It was a very different time when Peter Miers landed in Hong Kong in the early Seventies and horse racing, caught between staying an amateur sport and turning professional, could have zig-zagged its way around the Mercedes Bends and ended up a million lengths away from the powerful, all-conquering industry it is today.
Now, 71 and with a memory as sharp as a tact- names, dates, blinkers first time- and having been part of the many faces and facets of racing in the UK, France- and where he almost rode for George Moore- Australian-born Peter Miers has an international perspective of the sport which very few probably knew he has.
He’s paid his dues, he’s played the game, he’s also changed the game, and he’s no one’s fool- instead, pragmatic, realistic and open.
He talks candidly about those days when a jockey in Hong Kong did what they were told- and how these orders didn’t come from trainers.
Jockeys were “bought” like hired guns, and brought to Hong Kong where they failed and succeeded depending on how well their bosses fared on the punt.
Peter Miers, aka “Ma petah”, was one of the best operators around- an astute horseman who knew more about the horses he rode than any figurehead trainer.
Though vilified every week about many of his rides by outspoken Chinese racing personality Tung Biu, below, on the post-race Turf Talk television show produced, I was reminded, by one Circle Ho, the jockey survived the slings and arrows of outrage and conspiracy theories where most others would have failed- or thrown in the towel and sang, Vaya Con Dios.
Asked about Tung Biu, Miers shrugs him off as a “bigot” who saw what he wanted to see and shared his thoughts with his huge following of local racing fans. No big deal to him.
Tung Biu was adamant- and obsessed- that an “Aussie Gang” was controlling Hong Kong racing with Miers being the captain of the team and deciding who did what in a race at a time when most of the jockeys riding here were, well, Australian.
The “internationalism” of the sport in Hong Kong had yet to happen and become the United Colors of Benetton poster that it is today.
He keeps names to himself, but is open about his relationship with what was then the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club and his sometimes volatile dealings with an “untouchable” like Major Bernard Penfold, the General Manager, below, whom he enjoyed calling “Bernie” to “bring him down a peg or two”, and then “wiped off a few stripes from his uniform by demoting him and calling him Captain.”
Though when the Club refused him a riding license in 1994 and Miers took his case to High Court, flew in a QC from the UK, and has some revealing facts about the judge who presided over his case, the former jockey bears no ill-feeling towards Hong Kong racing. Far from it.
He follows it, he knows who the new players are, he tries to visit whenever he can and seems proud to have played whatever role he might have done in shaping it.
What many forget are Peter Miers’ accomplishments in Hong Kong as his reputation as “The Organizer” of the “Aussie Gang” is a more colorful story to hear about and “adorn”.
Was he “The Organizer”?
In any business, someone needs to keep things ticking away, and if this means “organizing” things, maybe.
But his five wins outta six rides on a seven-race card in Shatin is a phenomenal achievement- all the horses being under the care of “his” trainer Bob Burns, son of Perth racing’s famous Robert Burns Snr, and with their sixth runner coming second.
When he talks about one of his winners being “pole-axed” by Irish jockey Christy Roche seventeen days earlier when ridden by Kevin Moses, and how he told the trainer to slap on blinkers and had it go off at 40s, but backed in the quinellas, “The Organiser”, or just a very smart jockey comes to the fore. Riveting stuff.
Listening to Peter Miers is a history lesson and with everything said being an entertaining buffet where one can choose the best dishes to dig deeper into and keep the others fresh and on ice for another day.
Looking back about those plans for a second racecourse, he’s open about how the jockeys riding in Hong Kong at that time felt it: “Never in a million years did we ever think that piece of reclaimed land would become the Shatin racecourse, let alone how quickly it opened for racing.”
As for the quality of riders in Hong Kong at the time, he’s modest: “We were all about the same- Eddie Cracknell, Peter Gumbleton, Ray Setches, Christy Roche, and Geoff Lane, who always thought the crowds of 48,000 had all come to see him”. He laughs thinking about Lane.
He remembers the Terry Hore episode when the Sydney-born amateur jockey disappeared on a race day before being found in a bar in Wanchai saying he was suffering from amnesia.
“That was triad related, wasn’t it?” he asks to someone who wouldn’t ever go there.
He talks about winning on Scotch Mist for owner Sir Sydney Gordon on that first day of racing at Shatin and those days when John Moore was a jockey- he is a huge fan of Moore as a trainer and targeting the Group 1 races- and when the season ended in May and there were around only 34 race meetings.
He mentions racing journalist Matthew Oram writing an unflattering piece about him for a Club magazine naming all the high-priced winners he had ridden compared to the favourites on which he had been rolled, his final winner in Hong Kong- Hidoon Fashion for owner Lamson Kwok- and his thoughts about the best Chinese jockey at the time- Cheng Tai-chee, below- Irish jockey Wally Hood (“Wally was no idiot”), trainer Eric Collingwood (“He had no idea what he was doing”) and just how much they tried to give Johnny Cruz, the late father of Tony Cruz, a winner, but how, “He just couldn’t win!”
Where I heard a different side to Peter Miers was when we talked about his fellow rider Ray Setches, below, who took his own life in 1999 after running into debt and which led to the free-fall into depression that has seen us also lose Neil Williams, Sethi Katsidis and too many others.
“If we’d known what Ray was going through, we could have easily taken the hat around and bailed him out of his troubles. Ray helped many whom I see on television these days being big men to the public- but they are not. They never repaid Ray, they turned their back on him- and are not for me”.
“The Organizer”, a great jockey- a hugely underrated one and trail blazer to many Aussie jockeys who have made Hong Kong their home at one time or another- and a great friend to those who have remained friends with him over the good and not-so-good times- Brent Thomson immediately comes to mind and who put me in touch with him- Peter Miers is a gentleman- straight-forward, perhaps a little misunderstood, and, I am tipping, with far more fascinating racing stories than Dick Francis could ever write.
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