JOHN Moore first clocked horses one morning 52 years ago when, at age 18, his feet took their belated maiden step on to a racecourse. That day set the counter on a span that has taken him to horse racing’s pinnacle; Hong Kong’s best-known trainer, a seven-time champion, the city’s big-race maestro and the handler of champions, the one with the most wins on the board and stakes money in the bank.
But, on 15 July, his time will run out; rules are rules, and, at age 70, the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s compulsory retirement will take effect and his Hong Kong era will end.
Moore, who bridges right back to the months leading into Hong Kong’s professional dawn, will pack up his safari suits, panama hats and ready soundbites, and depart for Rosehill Gardens racecourse in Sydney, not too far from where it all began in an old gypsy caravan at Randwick.
His father, George Moore, was one of the world’s finest riders, a champion jockey worthy of the oft over-used ‘great’ epithet, who achieved fame and fortune not only at home in Australia, but also in Britain, France and the United States; a rider associated with doyens and legends of the turf like Prince Aly Khan and Alec Head, T. J. Smith and Tulloch, Noel Murless and Jim Joel – and the lastnamed pair’s Derby-winning champion Royal Palace. His dad’s sister, Margaret, was married to jockey Garnet Bougoure.
Riding horses was a staple of Moore’s upbringing – “it probably goes back to the first time I sat on a horse at one and a half, or two” – he was immaculate in the show ring, and he cut his racing teeth in boyhood pony races against his brother Gary on the family property.
He rode the picnic circuit once a week with Joe Manning booking his rides, and then, after a spell as a stockbroker, he was called home to the family’s new property, Hopewood, a cattle ranch near Gundagai, New South Wales; George had taken a bad fall at Canterbury and would be out of action for a period of months. The cattle needed tending, Moore’s stockbroking job in the city was suddenly over and he was about to get his first experience as a racehorse trainer.
His father got hold of three horses for him, the aged but high-class Amusement Park and Beautirage, and a capable maiden, Border King, “for dad to have a bet”.
Moore opened two gates and drove a John Deere tractor with a disc plough to “turn the red soil” and make an uphill gallop, a rough copy of what he had seen in Newmarket in the summer of 1967.
“Dad said ‘you’re going to do everything’. The only thing I didn’t do was farrier, but I still had to learn how to pull a shoe off. So, I’ve gone from ‘Pitt Street farmer’ to full-on horse trainer,” he says, referencing Sydney’s downtown business district.
Moore said: “Dad had the name but he made sure I started with an appreciation of what it’s like at the bottom; I had to muck out and he said to me, ‘you make sure you’re on the job by eight o’clock’. Overalls and a pair of galoshes, that’s what I wore every day until I could drive out of there and head back to the life I liked. But that was the basis to me becoming a horse trainer – I’m the accidental trainer!”
After a late Friday night at The Oak in Double Bay, his Cooper S caused a stern confrontation with his father. “I was in the two-car garage, below dad’s bedroom, and I couldn’t turn the engine off; I’d just put a new choke cable on and I had trouble, I had to jump out, lift the bonnet and release that choke cable that had caught on the throttle,” he says.
“I knew what was going to happen; dad was waiting at the front door for me. And he gave it to me: ‘Son, you don’t know how much work I go through to take weight off and ride the next day, you’re going to go to the track and you’re going to learn.’ And that’s how I came to be in an old wooden gypsy wagon at Randwick with Tommy Smith.”
He remembers the curved roof and a spartan interior containing some seats and a shelf.
“We’d look straight out, the horses would come over, and Mr. Smith and the other trainers would be giving them instructions,” he continues. “He gave me a clock; I’d never clocked a horse before, I’d never been to the track before. He said to me, ‘Here’s a clock, son, look over there at the half-mile and start clocking’. Dad’s riding trackwork and I’m up in the gypsy wagon!”
Douglas Whyte, the 13-time champion jockey-turned trainer who observed Moore closely before setting up his own stable, commented: “He’s a workaholic, he’s a neatness freak. But more than anything,” he adds, “it’s his timing, especially with the big races; he gets a horse on song and gets him to blossom at the right time.”
With two race meetings to go, Moore has accrued a Hong Kong record 1,734 wins from 16,330 runners, and prize money approaching an unsurpassed HK$2.1 billion; he was the first trainer in the city to reach 1000 wins, the first to break the HK$1 billion mark, the first to train a horse to win all three legs of the Classic Series; he has won the Hong Kong Derby a record six times; his stars have taken the coveted Hong Kong Horse of the Year title nine times, and two of those, the mighty Able Friend and Beauty Generation, are the co-highest rated gallopers in Hong Kong history.
Moore said: “People ask how do I peak a horse? As far as I’m concerned, it’s knowing the horse, really understanding that individual. It’s not training stereo style,” he says.
“It’s all individual, I treat every horse so differently because I just love the animal so much. If I trained a few hundred horses, I’d feel guilty, I’d be missing something. With 70 horses in Hong Kong, I can know the horses. With more than 100, I’d miss something, like Thanks Forever, he looked like the worst of the lot, with his terrible action, but you get to understand the horse and nurture him and accept him for what he is, and then he’s placing in Group 1 races.”
Moore will take that method forward, for his Hong Kong departure is also an Australian return. He has unfinished business and he believes he has time still to complete, with a small string of about 20 or so horses and the backing of owners like the Kwok family, Bon Ho, Matthew Wong and Arrowfield Stud. He will take his stopwatch and his binoculars, and five decades of experience, and he will try to get the remaining bucket list item he most desires.
“I want that Group 1 win in Australia. I got one as an owner with Eagle Way – Bryan Guy trained him – but I want a Group 1 there as a trainer,” he says, his eyes narrowing.
Australia is his future. When the lights go out at Happy Valley on Wednesday, 15 July, for the first time since 1971, John Moore will not be a licensed participant on the Hong Kong racing circuit. That time is up. -HKJC.