Meet the king of Hong Kong

John Moore: “Success comes from the people behind you.” Photo: Neville Hopwood/Racingfotos.com

John Moore describes himself as the ‘accidental trainer’. Those in the racing world, certainly from the Asia-Pacific, would describe him as the king of Hong Kong, where almost every training record to be had adorns his mantlepiece.

He is Hong Kong’s longest serving and most successful trainer. Seven times champion by number of winners. Champion by prize money earned for the past 10 seasons. The record holder for all-time career prize money.

He’s the biggest trainer in the biggest game in town and this week will again take centre stage for the jurisdiction’s biggest day of the year - the Longines International race program that features four Group 1 open-to-all-comers contests from 1200m to 2400m (six furlongs to a mile and a half) with a total purse of HK$ 83 million (around US$10.7 million).

Moore has trained six winners of these highly competitive races, which arguably draw more diverse competitors than any other race meeting in the world. Add to that tally, a further 11 winners of the the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s April/May international features, the Champions Mile and APQEII Cup.

Bullish about what’s to come

He is possibly as good as any contemporary trainer, anywhere … but probably not as well known as, say, Aidan O’Brien or Bob Baffert. Not even as well known as his unquestionably famous father, George, who was a champion jockey in Australia and Europe and, like his son, champion trainer in Hong Kong.

Not that he dwells on such things. He may be 66, but he remains far too preoccupied - and incidentally bullish - about what’s to come in his training career, which in Hong Kong will come to an enforced end in 2020 with a compulsory retirement age of 70.

Proudly Australian, although he’s lived in the southern continent for less than a third of his years, he’s a remarkable fellow from a remarkable family with a great story to tell and a great ability and propensity to tell it. And he does reflect happily on his achievements since advancing from riding winners at remote picnic race meetings as a much younger man.

“You don’t often sit back and reflect on what’s been in terms of winners but occasionally you look at the records with some degree of satisfaction. I’m quite proud of our stable’s achievements. In fact, when I look at the TRC rankings and see we’re hovering around the top 10 of the world’s trainers, I think that’s amazing, especially as we have fewer Group races here in Hong Kong,” he said.

The naysayers might declare he has all the best connections in his adopted home and a cache of owners with the biggest budgets.

Cramped city environment

But that would be unfair. There is no breeding industry in Hong Kong, so all horses have to be sourced elsewhere. Budget doesn’t necessarily guarantee securing the best stock, but Moore’s record is unrivalled with horses he, and now his son George junior, have acquired from Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Then there’s the not inconsequential matter of training these horses in a relatively cramped, city stable environment without rolling gallops or even day yards. Not to mention the fierce competition among a number of successful stables in Hong Kong and the diplomacy required in dealing with owners who can be somewhat capricious in this part of the world.

Moore, of course, knows how to deal with these things, and he is arguably in his natural habitat. “He’s not a country boy,” says daughter Caroline, who, like brother George, is now also based in Hong Kong and working with horses. As cities go, Hong Kong is about as ‘city’ as you can get.

The irony is that much of what he knows about the animal stems from the brief life he led in rural New South Wales, and the progression from that life to now he sees as incidental or accidental. “At no time, did I have any conscious plan to become a horse trainer. At school I was interested in cricket and rugby, I didn’t go racing,” he said.

“Ask Dad about the pigs,” Caroline implored me as if this would confirm her assertion that he’s a metropolitan man.

Lesson of the pigs

“She’s probably right, I’m more of a city boy,” John conceded, “and maybe I learnt that with the pigs. I bought a sow when I was a young bloke, thought I could make some money. She dropped eight piglets. Only four survived but that was okay. I thought ‘I’ll grow them out and take them to market’.

“I borrowed a two-horse float and loaded them in. It was all going well until we got to one town where the bloke tending the railway crossing began waving madly at me. I couldn’t see any train coming. The next thing I realise the pigs have busted open the side of the float. The sow escaped and destroyed a prized garden within 15 minutes before I could get a rope around her leg.

“Then I had four pigs running loose in the main street. A car hit one and another broke a leg. I finally got the last two to the market but the agent said ‘sorry, they’re too distressed, we don’t want them’. That was my first and last venture into the pig breeding game.”

That venture may have been unsuccessful, but Moore has generally done well at ‘earning a quid’, which is a phrase he uses often. That may be a legacy of his first employment, with stockbroking firm Patrick Levy and Co.

“I went there straight out of school and was working on the trading floor in those boom times of the late 60s, which was great, but I returned to the family farm after Dad was very badly injured in a fall at Canterbury,” he said.

‘Picnic’ jockey

It was there, at various times during his teenage life and under the insistence of a hard taskmaster father, that John learned various skills, from grooming, shoeing and riding a horse to ploughing a field, often removing the rocks by hand. And, somewhere along the line, he managed to secure himself a restricted pilot’s licence, just for good measure.

But he was no farmer, and it was just the horses who stayed with him. Europe beckoned, as it does for young men from Australia in their early 20s, and first stop was Singapore, where he worked for trainer Garnet Bougoure, who was married to his aunt, Margaret. Bougoure rode three classic winners in England in the 1960s plus numerous feature race winners in Australia, Ireland and Singapore.

His cousin was Doug, trainer of the internationally successful Strawberry Road; and his son Dan trained Falvelon to win the Longines Hong Kong International Sprint in 2000 and 2001 - thus the links perpetually return to Hong Kong. But we digress.

John Moore rode successfully as an amateur, or picnic, jockey as we would describe it in Australia. “Oh, he could ride all right and he did ride three winners at a  meeting at Happy Valley,” says brother Gary, who’s in town with the Australian sprinter Takedown, who takes on, among others, his brother’s last-start Jockey Club Sprint winner Not Listenin’tome.

John Moore’s riding exploits did quite not match those of father and brother, who each rode a Prix de l’arc de Triomphe winner (among numerous other worldwide features), but he remembers fondly his experiences as a rider and his early European adventure, which added some polish to his horse skills.

Working for legends in Australia and the U.S.

“They had pro-am meetings around the Asian circuit in the 1970s, and I rode at place likes Penang, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur and the old Bukit Timah racecourse in Singapore. It was great fun and not obscure for me as I’d ridden at a host of bush venues in Australian from Tumut to Yass to Cootamundra.

“My first day’s riding was at the Appin picnics, near Campbelltown on the outskirts of Sydney. I think I had a fall, ran second in the Cup but still managed to be the leading rider on the day,” Moore said.

From Singapore, he ventured to France, where he rode work for three months, for Maurice Zilber, who trained the champion mare Dahlia. She, according to Gary Moore, was originally trained by their father but went to Zilber after George Moore had a fall-out with principal owner Nelson Bunker-Hunt and abandoned training in France.

Moore’s international excursions included working for Kevin Prendergast in Ireland and Charlie Whittingham in America. He also had stints in Australia with training legends Tommy Smith and Colin Hayes.

All of which proved an invaluable background to his career as a trainer, which began as assistant to his father in Hong Kong from the early 1970s. He was first licensed, in his own right, in 1985, and has not looked back since. But he certainly doesn’t see any of his success as instant.

‘Terrific batch of new horses’

“Really it’s taken years to build the right team, the right core people in the stable. Success comes from the people behind you as it’s a game where you do have to be prepared to delegate. I’ve got that team now and we have a very, very low turnover of staff.

“But you do have to be constantly re-generating the bloodstock, and now I have the luxury of son George helping me. We’d spend a couple of days a week, virtually every week of the year, poring over videos and form to identify our next purchases,” Moore said.

And there’s no sign of the Moore juggernaut slowing in Hong Kong, even if the length of his tenure is coming to end. “I’m very excited about the next six months. I’m just getting going. I’d be a lost soul without training, and I suppose I will finish up in New South Wales or Queensland, training five or 10 horses. But right now, I think we are in for a great season with a terrific batch of new horses, some of whom will step out for the first time this Sunday,” he said.

They are likely to include Booming Delight, who raced as Out And About for William Haggas in the UK; Let Us Win, who raced as Hattori Hanzo for Michael Kent in Australia; and Eagle Way, who won the Queensland Derby in Australia, when trained by Bryan Guy.

As to Sunday’s International races, he has six runners and he expects each of them to be competitive. They are his most recent stable star, Able Friend, who contests the Hong Kong Mile along with Helene Paragon and Joyful Trinity; Notlistenin’tome in the Sprint; Designs On Rome in the Cup and Helene Happy Star in the Vase.

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George Moore died in 2008 at age 84. Such was his stature, and that of horse racing at the time, that he was named the BBC’s Overseas Sports Person of the Year in 1967. John’s mother, Iris, is 88 and living in his Hong Kong apartment at Sha Tin. His sister, Michelle, is married to Macau trainer Peter Leyshan. His wife, Cheryl, mother of Caroline and George, died from cancer at 59 in 2014. He is re-married to Fifi.

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