By Hans Ebert
When, for some of us longtime Hong Kong Belongers, our parents, and those whom we respectfully called “aunties” and “uncles”, had the clout to get us 15-year-olds into places like the Craigengower Cricket Club Box (CCC) at Happy Valley Racecourse- a very big deal at the time- it was an invaluable education into the ins and outs of the early days of horse racing in Hong Kong. And listening to these elders speak knowingly about who they knew in the riding ranks, and how the sport could be choreographed, had the CCC and neighbouring private Boxes abuzz with conspiracy theories, especially after a race had been run. By then, our HK$50 pocket money had gone with Donald and his “troosers”. But, as they say, no worries. We were in the school of racing.
For a kid new to the sport, it was better than watching a thriller. These were real life mysteries with an intoxicating mélange of characters, some of whom became heroes while others eventually became, and still remain, friends. Many life lessons can be learned on a racetrack along with many tricks of the trade.
When, for example, the Quartet bet was first introduced, there were times when the first four runners crossed the line in Indian file with almost two lengths separating each horse, so there would be absolutely no margin for error when it came to guaranteeing the result.
Very few thought twice about any of these orchestral manoeuvres in the dark- probably not even what was then the Royal Hong Kong, which was hardly what the HKJC has evolved to become: Professional. Horse racing was still finding its legs in a city that was a British colony and forming its own identity. It was a unique city where many from everywhere came with nothing and became whatever they put their minds to be- high flying executives of the two five star hotels in town- the Hong Kong Hilton and Hyatt Regency- movie moguls, and entrepreneurs with the vision to see the future and who dated and married stunning June Dally-Watkins models, did the naughty afternoon delight fandango with Chinese starlets, and hobnobbed with Hollywood stars like Steve McQueen, Cary Grant, William Holden, Judy Garland, Eartha Kitt, Shirley MacLaine and others.
All these people were in that inner sanctum of horse racing.They owned horses, they wined, dined and entertained jockeys and trainers, and were privy to secrets and information. It’s probably why the interest in getting to know jockeys and trainers in Hong Kong continues today. Like insider trading on the stock market, knowing the right jockey or jockeys meant receiving tips. And with tips, there was easy money to be won. At least that’s always been the thinking though, very often, this can lead to misinformation overload.
Speak to those who still frequent once pukka private clubs like the Foreign Correspondents Club, and others where once “Chinese and dogs were not allowed”, and longtime members wistfully reminisce about those “good old days” when Aussie jockeys like the popular Peter “Gumbo” Gumbleton, below, who arrived in Hong Kong after a riding stint in Indonesia and stayed on for sixteen long years, Leon Fox, Bill Burnett, Ray Setches, the great Geoff Lane, the savvy Peter Miers, Glyn Pretty- an excellent jockey for that era- Bobby Elliot and trainers Bob Burns, Rod Turvey, Roy Edwards, Bruce Hutchison etc all worked together- and “shared the wealth” with the chosen few.
Their farewell send-off in 1977 at Happy Valley racecourse for English rider Eddie Cracknell, who was retiring from the sport, was particularly memorable. Aboard a horse named The Swinger, Cracknell was allowed to lead from start to finish, and jogged home at 11’s. The chasing party never chased. Why be party poopers?
The local racing uncles never looked a gift horse in the mouth. Like Cracknell’s final ride, which should never have gone off at 11s. Surely, it was a farewell gift? And there were plenty of gifts going around. It’s probably, why, even today, many local racing fans know the birthdays and engagements and marriages etc of jockeys. It’s all about gift-giving- horses, apparently, being set to win on these auspicious days. It might be wishful thinking, but it’s also part of the wonderfully rich fung shui-influenced tapestry of Hong Kong racing life where Chinese whispers and conspiracy theories abound.
Why do you think it’s imperative that every stable- and even the HKJC- holds a bysan ceremony before the start of every racing season to offer gifts to appease the gods of good fortune? Why are jockeys going through a lean trot asked to shave their heads to get rid of the bad luck and start again with better fung shui? There have been times when waiting to see which jockey would appear looking like Kojak became more important than knowing anything about form.
Sometimes, one needs to know and understand all these back stories to appreciate just how far horse racing in Hong Kong has progressed, and the ushering in of professional racing in this city. Was it when Hong Kong got its second racecourse in Shatin? Was it really in 1971-72?
There are many with very different views as to when this professionalism really happened. There have been many dress rehearsals and trials by error before Hong Kong racing has got to where it is today- the ability to host everything from December’s Greatest Show On Turf with its United Nation Of Jockeys during HKIR Week, the QE 2 Cup, sponsored Group 1 racing and the prize money to go with it, better horses, the world’s best riders, the evolution of the Happy Wednesday brand, co-mingling, the future that awaits at the Conghua training facilities in Guangzhou with everything and more that it could be, plus, probably more important of all, a far greater emphasis and importance placed on matters to do with integrity. But we’re going back to the future, Marty…
For those early settlers to Hong Kong racing, especially the teams of riders from the land Down Under, they seized the opportunities presented to them with both hands. This city was the land of milk and honey with a cherry on top. There might have been horse racing in Shanghai before the Chinese Cultural Revolution, but this was a different kind of revolution. The early settlers ran the show- literally- and when their time and gigs were up, there came the Gary Moore and Tony Cruz Years with cameos played by riders like Philip Robinson, Danny Brereton, Peter Leyshan, David Brosnan, Nigel Tiley, Englishman David Yates, Johnny Roe, all working closely with local jockeys and trainers. It was all about teamwork.
This teamwork included former champion jockey Cheng Tai-chee aka “Top Cat”, and local trainers who helped “enhance” the game and have it “evolve”- trainers like the “Silver Fox” that was Jerry Ng Chi-lam, pictured below with Tony Cruz, who definitely had the most difficult stable to follow at the time, Wong Tang-ping, and the always colourful and controversial Brian Kan.
It was King Kan who opened the doors in Hong Kong for South African riders when he retained the hugely talented Bart Leisher as his stable jockey.
Despite some of his highly publicised misadventures with female domestic helpers making headlines during his later years, Brian Kan could train- and had the powers of persuasion to convince his big spending owners to purchase some of the best equine talent around. Ask any jockey who rode for him- giants of the turf like Brent Thomson, Felix Coetzee, and Michael Kinane.
Off the track, there was the local racing media. Outspoken Chinese television racing personality Tung Biu waged a one-man crusade to rid the city of what he described as “The Australian Gang”. A former riding boy who wasn’t good enough to be a jockey, “Uncle Bill” turned his television show into pure showbiz. And more conspiracy theories.
With co-host Carlos Wu playing the straight man, Tung-biu jumped up and down, wagged his finger at the screen, showed what he considered dodgy rides in slow motion and became something akin to Hong Kong horse racing’s knight in shining armour. Others thought him to be a buffoon on a par with Basil Fawlty.
“His television show was just to get the ratings up,” says former jockey John Didham, “but ‘Uncle Bill’ was adamant about breaking up what he saw as team riding by the Aussie boys in Hong Kong at that time.” Didham, champion jockey in Macau for five hugely successful seasons, rode for “Uncle Bill” when he was issued a trainer’s license by the Macau Jockey Club.
“He trained his horses very hard, and had some unorthodox ways of going about things”, continues Didham, “but he never ever played any games. At one race meeting, I was riding two red hot favourites for the biggest owner in Macau. He wanted “Uncle Bill” to tell me to pull them up. He was having none of that and both had a slanging match in Cantonese in the paddock. Bill just told me to go ahead and win- and both horses did. Easily. On Monday, twenty five of the owner’s horses were moved to another stable. It didn’t faze Bill one bit. He really had my respect though some of the others riding in Macau at the time remembered how he had criticised them on his show when they were part of Hong Kong racing and wanted nothing to do with him.”
To those befriending the Aussie jockeys and trainers,Tung Biu was a party pooper. To balance out the flow of news about the sport, came the homophobic John Hardie, racing writer for the Star, which, ironically, was a tabloid started by an Australian homosexual named Graham Jenkins.
Apart from Hardie, who was the unofficial Public Relations Man and cheerleader for the Moore family, there was also SCMP racing writer and tipster Peter Metrevelli, erstwhile son of Russian trainer Nick Metrevelli. Metrevelli and George Sofronoff were White Russian former trainers in Shanghai who found themselves in Hong Kong after racing in China was banned.
Both were good, no nonsense trainers whose strikingly beautiful daughters- Nina and Lydia- were great trophy girlfriends to possess with the latter, pictured below with her parents and friends, being the longtime girlfriend of former jockey and trainer Eddie Lo.
Strangely- and maybe not so strangely- Eddie Lo didn’t ride much for George Sofronoff. That job mainly went to a young Tony Cruz whose career was very much on the rise despite Lo, seen by some, as a future champion jockey during their years together as the first batch of Hong Kong apprentices. Both are pictured right at the back in the picture below.
There was then Singaporean Ken Martinus, who was the racing writer for the Hong Kong Standard newspaper, and, somehow, came to run- not own- the bilingual racing bible and form guide known as Lowans. Martinus did well for himself, thanks to his friendship with the very astute trainer Ivan Allan. And what a full life Mr Allan was able to balance- on and off the track.
Working both sides of the fence were some legendary characters like the SCMP’s Robin Parke and Jim McGrath. Someone should write a book on Parkie, who knew his racing, he played a major role in the development of local football, he knew the art of social networking long before social media, and was instrumental in persuading a young South African rider named Douglas Whyte to try his luck in Hong Kong.
Of course, everything about horse racing in Hong Kong has improved in leaps and bounds. But, in some ways, because of the highly competitive environment that it is today, one tends to miss the regular jockeys lunches at venues like The Steakhouse at the Sheraton that brought so many different characters together. These would usually end at the hotel’s Someplace Else bar, where it became de rigeur for Hong Kong-based American jockey Declan Murphy, who went on, like many, to ride in Macau, to drive many away by insisting on singing a song. This type of camaraderie between the racing and non-racing crowd is missed.
Forgotten, too, are the great success stories- the partnership between jockey Nigel Tiley, trainer Peter Ng and champion grey Quicken Away.
There was the success that trainers Jerry Ng and the great George Moore enjoyed with owner Sanford Yung’s champion miler Silver Lining.
Trainer Wong Tang-ping’s hugely successful betting coups landed with horses like the Darryl Holland-ridden Piranha were legendary as was the success he and Tony Cruz enjoyed with the mighty Co-Tack.
There was also the enigmatic Eric Saint Martin, son of the great Yves Saint Martin, a brilliant jockey when in the mood, pictured below in Hong Kong, and today a trainer in France,the excellent Patrick Payne, flying visits by Lester Piggott, Pat Eddery, Kieran Fallon, Gary Stevens, Frankie Dettori, and so many others.
There was then the very close working relationship between Irish jockey Johnny Roe and owner Poon Wing-kai and his horses Ampere and Ampersand. Some say Roe, a one-time champion jockey in Ireland, made so much money from the wins for his owner friend that he bought a castle back home. It was known as “The castle Ampere built”.
There were those who made Hong Kong their home for a number of years- Gerald Mosse, Brent Thomson, Steven King, Darren Gauci, Craig Williams, Felix Coetzee, Glyn Schofield, Robbie Fradd, Shane Dye, Brett Prebble, Darren Beadman, and the long reign of South African rider Basil Marcus, pictured below aboard the Ivan Allan-trained Oriental Express.
And who was here can forget the first win in Hong Kong of Sacred Kingdom. Ridden by Danny Nikolic, the Ricky Yiu trained galloper won at 11s before trainer and jockey had an acrimonious parting of the ways and a jockey-go-round started. But there was no getting away from the fact that Sacred Kingdom was a brilliant sprinter.
Those in the know never worried to openly admit being part of a betting plunge the weekend earlier. Bragging rights? Perhaps. But their stories were never boring. These were often discussed with much relish while lunching with characters like Bob Saunders aka tipster “Captain Midnight” at his Casa Mexicana restaurant and meeting place for many in racing- the SCMP’s advertising manager Ambrose Turnbull, professional footballers Walter Gerard and Derek Currie, trainers Bruce Hutchison and David Hayes, below, and others- while out on his own was the mad punter that was Tony Morias.
Known for his betting forays in Macau during the very early days of the Macau Jockey Club, and to where many Hong Kong racing fans disappeared for a long weekend of debauchery, Tony Morias, below, very much part of the Hong Kong advertising industry through his successful post production house Videopost, was surrounded by various local Sponge Bobs- users and enablers.
It was no surprise to see Tony placing bets at the one time on three different mobile phones while furiously filling out various betting slips as more and more information- purposely bad information- was handed to him that often had him backing every horse in a race. Of course, he lost almost every race day, but in his mind, he was a winner. And when his horse Call The Police won- which wasn’t often- all of Macau was invited to the party. Like many, he was used. And when his well went dry, the Sponge Bobs disappeared.
Every party, however, has to end. The mysterious death in 2000 of high-flyer, and the always generous- with the money of others- New Zealander Mike Bastion, a friend of many very well-known expats in racing, who, apparently, fell from the sixth floor of his apartment in the Mid Levels owing hundreds of millions to many, was a loud wake-up call. Sinatra was singing, “The Party’s Over” in the background.
Away from the off-course parties, the HKJC was busy improving every aspect of its racing product. And the Club wasn’t prepared to accept any nonsense. There was a new sheriff in town- John Shreck, below, who replaced the American Clinton Pitts Jr in 1999 as chief stipendiary steward along with then-Executive Director of Racing- Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges.
Both didn’t suffer fools gladly along with shenanigans, which saw some careers in Hong Kong grind to a halt.
Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges was to eventually become the HKJC’s CEO in February of 2008 taking over the reins from Larry Wong, a non-racing man whose highlight in his curriculum vitae was heading Ford Motors in Taiwan. That was a different type of horse power, and Wong, the first ethnic Chinese to be given this position, was always an odd choice to be CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club. Simply put, he didn’t know nor was really interested in horse racing.
As for Engelbrecht-Bresges, who came from one of the best known racing families in Germany, it was all business. Both he and John Schreck cleaned up horse racing in Hong Kong with Security and Integrity issues, on and off the track, taking on a far greater importance. And working with the late Alan Li, then Chairman of the HKJC, horse owner, and a very knowledgeable horse racing gentleman whose dream was to see Hong Kong racing become international, this happened. It was the logical next step. And it has evolved into something few could have predicted. Not even Alan Li.
Like everything in life, one respects and learns from the past. It might have been an imperfect past, but the present isn’t exactly a model of perfection either. Everything can only get better.
For horse racing, it teaches one to read people better, and, in time, be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. After all, some of us have learnt from the best- street smart jockeys who could smell a con at twenty paces, and a few- very few- racing executives, who were never- and never could be one dimensional people oblivious to the big wide world around them.
Racing also teaches one to read the mood of a city. And in a city like Hong Kong that’s presently undergoing enormous political and social changes, the HKJC has all the ammunition to look at its racing product, then re-look at it, refine it, redefine it, and be extremely proud of all that it’s achieved. It’s come a very long way from the days of the rather amateurishly run Royal Hong Kong Jockey to the sleek, well-oiled machine that it has evolved to become- and keeps evolving- and the team it has in place to welcome the world for the greatest week of Group 1 racing- this December’s Longines Hong Kong International Races week. And every year, this event gets bigger and better.
There might be the days when one wants to give the sport away. But, to paraphrase what Michael Corleone said in “Godfather 2” about family business, there’s always something that pulls you back in- positive somethings like everything Silent Witness did with his wins to lift the spirits of a city living under the cloud of the SARS crisis.
We’ve cheered on the exploits and achievements of Douglas Whyte, Zac Purton and Joao Moreira and our equine heroes- Silent Witness, Sacred Kingdom, Good Ba Ba, Indigenous, Lucky Nine, Viva Pataca, Vengeance Of Rain and Fairy King Prawn.
We’ll remember with great fondness Lawrie Fownes, Ivan Allan, the gentleman that was Brian Taylor, the riding talent of Philippe Paquet, and the humour, kindness and knowledge of Robin Parke.
We also have all those memories that might have started at the races, but became a long train running and a journey into that glorious unknown. And this journey shows no signs of coming to a full stop. There are always new passengers opening doors and coming along for the ride.
The unknown factor. That’s what racing has always been about, especially in a small city like Hong Kong. It’s quite amazing to think how much this city that once was a barren rock has given and keeps giving the sport- a past, a present and a future.
Stand up, Hong Kong and take a bow. Together, we did it! We’re one big United Colours Of Benetton poster and the living embodiment of a Nike advertisement.