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Hong Kong’s former champion trainer John Moore speaks to Asian Racing Report about his triumphs, his disappointment at being pushed out at age 70, and his family’s place in the city’s racing history.
In a tucked-away corner of a quiet corridor, high in the upper levels of a mammoth commercial tower block in the New Territories, there is an incongruous sign beside a door; the logo alone is familiar to any close follower of Hong Kong racing, a stylised race horse of maroon outline; the words beneath merely confirm the already known – John Moore Fan Club.
The door is locked. A voice is heard entering the hallway from the spacious lift lobby and it calls out brightly: “You’re here. Come on in and I’ll show you.”
John Moore leads the way inside and turns on the light to illuminate an executive office space of pristine beige walls, desk, sofa, glass coffee table and kitchenette; walls hung with framed cuttings and photos of a life in racing. Pride of place, a large cabinet full of racing trophies; cups, silver plates, statuettes and a small, crafted wooden clock-barometer-thermometer given to his father, the late great George Moore, for his win aboard Rajah Sahib in the 1968 Cox Plate.
They are just some of the trappings from a life and career that has Moore listed in the record books as Hong Kong’s all-time leading trainer in terms of races won (1735) and prize money accrued (HK$2,099,459,282).
The seven-time champion trainer remains the city’s most recognised conditioner of Group 1 performers, both at home and overseas, thanks to a seemingly endless supply of elite gallopers through the final 15 years of his time training out of Sha Tin: Viva Pataca, Able Friend, Beauty Generation, Designs On Rome, Werther, Military Attack, Rapper Dragon and more.
But those days ended two and a half years ago, in July 2020 when, after almost 50 years living and breathing Hong Kong racing, and 35 years as a licensed trainer, he was forced to retire, having reached the Hong Kong Jockey Club-imposed compulsory retirement age of 70.
The club rule had, for many years, called for trainers to move on at 65; when Moore was approaching that age, and with his stable’s Group 1 horses flying the flag for Hong Kong, what became known as the ‘John Moore rule’ was introduced, enabling an extension – depending on performance criteria – to age 70. When 70 loomed, Moore asked for more time and the Jockey Club said no.
Andrew Harding, the club’s executive director of racing, was quoted in the press in July 2019 as saying, ‘it is a matter of having set goalposts … the goalposts were set in 2013, they were clearly known and they are consistently applied.’
Earlier this year, with 11-time champion trainer John Size approaching 70, the club announced another extension option, known casually as the ‘John Size rule’, again based on performance criteria, enabling trainers to continue on to 75. Moore is now 72.
“Those goalposts don’t exist anymore. They got rid of them,” Moore says, his tone one of disappointment, of a man feeling he has been treated unfairly.
“Yes,” he says, “I feel unfairly treated in the sense of believing, I think knowing, really, that they would change the rule again – the John Size rule or whatever it is, that was no surprise – but more so because I know what I could still offer Hong Kong racing.”
He says he wrote letters in the months before his departure, to the chairman and to the licensing committee, and many of his owners wrote letters of support, addressed to senior figures at the club. He adds that he was approached quietly, unofficially, and asked to stop.
“When I was to retire, I put in an application and it was turned down. D Wayne Lukas is still going at 87, it’s not difficult to keep going if you’re in good health, it’s what we know, it’s what we do. They should have given me another two years to cross-over with David Hayes coming in and taken it from there.”
So, has he reapplied to the HKJC for a licence now that the rule has changed? ‘No,’ he says, nor does he intend to, but he’d rather not say anymore about it.
He glances at his trophies. The desire for more is raw. His eyes sparkle and the thrust of the conversation lightens as he talks of his greatest achievements. His standout, he says, is winning the G1 Champions Mile and the G1 QEII Cup in the same year with Able One and Viva Pataca and then repeating the double three years later with the same two horses.
“That was wow, what did we actually do there? And sportsmen say this but really, it’s true, it didn’t sink in until I’d stopped and looked back. They were three years older and we managed to do it again,” he says.
“The others that really stand out are winning the big four, the international races, and then seven horses of the year, in a row, that takes some doing.”
Since his ‘retirement’, racing in Hong Kong has been affected adversely by the Covid-19 pandemic and the city government’s strict response to it; also, the difficulties associated with booming prize money in Australia, which has disincentivised the sale of top horses to Asia; and high prices there and in Europe have only made buying high class raced horses more difficult, with many Hong Kong owners feeling the effects of an economic downturn.
Moore himself is having to battle those elements in his current role buying and selling horses along with his son, George Moore. It is tougher than it used to be, he admits.
But he also believes that, regardless of the prevailing economic climate, no trainer currently on the Hong Kong roster can match his ability to source proven high-class Private Purchases (PPs) from overseas, particularly from Europe, and develop them into top class Hong Kong gallopers.
“I have the best contacts for Private Purchases around the world. I could have kept doing a good job for Hong Kong,” he says. “I loved bringing those European horses back here. You look at Designs On Rome, he was beaten more than four lengths in a Group 1 and I liked his run. I said to (bloodstock agent) Alastair Donald, ‘hey I like that horse, you see his action, he’s got the biggest action you’ve ever seen’. I thought that would suit us here.
“But acclimatisation was the key to our success, getting them acclimatised and getting the results that we got, which other trainers in Hong Kong weren’t able to do.”
‘Acclimatisation’ is often referred to in Hong Kong racing circles: with no breeding industry, every horse is brought in from overseas, from a very different environment to what they experience at Sha Tin. Moore talks of the methods he and his staff, including his second wife Fifi Moore, employed to help new horses settle into the upstairs-downstairs stable blocks, the noise, the bustle, and the exacting climate.
He would adapt the feed to the individual horse, put them in the right box – the first five boxes in the ground floor stables were always for the stars – and ‘marry’ them to the right mafoo (groom), sometimes having one mafoo to two horses rather than one to three as the club preferred.
“We were sourcing horses that had the scope but just needed the right type of training, in an environment where they go into 22 degrees air conditioning and they live there for 22 hours a day, and then come out either to heat and that humidity, usually, or cold.
“When those horses came into the stable, we sought to understand their character, it was the understanding of the individual.”
Being around horses in the stables ‘is the biggest thing I miss,’ he says and makes the point that he has had a connection with horses from ‘day one’ as the son of one of the world’s all-time great jockeys.
“That connection was important to getting them to acclimatise; it’s getting in the box with them, to understand them, watching them day in and day out; feedback, feedback, feedback; what can we do? and we managed to do it,” he adds.
But although he is now back living in Hong Kong, he has not spent all of the past two and a half years separated from horses. At first, he moved to Sydney and teamed up with his brother, Gary Moore, in a training partnership at Rosehill, but that was short-lived.
“We weren’t able to work together back in ‘85-‘86, so I knew we had different views,” he says. “Gary wanted to train what he had in his side of the stable and I wanted to train what I had in mine and that’s not a partnership.”
Then came a call from the Gold Coast. He and Lee Freedman each were invited to open stables there as the Turf Club looked to secure big investment from government that would in-part fund track and stable upgrades. Moore made the move but he says the facilities he was given were not up to his expectations.
“We had one of the best averages in Queensland when we started, we hit the ground running but the stables were very poor,” he says. “One of my owners said to me, ‘John, I don’t know how you can train winners out of this stable.’”
Staffing issues also arose and when the new stable space he was expecting never happened in time, he returned to Hong Kong to reset his focus on the bloodstock business.
But it is clear that Moore wants to be hands on again, doing what he did best, and better than most. He admits to being ‘filthy’ on the way Hayes was brought back in, that it seemed to be a one or the other scenario and he was moved on while his replacement moved in.
“Letting us go, and what vision the club and its executives had, all seemed to be dependent on David Hayes just taking over and buying in those Group 1 horses. This is his third season, how many runners does he have at the international races?” he asks.
International successes, Group 1 wins: they are Moore’s personal legacy. But he is conscious of his place within a racing dynasty inseparable from Hong Kong. There in his high-up corner of Tsuen Wan, he has created what feels like a mini museum to that heritage.
He opens a door to the side and enters a large walk-in wardrobe with his famous hats and suits; another door opens to a storage space: shelves stacked with all the belongings accumulated over decades that could not find a place in the Moore home after they moved.
He pulls scrapbooks from a box, takes them through to the coffee table and turns the pages: news clippings, greetings cards, old school certificates handed to his children, little painted hand prints from their pre-school days, and cuttings and photos chronicling his family’s prominent place in Hong Kong racing.
“When dad came here in 1972, dad getting a licence gave Hong Kong a lot of kudos it had never had,” he says. “The Moore family is important to that whole period of Hong Kong racing, we will be remembered, everything is there in history, whether anyone likes it or not. You can’t take away history that has been made and recorded. I walk the streets even now and people come and shake my hand.
“The fathers here, they told their sons, they knew the Moore stable as a stable that wins; they knew it was a stable that would win them money if they followed our runners. The people here know our success. That’s our legacy, the history books show it, the records show it.”
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