John Moore’s Hong Kong training career will come to an end on the 15th of July 2020 when retirement is enforced by the Jockey Club. Photo by HKJC. Photo by HKJC.

THE STANDARD – From George To John, The Moore Legacy That Marks Hong Kong.

Michael Cox

For hutchishonkers.com

3 July 2020

 

It is almost impossible for a modern racing fan to comprehend George Moore’s level of fame and success as a jockey. He counted Hollywood film stars like Bing Crosby as friends. He owned a stud farm and stood two stallions while still riding, and would fly in a private plane to the Hunter Valley from Sydney to visit what is now Yarraman Park twice per week. His success in Europe earned him the 1967 BBC World Sports Star of the Year, an award bestowed upon Mohammed Ali and Pele in the decade following, and an honour a jockey hasn’t won since. He revolutionised form analysis: Moore wasn’t just the first rider to obtain film to study replay – there was no film to obtain – so he hired his own cameraman to set up at the track and then watched replays on a projector in his Point Piper home.

George Moore’s sons, John and Gary, grew up in that stately residence nestled among the breezy harbour-side streets of Australia’s most affluent suburb, but their father ran a tight ship. Those who entered the home were greeted by pristine white carpet … and a clear plastic runner that acted as walkway and kept the house spotless.

 

From left to right, John, Gary and George Moore at Sha Tin. Photo from racingmemories.hk.

 

The two boys may have grown up in opulent surrounds but George’s rise from humble beginnings had forged an iron will and steely focus. His nickname was “Cotton Fingers” – thus named for his famed soft touch with the reins – but there was nothing gentle about his parenting.

“He was the type of man whose presence made you stand to attention when you were around him,” recalls Bill Picken, John Moore’s best friend since they were both 13.

“George was hard on John – and in my opinion harder on John than he was Gary. Gary was the pin-up boy.”

It is a claim kid brother doesn’t dispute. “We were raised with the whip and that kept us in order, and yes John might have copped three whacks when I only got two but only because I would cry quicker,” Gary says.

John Moore’s illustrious Hong Kong career comes to a close on July 15. The three words that come up repeatedly from those that know him best are “attention to detail,” but to understand the trainer’s obsessive drive, we must chart a path through his origins.”

 

THE CHILDHOOD

When George Moore, the winner of 10 Sydney jockeys’ premierships, returned from a Saturday of racing the boys had work to do.

First, on Saturday evening, there was the run up to Piggott’s newsstand to get the early edition Sunday papers, which contained the racing photos and form comments for George to scour for insight.

Then, Sunday mornings were for cleaning, and not the immaculate interior of the house, but George’s leather riding gear. Each strap, stitch and brass buckle of his saddlery was to be wiped clean and meticulously polished by the boys before they were allowed out.

“He was a wonderful father and we had an amazing childhood, but Dad was tough on us,” Gary says.

“He was a renowned perfectionist who set high standards. He gave us the best in life but he expected the best as well. He was a great horseman and he wanted us to be the same. That made us better.”

So whether by nature or nurture, inherited or instilled, perfectionism was an attribute developed by John Moore. As a teenager, his wardrobe was a colour-coded spectacle of perfectly pressed shirts, his suits still in plastic wrap and shoes stacked in their original boxes. “Everything was always perfect with John,” says Gary, who is two years younger than the man he almost always refers to as “brother John”. “The way he dressed, the way he kept his school books and his handwriting was beautiful. Everything had to be done the right way and he wanted to be the best at whatever he did.”

 

A youthful John Moore. Photo from racingmemories.hk.

 

Picken is himself a top horseman of great lineage in harness racing who became chairman of the Sydney Turf Club. He competed at pony club with Moore and on Friday nights punted with him during the halcyon days of Harold Park trots in Sydney’s inner-west.

“It was all about detail with John,” Picken says. “When we would go and compete at the shows, John didn’t always have the best horse, but he always got the most out of his horse. And he certainly didn’t get a free kick in life, he had to work for everything he achieved.”

 

THE HEAVYWEIGHT

John’s and Gary’s careers have always been as divergent as their personalities. When Gary was indentured at 15 to Alec Head’s famous stable in Deauville, and George stationed in Britain as retained rider for Prince Aly Khan – John was punching horses around at trackwork for TJ Smith at Randwick before school and taking days off to test himself as a jockey at bush tracks.

John was too tall to be a top rider and his highest aspiration was to win the Corinthian Handicap, a race for amateurs at Randwick, while Gary – with his classic jockey build – was the chosen one and bound for greatness.

“I think John knew he would be too big as a jockey but it was just an itch John needed to scratch,” says Picken’s wife Lesley, herself an accomplished trainer from a racing family. “John was every bit the rider Gary was. John was taller so didn’t look as pretty in a race, but he looked better on a horse in the equestrian ring, and that is where his horsemanship showed.”

Despite John’s undoubted ability, out on those country tracks Bill Picken believes the name Moore was a burden.

“We would do the form and it was clear the horse he was on would be a 15- or 20-to-one chance but because it was John Moore riding, the bookies would open it up even-money favourite,” he says.

During a stint as a stockbroker in Sydney, and despite his relatively limited success in the saddle, Moore found the lure of the turf still too great. He headed to Singapore and then Hong Kong to ride as an amateur. It was there he saw the potential of the soon-to-begin professional era. George was training for the American businessman Nelson Bunker Hunt at Chantilly but with the billionaire’s fortunes ailing, and bills not being paid, the hard taskmaster joined his two sons in racing’s new mecca.

George won 11 trainers’ premierships out of 13 seasons. Gary won seven jockeys’ championships and it might have been more if not for a decade-plus rivalry with six-time champion Tony Cruz. Meanwhile, John won 24 races as a rider over six seasons and his father’s post-race rebukes of his riding were fierce.

“I remember dad tearing strips off me and saying, “that’s it, you will never ride for me again”,” John once recalled of a particularly fiery piece of feedback upon returning to scale.

When it came time for John to take over the yard upon George’s retirement in 1985 there were doubters. It might have been seen as a free kick but the new trainer was on a hiding to nothing; any success would be due to George, while failures would be all down to John.

“I was leading trainer in the first year but that was because of what dad had left me … I would have had to be pretty bad not to be,” Moore said in a Hong Kong Jockey Club interview. “Believe me, I still had a lot to learn.”

 

John and George Moore in the Sha Tin parade ring – 1982. Photo from racingmemories.hk.

 

It took another five seasons for Moore to add to his championship tally but it is his lack of big race triumphs during this period that looks most out of place – given what he would become. Even when Makarpura Star, the horse Moore calls his first champion, won the Derby in 1995 on his way Horse of the Year honours, it would be another decade before the trainer would truly elevate to the prizemoney machine we know today.

 

THE BLOODSTOCK BLUEPRINT

Perhaps it is Moore’s bloodstock exploits – particularly his sourcing of tried horses and then improving them, a talent unmatched among his peers – that has shaped Hong Kong’s modern era most.

Viva Pataca’s success is often cited as a turning point for Moore. The 2006 Hong Kong Derby win with a horse he sourced for Stanley Ho at US$1million was the moment he was transformed from “George Moore’s son” to a trainer with his own identity: the big-race specialist.

Moore stepped into a void left by the retirements of the inimitable Ivan Allan and the canny local hero Brian Kan, and certainly benefited from David Hayes’ sudden departure in 2005, but he also raised the bar for imports in a jurisdiction previously known for monster betting pools more than the quality of its horseflesh.

One criticism of Moore was that he simply outbid his rivals for horses that would have been shortlisted by every agent; with some even suggesting his big spending unnecessarily drove up the prices of imports for every owner.

This is another simple narrative that requires balance: Yes, Moore often won a bidding war, but that eye for detail and meticulous planning in the stables, was evident in the way he went about his bloodstock business too. He visited British yards himself in the off-season while others holidayed and relied on agents for their horses. He also knocked back horses on medical grounds that others took. And in the end, results speak for themselves and Moore came to dominate Group races like no trainer before or since.

The story from Viva Pataca onwards requires only a scan of feature race results from the era. Six Derbies, all four of the Hong Kong International Races features at least once, the Champions Mile eight times and QEII Cup five times. He was leading prizemoney earner on ten straight occasions, a record. He produced a sequence of seven straight Horse of the Year winners including Able Friend, Designs On Rome, Werther, Rapper Dragon  and the horse that would eventually overhaul Viva Pataca’s all-time prizemoney record, Beauty Generation. His tally of more than 1,700 wins is the most of all-time and could conceivably remain out of the reach of his three nearest rivals John Size, Tony Cruz and Caspar Fownes when their respective careers come to a close.

It seems sad that Moore is being forced to retire now at age 70 given the last decade has been his best and there is a certain pathos that much of his major success has occurred after George’s death in 2008.

“I don’t think it was a rivalry with Gary that drove John to be like he was,” Lesley Picken says. “It was about proving to George that he was good and that he could do it. It was about making his father proud.”

 

THE PERFECTIONIST

Moore’s obsession when it comes to stable operations is legendary. He once flew to a Hygain Feeds factory in Victoria to oversee the creation of his own signature feed mix – “Moore’s mix” – for his exclusive use in Hong Kong.

Veterinarian Ben Mason worked with Moore for seven years at Sha Tin and has for eight years since in Australia and was astonished the first time he walked into the trainer’s yard.

“I will never forget, he was in the feed room with an apron on, mixing the feeds for each individual horse himself, he would be there with a teaspoon getting exactly the right amount of electrolyte mix into the feed,” Mason says.

“You just don’t see that from trainers in Hong Kong, it is unheard of.”

On John Moore’s final day of training in Hong Kong, July 15, he will arrive at the stables at 4.30am – the horses popping their heads over the stable doors for polo mints and kind pats from their handler, while he checks their water levels and bedding (one official said Moore uses 50% more bedding than any other trainer, ensuring the safety of his high-priced purchases). His final runners will still have their feet wrapped in vet wrap and cotton wool to prevent bruising as they leave for the horse transport.

When the trainer leaves his Sha Tin residence – the old block of units closest to the course called Racecourse Mansions – it will be the first time a Moore hasn’t lived there. The original sofa in apartment 3A has been re-upholstered half a dozen or more times, and the original dining table and cabinet from when George lived there remain the same. It may take some time to sink in, but from the start of next season, Hong Kong racing will be without a Moore.

Beauty Generation wins his second Hong Kong Mile on the way to becoming the leading stakes earner in HKJC history.

 

THE POST SCRIPT

John will join his brother in a training partnership out of Rosehill in the new racing season and Gary left no doubt as to which of the two brothers will be boss.

“We have great respect for each other and we always have, but as the eldest, brother John will be the leader,” he says.

“We are going to need each other in certain areas, he has never trained in Australia.”

And if there was any doubt whether or not John would be bringing his perfectionism with him, a phone call to Gary’s son James – who will be an assistant – assured all that nothing has changed and the system at Rosehill, and the stables, will be getting a makeover from a man Douglas Whyte calls “a neatness freak”.

“He was giving instructions on how to feed the horses and while most people talk about the portions in terms of dippers, John was giving the ratios down to the gram,” James said. “John is across everything. He will be creating the system from the top down. He will be writing the game plan, and it is up to us to execute it.”

The Moores are winners. Between them, George, Gary and John can count 44 jockeys’ or trainers’ championships from major jurisdictions the world over, but this new venture isn’t about titles or competing with the factory-like operation of Rosehill neighbour Chris Waller.

“We are about quality, not quantity,” Gary said. “John wants that Group 1 win in Australia and I want to win one with him.”

George Moore would have expected nothing less.

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