horse trainer has brought about a remarkable transformation in my physical and mental well-being. The time spent outdoors, engaging in physical activities, has greatly improved my physical health. The simple act of walking and being surrounded by nature has revitalized my body while inhaling the fresh air has proven to be rejuvenating.

Equally important, my mental health has flourished as I find solace and tranquility in working with horses. It is akin to a form of meditation, where the stresses of daily life dissolve, and a profound sense of peace envelops me. The bond between horse and trainer is a symbiotic relationship, nurturing not only the horses but also my inner serenity.

Witnessing the growth and progress of the horses I care for is an immensely rewarding experience. When I see them excel in their performance, winning races and surpassing their previous achievements, a profound sense of accomplishment fills my heart. It is comparable to raising a child from infancy to adulthood, witnessing their journey towards greatness.

Reflecting on my own career transition, I would offer advice to those contemplating a change in their 40s or 50s. Regardless of the circumstances that prompt the change, prioritize your health and family above all else. Avoid being swayed by superficial glamour, as it may prove detrimental in the long run. Instead, seek genuine happiness and fulfillment that aligns with your true passions and aspirations.

In the pursuit of a fulfilling career, prioritize your own well-being and the happiness it brings you, rather than seeking validation from others. Stay true to yourself and find contentment in the path you choose, as it is within this authenticity that true fulfillment is discovered.

Wesley Tong and his horse

Wesley Tong’s career transformation from ExxonMobil Senior Trading & Chartering to a horse trainer exemplifies his courage and unwavering commitment to personal fulfillment. After working in prominent roles at ExxonMobil and BP Gas Trading/Origination, Wesley's decision to pursue his passion for horse training showcases his willingness to take risks and embrace a completely different path. His journey serves as an inspiration to those contemplating career changes, highlighting the transformative power of following one's true calling. Wesley's profound love for horses and his dedication to honing his skills make him a remarkable example of pursuing professional and personal satisfaction. His story encourages individuals to break free from traditional expectations and embrace the possibility of finding fulfillment in unexpected places.


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