The first of the annual Macau-Hong Kong “inter-port” meetings took place at Taipa last Sunday with the Tony Cruz trained Romantic Touch strolling to victory under Joao Moreira and taking out the Cup. All very nice, but that’s the small stuff. There’s far more at stake away from prying eyes.
Missing on course for the first time since these annual Macau versus Hong Kong race meetings have taken place was the presence of the always interesting and extremely powerful businesswoman Angela Leong On-kei, below, a director and Vice Chairman of the Macau Jockey Club, and fourth wife of casino magnate and Chairman of the racing club Stanley Ho, who never fails to catch the eye of the fashion police.
One supposes she’s the Alexis Carrington in this horse opera though having once been this writer’s neighbour, when on the charm offensive, Angela Leong is a fascinating beast and certainly no fool.
While the presentation ceremony was taking place one couldn’t help thinking back to those days when the Macau Jockey Club first opened and so much was expected from this racing club that has always had a certain “indie” spirit. It was where rules were meant to be broken. For example, despite signs everywhere screaming out “NO MOBILE PHONES”, there under the noses of security guards, almost everyone was on their phones making bets through their bookies.
These were the good old days before everything was allowed to cave in and when jockey licenses often depended on who followed orders and didn’t disrupt the best laid plans by those “upstairs” and, especially during Tuesday’s night races, where the totalisator started to change halfway through a race. 5 to 1 would suddenly crash to 2 to 1.
When, however, Macau racing was first finding its feet, it was always a great weekend out of Hong Hong to the then-Portuguese enclave, especially during those five years when John Didham, below with the late outspoken racing personality and celebrity trainer Tung Biu, reined supreme and was the Douglas Whyte and Joao Moreira of Macau.
Johnno had something many jockeys lacked: brains. He also knew the importance of listening and taking it all in. He made those five years in Macau work for him and is often back there on various fact finding missions. He understands the lay of the land.
Personally, he’s always been one of those very rare species of successful businessmen jockeys. The Thinking Man’s Jockey even during our very long lunches at California in Lan Kwai Fong where our table was a constantly expanding one where different characters came and went as we discussed marketing plans for the launch of The Tongue Scraper. One doubts John shared the same vision for this revolutionary new product to get rid of bad breath. He was too busy eating his Fried Chicken Breast with extra mashed potatoes and all the trimmings. It was a sight to behold. Weight? What weight?
Nothing going on with racing in Victoria today escapes him. He’s seen it all and knows who’s playing what games. Perhaps those years riding in Macau was a great school of learning for what’s going on behind the curtain.
Getting back to those early days of the Macau Jockey Club with long lunches at Fernando’s and always meeting up with the usual suspects at the Hyatt Regency Taipa’s the day before the Saturday races. Ahhhh, for those weekends at the Taipa Hyatt.
On course, there was always some form of entertainment. For example, there was that memorable rainy afternoon when then-trainer Gary Moore laid his canary yellow jacket down over a pool of mud so that VIP owner and unofficial ruler of Macau Stanley Ho wouldn’t get his shoes wet. Sir Walter Raleigh would have been impressed.
If nothing else, Gazza was gallant. He was also a fashion icon, who, during his sartorially splendid days in Macau would give the regally attired Sikh doormen at the Mandarin Oriental and Furama hotels in Hong Kong a run for their money.
There are many Gary Moore Macau Moments- kissing jockeys who won on his horses, jumping aboard some of his winners when returning for the winning photographs, and, when still riding, throwing his boots into the crowds before realising that he still had to ride in the next race. This meant sending out a search party for his boots.
Away from The Adventures Of Gazza, there were also those attempts at betting coups that often went horribly wrong.
A well-known plan was for the jockey to send out a signal to his punters when going around the parade ring that the money was to go on. The signal was to either have the whip tucked under the left or right arm. The problem was when after a long night the day before, the punters couldn’t remember whether that meant the rider’s left arm or “camera left”. Many of those 50/50 guesses were a hundred percent wrong.
There was then the much anticipated debut run of a former Robert Smerdon trained miler named Montana Max.
Nicknamed “Trigger” by jockey Geoff Allendorf as it was certainly showy, Montana Max, trained in Macau by Peter Leyshan, was the most expensive purchase at the time and was expected to romp home. Sure.
With Craig Robertson aboard, the galloper was sent out as a 7 to 1 shot with stablemate Fun Fun Fun ridden by Neil Paine meant to set the pace. At almost 40s, Fun Fun Fun set the pace so well that it led all the way. Montana Max was never sighted. The owners managed to sell it on to someone else in Macau- a smart move as Montana Max kept going backwards.
What a crew sailed through Taipa in those early days- the good, the bad and the fugly with a few wolves of Wall Street thrown in- advertising man and rabid punter Tony Morias, who would get so many tips from enablers and users that he often ended up betting on every horse in a race and wondered why he was down for the day.
There were the usual long nights at the Mandarin Hotel bar after the races. There were also some very good riders in the jockey ranks- Tony Ives, Geoff Allendorf, Bobby Vance, Jose Coralles, Robert Heffernan, Danny Brereton, the brilliant and enigmatic Eric Saint Martin, Olivier Delouze at the top of his game, William Mongil, Stevie Arnold, and yes, Gary Moore, below after a win in Europe where he was a pinup boy, and trainers led by his father- the great George Moore. Macau wasn’t some dumping ground for has-beens. Hardly.
As for last Sunday, everyone did their best to make the day special. The HKJC’s Edward Sadler made a successful debut as a race caller, Macau-based Harry Troy, known to some of us as also being a crooner with a mellifluous singing voice, was the voice of experience, Wayne Smith and old friend Peter Leyshan, both pictured together, were amongst the winners.
What many might not know is that Pete was a very good jockey when riding in Hong Kong as second string for the George Moore stable. He apparently rode a double on the very first day of racing at Sha Tin racecourse and might have even ridden the first winner at the track.
Watching Sunday’s races, some in Hong Kong might have shed a little tear to see a racing club that could have been so much more become the plodder it is today with a dwindling horse population of only 333, owners who have disappeared not having paid their bills and, according to some, one prominent trainer recently caught for cruelty to animals. But like the appalling conditions at the Macau Canindrome where greyhounds imported from Ireland and Australia are forced to race- at least until July of this year when it will finally close down- it’s been business as usual despite the howls of protest.
It’s been reported that the MJC has, apparently, been losing money since around 2004, but still continues regardless. It must be making money somewhere along the way under the visionary leadership of the club’s chief director Li Chee-keung, pictured below with a jockey. Right?
Given a 24 year extension last week on its land lease, there are apparently plans in place to have a new hotel and casino built there along with high rise apartments and shopping complexes. The business strategy in moving forward looks obvious. Where will this leave the MJC? The corporate line is that this will see a new improved racing club with a focus on entertainment and leisure activities and marketed as a tourist attraction. Really?
Of course nothing can happen until Stanley Ho, still very much the owner and ruler of Macau and the MJC, leaves this world. It’s been a long innings and long wait.
All one hears is that this once dynamic businessman who loved to dance and owned the champion Hong Kong racehorse Viva Pataca- retired and brought back to Macau to be near his ailing owner- and one of the first entrepreneurs in Hong Kong, is on life support as the scavengers hover around waiting for their share of his empire.
Stanley Ho isn’t going without a fight and his lawyer Gordon Oldham, who has protected his client for almost a decade, must be a very rich man by now. There’s been a fascinating soap opera and horse opera taking place for over seven years with everyone none the wiser about how all the pieces will fit when the Ho empire is finally carved up.
When Stanley Ho finally leaves, the infighting between the four wives and the various children and their families- and their families’ families- will be worse than the cat fighting for customers that took place between some of the Eastern European girls who worked at Club BBoss in Tsimshatsui East, the extremely high-end escort club frequented by fat cat Chinese businessmen who were also horse owners.
BBoss was THE place to hold lavish celebrations after a big win. And let’s face it, every win was big back then, especially when the winner was the owner of the club- the very generous Mr Lau Chuk, who had most of his horses with trainer Brian Kan: “Please, Mr Lau, not another magnum of Martell Cordon Bleu and three girls for each of us is more than enough.”
But this is another story and horse opera for another day. Perhaps it will even be a movie. It’s a fascinating story that has no end.
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