Sammy Hyland sending me the photo below of Johnny Didham had Mary Hopkin singing “Those Were The Days” over and over in my head.
It had me thinking about a time when the Macau Jockey Club looked like finding its feet and being this smaller and more “boutique” version of Hong Kong racing in what was still a Portuguese complex and where many of us would take that jetfoil from Shun Tak Centre for the weekend- and never ever knowing what to expect on “the dark side”.
Some of us, like racing journo and damn fine pace bowler Chris Collins, never came back after a tragic- they’re all bloody tragic- accident when the car he was traveling in threw him out and over the Taipa bridge.
We also lost a friend in lawyer Gary Alderdice, below, when he and his Russian girlfriend whom he tried to buy out of the clutches of gangsters, were both killed in Vladistock in a horrific way that remains fresh in many memories.
Though there was always an underlying element of danger as one never knew who, at that time, some of the Eastern European operators and Chinese “brothers” who befriended us really wanted, going to Macau for the weekend was never about the races nor the punt.
There were strong friendships built along the way and we were all big kids in a candy store in this non-stop adult playground- and, often, circus- that made the lifestyle of The Wolf Of Wall Street look like an episode of Leave It To Beaver.
Anything and everything happened in Macau and what happened in Macau stayed in Macau.
It was The Hangover before The Hangover and how some of us are still alive to remember those days and talk about them is a minor miracle.
At that time, most of the talking and making plans to Do The Hanky Panky at Darling, Club De China, The Mandarin Bar, the arcades at the Lisboa when slumming and lost along the way, always began at the Hyatt Regency on Taipa island.
For those from Hong Kong who checked in to the hotel, it was the start of a few days of total relaxation- a million lifetimes away from the business of Hong Kong and all the stresses of that city across the bay.
For around a thousand bucks, we had penthouse suites large enough for a party of ten, never-ending room service and a revolving door of characters. And what characters.
There was my great mate Neil Paine who remains a great mate and one of the worst singers known to mankind whose karaoke sessions has nearly got us beaten up by the triads many times.
There was the very talented rider Colin Dean who, at that time, was riding for Singaporean trainer Charles Leck and eventually saw his career fall through the cracks, especially after crossing a group of gangsters during a riding stint in India with fellow jockey Mark Gallagher.
Riding with them at the time was average jockey Simon Jones, who had the knack of undoing some of the best laid plans during a race.
There was the larger-than-life trainer John Gilmore, former trots driver Joe Barnes, Gordon Benson, track work rider Fergus Gallagher, former amateur Hong Kong jockey-turned-trainer George Williams, jockeys Geoff Allendorf, Bobby Vance who married the stunning Swedish rider Jenny Moeller, Harry Troy before he became the Club’s resident race caller, Philip Waldren and Robert Heffernan.
And then there was the very colorful owner Tony Morias aka “The Black Rat” whose punting “skills” were as legendary as all that bling he wore around his neck.
Yes, Tony’s punts were that big- and that bad- mainly because of his trust in one particular con man who would give him “last minute tips”- last minute tips that kept coming through for around ten minutes.
When the race was on, Tony had made around six bets with the bookies.
Even when he won, he lost and the sight of a confused Tony Morias sitting at his table counting his many betting slips after a race- and then playing catch-up- was not a great sight. It was a warning to all.
Those on “the other side” and not part of the group most of us moved with were the American Murphy brothers- Joe, the trainer, and Declan, who rode with some success in Hong Kong- a nice enough guy though his brother was an acquired taste who had- gawd forbid- been Assistant Trainer to Natalis Chan, the well-known current photo hogging owner in Hong Kong who never ever loses on the punt.
Once the lead singer with a band christened The Loosers by then-manager Pato Leung, who also races horses in Hong Kong, Chan was a flamboyant character who, for some weird reason, was given a trainer’s license- perhaps for his roller deck of owners- whereas Joe Murphy did all the donkey work.
Perhaps that’s why he was pissed off most of the time.
Danny Brereton rode for the Chan/Murphy duopoly until Chan gave up his training career, but still ran to be in any winning photographs whenever one of “his” horses won, and the result of the first MJC Derby where Joe Murphy trained the race favourite- Rock’n Roll- remains a recurring nightmare.
My friend and fellow music company executive Norman Cheng owned Rock ‘n Roll which was the 2 to1 favourite for the big race after four consecutive wins- facile wins- and after weeks and even months of discussing what was to run the tierce- Rock’n Roll just could not be beat- we arrived in Macau that weekend, had a pre-race celebration party, and finally made it to the course on that eventful Sunday afternoon.
Joe Murphy was bullish, we looked at the quinella odds with the only horse capable of running second, Norman made his bets- openly- with the “banned” bookies, Martell was served from the moment we sat down, photos were taken and it was then down to the paddock.
Months of planning riding tactics, months of obtaining information from trainers, riders, mafoos etc about the other runners at the restaurant called Portico on Hong Kong side- a popular meeting place when Macau-based jockeys and trainers would come over- had now arrived.
As cameras swirled around my friend Norman and the posse he had brought with him, someone, who should remain anonymous, mumbled that something was “not right” with the horse. I had whiplash.
My friend had practically bet the grandstand on his horse, but this being Macau and this being the MJC where many who could never ever even get into the HKJC carpark ran things as Executives, I heeded the warning and watched the race- only pretending to have had a bet.
Rock’n Roll came fourth. It was never ever going to win. The race went to the 35 to 1 outsider Royal Knight trained by Johnny Gilmore which Rock’n Roll had comprehensively beaten when they had previously met.
As my owner friend turned a whiter shade of pale and looked to wobble in his chair, us around him really didn’t know what to say.
Joe Murphy rushed to our table to offer him those explanations trainers do to all owners when a “sure thing” gets beaten: All the blame was heaped on the shoulders of jockey Danny Brereton.
What had happened? Who knew, and until this day, no one is saying though the rumours persist, but that day, the ferry ride back to Hong Kong- plans for the celebration dinner and karaoke session were abandoned- was a very quiet one- almost reflective in a sad, loss of huge face way.
Soon afterwards, Joe Murphy and Danny Brereton parted ways and what next happened to Rock’n Roll is hazy.
Life in Macau continued to the sounds of two of the worst race-callers in Franco Lau and some Indian bloke and pretty average racing until the Moore Circus rolled into Taipa- a huge coup for the MJC which was starting to see its image cheapened through openly illegal bookies on-course, odds changing while races were being run and jockeys having their licenses revoked- if they won.
So, when the Club made the legendary George Moore an offer he couldn’t refuse, there was a glimmer of hope that racing would be on the up and up as no one dared screw with the Maestro.
The offer was for George to be trainer, son Gary would be stable rider with son-in-law Peter Leyshan- such a good jockey- riding second string. And here, the fun started.
Say what you may about Gary Moore, but I like him. Yes, he’s strange, he’s surreal, he’s prone to bouts of bizarre behavior, but he is never ever vindictive or political. He takes the knocks with humour, he works hard, and he’s seen the very highs and lows of racing.
So, when a trainer, he kissed jockeys- on the lips- when they would win on his horses?
He would also jock them off and jump on them after training a winner.
He once emulated Sir Walter Raleigh by taking off his jacket and laying it on the ground so that his most important owner- casino magnate Stanley Ho- wouldn’t step into a puddle of water.
Weird? Sure- but perfectly normal for Gary Moore.
As a jockey, he would throw his whip into the crowd- and, after the races, he could be seen searching for it in case it hadn’t been caught by his fan club.
All this, well, STUFF, continued until old George retired, Gary became a trainer- Macau’s Champion trainer many times- changed jackets, changed wives, but, to this day, lives in Gary World with his new family, his old family, severe Botox and soon off to Sydney for the next chapter of his life.
As for Macau racing, we saw the reign of Jose Corrales as Champion jockey- he never made that transition to successful trainer- the great “Babe” Brent Thomson made a cameo appearance before deciding that even Peter Pan must grow up, Tony Ives arrived from the UK, Johnny Roe did his best as a trainer, Mick Dittman made a few guest appearances, but nothing took off like The Didham Years in full flight.
Stevie Arnold was riding in Macau at that time as were Sammy Hyland and David Taggart, South African MJ Odendahl, Robbie Burke, Michael Cahill, Christian Reith and the hugely talented but wayward Eric Saint Martin, Olivier Doleuze, Fausto Durso, Brent Stanley, Alan Calder and Manuel Nunes were to follow, but Johnny Didham was the best.
He really was the Dougie Whyte of Macau- quiet, watchful, clever in a race, financially savvy off the track, strong in a finish and with great staying power, something also seen to great effect at our legendary lunches that lasted 24 hours, starting at noon at California in Lan Kwai Fong, winding its way to Post 1997, ending at TOTT’s at the Excelsior and, along the way, thinking we just might have something in manufacturing tongue scrapers.
It’s a long story.
So has been this one.