HONG KONG HORSE RACING: WHAT A LONG AND STRANGE RIDE IT’S BEEN

By Hans Ebert
@hanseberthk

My aunt and uncle were the only racing fans in the family though family friends were loyal supporters of the sport in Hong Kong. My father would always remind me that Ceylon, where we came from, was, with India, the first country in Asia to have professional horse racing and where an Australian jockey named Ted Fordyce, below, ruled the racecourse in Colombo.

Years later, when George Moore returned to Macau via Hong Kong, whenever we would meet, he would tell me the same thing, adding that Ted Fordyce, below, was known to him as The Railwayman. After that it would be some story about Lester Piggott that could never be published. Old George could impersonate Lester better than anyone.

The sometimes locked down memory bank was jolted open when explaining to a friend that unlike her and her friends, no one living in Hong Kong has grown up around horses. We’re not “horsey people” and don’t have that passion for horses that often spills over into horse racing and, these days, discussing horse racing on social media. Seen any farms and open pastures recently in Hong Kong with kids riding horses?

Apart from those race meetings in Happy Valley and Sha Tin plus the two riding schools, the only horses many here have seen are those in the merry go round at the amusement park in Lai Chee Kok and when there was Hoss in the television series Bonanza and My Little Pony for the young ones.

It’s why most Hong Kong Belongers look at horse racing as a casual pastime. Some of those born with a silver spoon in their mouths usually become part of the sport to continue the family tradition and for that very important part of Hong Kong life known as “face”. To go with the mansion on the hill, the Ferrari and Lamborghini and being the head of a publicity listed company on the stock market, there’s a desperate need to become a member of the Hong Kong Jockey Club and be able to own a horse- not some lower class conveyance, but a Group 1 galloper. It’s a status symbol.

Looking at how far racing in Hong Kong has progressed and continues to progress, it’s almost incredulous to think that race meetings were held once a week at Happy Valley racecourse during the Fifties with the riders being amateur jockeys known as gentleman riders. Note the totalisator.

For some reason, the most well known of these were Macanese such as Joe Pereira, Tony Silva and Johnny Cruz, below with trainers Nick Metrevelli and Peter Tse. Johnny Cruz was the father of Tony Cruz, who, as most of us know, went on to become a Champion jockey and trainer and is Hong Kong racing’s favourite son.

All three worked at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in pretty lowly positions. One can only assume that their decision to become jockeys, apart from their stature, was perhaps doing the maths and seeing an opportunity to make some extra money. With some in my family being members of Club Lusitano along with these jockeys and many of the Portuguese community in Hong Kong, there was plenty of gossip about whatever was going on or supposed to happen in a particular race.

To a kid growing up, the conspiracy theories put forward by adults were amusing and kinda goofy at a time when horse racing in Hong Kong was still trying to find its legs just as was this barren rock that was the trophy won by the British following that dirty little war known as the Opium Wars and when crooked taipans ran big business in what was a colony.

If you haven’t, read “Taipan” and “Noble House” by James Clavell to understand Hong Kong under colonial rule and why many still have the emotional scars to prove it. It’s been tough going to get where we are today.

There was a time when the future of horse racing looked blurred. The great fire of Happy Valley racecourse on February 26,1919 saw 590 people lose their lives.

On January 2, 1960, then champion jockey Marcel Samarcq, below, died after a fatal fall during race four, and the rest of the meeting was abandoned.

From what the city’s racing uncles and aunties recall, Marcel Samarcq, a Frenchman, was champion jockey in Tianjin, China before becoming champion jockey here for three seasons. Apparently, he was on his way to Australia before making a stopover in Hong Kong and deciding to make this city his home. He is said to have been a good rider and family man.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong was trying to take shape despite being battered by a series of fires and typhoons.

Amongst the trams, sampans, rickshaws and sailors on R’nR taking in whatever awaited them in the red light district of Wanchai, the Hong Kong hotel, where my father managed to find a job, became the Hong Kong Hilton, the city’s first international hotel, and which attracted Hollywood royalty to the city.

William Holden, below, Cary Grant, Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, Sammy Davis Jr, Steve McQueen were regular visitors, often to have their suits made here through my father’s connection Tailor Cheung. He was Hong Kong’s first celebrity tailor and my old man received a free suit as his commission for bringing in business.

There was then the day the Beatles came to town in 1964 with Jimmy Nicol deputising for Ringo who’d just had his tonsils removed. The boys performed one very short show at the Princess Theatre the next day and word has it that they had a fab time hard days night. And why the hell not?

Meanwhile, two entrepreneurial brothers from Singapore- Runme and Run Run Shaw- created Tiger Balms Garden before starting up the local film industry with the setup of Shaw Brothers.

Li Ka-shing went from making and selling plastic flowers in North Point to becoming Hong Kong’s richest man whereas Stanley Ho became Macau’s casino magnate and one of Hong Kong’s most powerful horse owners.

Somewhere along the way, the glamour of the film industry and those with style and ambition rubbed shoulders with horse racing- the real horsepower who were horse owners who controlled jockeys and stables.

Those Saturday afternoon race meetings usually watched from the balcony on the fourth floor of the Happy Valley racecourse which houses the various recreation clubs for almost every nationality were a welcome respite to going shopping, attending a tea dance and going to the movies. There wasn’t anything else happening except perhaps enjoying a HK$1.80 Hon Lok Yuen box lunch.

For what seems a long time, a heavyweight rider born in Kobe, Japan, named Kenny Kwok became the champion gentleman rider in Hong Kong after first achieving success in Macau. He was more of a “businessman rider” and was associated with the Royal HKJC until the professional era was ushered in during the early Seventies.

Russian horse trainers George Sofronoff, below, and Nick Metrevelli arrived in Hong Kong from Shanghai where the sport was flourishing. The fallout after the Cultural Revolution ended all that and so much more. Hong Kong slowly began to takeover where Shanghai had left off though we didn’t know it at the time.

The city then saw the reign of Cheng Tai-chee aka Top Cat, who became champion jockey from 1968 to 1975, pictured below after a win for Jerry Ng Chi-lam aka The Silver Fox and the Wile E Coyote of Hong Kong racing, with Geoff Lane, one of the first Australian riders to make his mark in Hong Kong and who later took up a position with the HKJC.

During all these changes taking place, Hong Kong had attracted many looking for the next Great Gold Rush and saw somewhere where anyone with something to sell could be someone. Of course, this included expatriate jockeys and trainers who worked alongside their local counterparts. These were early days, but everyone knew there would come the day very quickly when there would be plenty of everything to go around.

Movies like “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing” and all the publicity to find an unknown actress to play the title role in “The World Of Susie Wong” about a prostitute and a struggling American artist glamourised Hong Kong and put it on the map as a good, exotic and cost effective location for film productions.

It’s funny to think about the huge controversy that this film starring Nancy Kwan and William Holden caused in Hong Kong. It supposedly tackled a taboo subject. Maybe for that time it did, but it did really do a helluva lot to launch the cheongsam and the women who knew how to wear one to accentuate their best qualities.

All this plus the bargain basement shopping available in the lanes in Central, the rise and rise of the nouveau riche, and the opportunities offered to those who had a good idea made Hong Kong a magnet for many who snapped up property and became the city’s richest families.

Not surprisingly, an exclusive old Boys Club quickly came into being that included film makers, club owners, hoteliers and soon-to-be property tycoons- a Club where all members were involved in horse racing in one way or another and were adamant to make the sport work, mainly for their benefit. Why else?

Australian jockeys like Glyn Pretty, Bill Burnett, Peter Gumbleton, Geoff Lane, and Leon Fox, who rode all those “Money” horses in those familiar black and red colours for owner Eric Cumine led by the champion Money Talks, were some of the “early settlers”.

As with any business, it was imperative to be first- to get in there before others discovered the golden goose and wanted a share of the eggs it laid.

In horse racing, the first crop of apprentice jockeys were being introduced led by Eddie Lo and another kid named Tony Cruz, pictured in the back row. Eddie Lo had his moments, but Cruz control was born to ride and become the legend he became- locally and internationally.

More foreign jockeys heard about the racing in Hong Kong- and realised its potential- and made what was a city still on a very steep learning curve, their home- Eddie Cracknell, Joe Mercer, Wally Hood, cameo appearances by Pat Eddery and Lester Piggott and others.

A very much unsung hero of Hong Kong racing is Robin Parke, racing editor for the South China Morning Post, who did everything above and beyond the call of duty to get racing here up and running. We lost “Parkie”, below interviewing fellow Irishman Pat Eddery, much too soon. If not for his insistence, Douglas Whyte wouldn’t have thought of coming out to Hong Kong. He was a champion.

Perhaps the most interesting and astute- and controversial- of all the jockeys was Peter Miers. Often there’s the feeling that the role of this jockey pictured below has been overlooked. This line might result in some raised eyebrows, but it has to do with how much one knows and was allowed to travel under the radar because of protection from power brokers and those who didn’t have these defenders on their side.

Dubbed “The Organiser” by many in the racing fraternity, Miers, a very intelligent horseman formed a hugely successful partnership with West Australian trainer Bob Burns. According to those familiar with those days, Peter Miers rarely did much track work. He was apparently more interested in watching the horses work and deciding who should ride what, something which always confused punters, and gave Miers the reputation of always flying too close to the sun.

Outspoken Chinese television racing personality Tung Biu, below, took it upon himself to constantly take aim against the jockey. He wasn’t scared to hint very broadly that Miers was behind team riding by the Australian jockeys.

It was never proven though it was not exactly a surprise to see a Peter Miers ride pop up at huge odds and the favourite run a shocker. And then when he wanted to, the jockey would turn it on like the day he rode five of the six winners that day. The other ride came second.

Speaking to him around three years ago, Peter Miers was forthcoming about his acrimonious relationship with Major-General Bernard Penfold, General Manager of the then Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club whom he referred to as “Bernie” and “Captain” to, as puts it, “bring him down a peg”.

He described Tung Biu as a “bigot”, lost a court case to have the Club renew his riding license, and showed his caring side when talking about Ray Setches, who took his life in 1999 after falling into debt. Setches, below, was a terrific rider. “If we knew he was going through a hard time, we would have passed the hat around and helped him out,” said Miers, adding, “Ray helped many who I see on television and none of them did anything to repay him”.

With the Shatin racecourse opened on October 7,1978- “Nobody thought that piece of reclaimed land would become the racecourse it’s become,” admitted Peter Miers- there was an important changing of the guard taking place. More new riders were making Hong Kong their home- Brent Thomson, David Brosnan, Geoff Allendorf, Danny Brereton, and the very underrated rider Nigel Tiley- whereas the reign of Cheng Tai-chee, pictured below with a very young Gary Moore, ended and the Moore Dynasty took shape and eventually took control.

Backed by his father George Moore, Gary Moore became champion jockey, and the next few years were something of a tag team with the Jockeys Premiership shared between Gary Moore and Tony Cruz. The young guns, both world class riders, were calling the shots. The racing media might have tried to create rivalry between the two, but these two talented jockeys got along fine. They still do.

By now, horse racing was becoming a serious business with almost everyone wishing to be friends with the young Moore and Cruz. They were extremely successful riders and oozed new money.

Of course, though some wanted to be their friends for some “insider trading”, others simply wanted to be seen in their company. It was as “prestigious” as saying Bruce Lee was your friend. Lee, by the way, was determined to instil Chinese pride in Hong Kong after how he was treated in Hollywood which was very much a closed shop. The day my elder cousins took him racing to Happy Valley was supposed to have been surreal.

Having Tony Cruz attend your birthday party was also a big deal whereas to the big punters, well, they built up their own groups that only included the local trainers, jockeys and track riders. Everyone was for sale and some were more expensive to “purchase” than others. They were always a few lengths ahead when it came down to hammering out a deal.

Just as the once barren rock was growing up and shaking off the past and creating its future knowing full well that 1997 and The Handover was just a shot away, horse racing in Hong Kong was becoming much more than anyone could have imagined. The evolvement continues today.

Every iconic and controversial jockey has ridden here- Michael Kinane, below, The Gauch, Brian Taylor, Steven King, Fallon, Brian Rouse, the enigmatic and brilliant Eric Saint Martin, Shane Dye, Daryl Holland, Philippe Paquet, Danny Nikolic, Walter Swinburn, John Roe, Noel Barker, John Marshall, Brian York and so many others.

Working with them were trainers like, of course, George Moore, Jerry Ng, Wong Tang-ping, Peter Ng, Rod Turvey, Frank Carr, Roy Edwards and Brian Kan, below, who was the first trainer to bring a South African rider to Hong Kong- the brilliant Bart Leisher.

The local jockeys went along for the ride knowing theirs were very much supporting roles- jockeys like Rambo Tse, MC Tam and almost every local trainer working together. They were making up the numbers.

Somehow, Hong Kong and horse racing travelling along a very similar path. Like love and marriage there couldn’t be one without the other and we wouldn’t be where we are today- a city and sport that’s had its dark periods, but has come through it all, beaten the odds and become two world class products that really complement each other. What a long and strange trip it’s been…And it’s far from over.

TedFordyce #GeorgeMoore #LesterPiggott #HappyValley #JoePereira #TonySilva #JohnnyCruz #NickMetrevelli #PeterTse #MarcelSamarcq #HKJC #KennyKwok #GeorgeSofronoff #NickMetrevelli #ChengTai-chee #JerryNgChi-lam #RobinParke #PeterMiers #RamboTse #MCTam

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