By Hans Ebert
Visit: www.fasttrack.hk

The moment we hit the ferry terminal in Macau, “The Boys Are Back In Town” was playing in my head.

“The Hangover” series was a couple of decades away from being produced, but it could easily have been inspired by us- us being a regular group of friends in the advertising and music industries who religiously made the pilgrimage to Taipa in Macau by ferry every Friday evening for some much needed R’nR over the weekend.

What brought us to Macau was everything about Macau. Horse racing in what was then still a Portuguese enclave had only just started up and each of us were members of the MJC and horse owners.

We weren’t the Kwoks or anyone from the Siu family or part of the Godolphin crew, but we owned a few pretty average conveyances. Some of us even had this included on name cards handed out to those “special people” one would meet in a karaoke lounge: International Horse Owner.

Going racing in Macau was always different- and, quite often, weirdly surreal. Compared to the pomp and circumstance of the very pukka Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club with all its colonial croneyism and how it just wouldn’t be cricket, old boy, to do this and that, The Macau Jockey Club was a bit like what might have happened if Basil Fawlty and Manuel were to run and manage a racing club.

All the bits were there, but a number of things were missing. It didn’t matter. The people made it hugely entertaining- characters comprising jockeys, trainers and a very odd assortment of owners whose business interests were, let’s say, diverse. Nothing and no one was quite who and what they seemed.

The term “colourful characters” is often used when describing those associated with horse racing, especially during the Eighties. The MJC had its fair share of “colourful characters” starting with management, especially the “dynamic duo” at that time of Edmund Wong and Kenneth Liang. The puppet masters were upstairs.

Moving downstream to some of the early settlers given training and riding licenses were jockeys Jose Corrales, Colin Dean, below, Simon Jones, Neil Paine, Declan Murphy, Claude Piccione, Mark Gallagher etc and trainers like John Gilmore, Charles Leck, Gordon Benson, George Williams, Joe Murphy, Joe Barnes…

There were the owners and, more often than not, there were those working behind the owners. But even if we knew about any of this, and who was doing the hanky panky, it didn’t matter. What mattered was making these weekends to Macau last and make it an X-rated version of Wayne’s World.

There were times when those weekends would last a month. And as long as excuses and reasons given were bought and sold, it was another day off for Ferris Bueller. A new and rowdier chorus of “The Boys Are Back In Town” would start up.

What made those times in Macau special is that it took, at least our group, away from business and other shackles that chained us down. In its place was non-stop six star fun at three star prices.

We stayed only at the Hyatt Regency on Taipa- and only in their suites. They were enormous suites and which couldn’t help impress our guests from Russia. Some didn’t want to leave. A few wanted to marry us. Some of us almost succumbed. Little blue pills and white powder with tequila shots is a lethal cocktail.

We then always remembered the fate that awaited popular Hong Kong lawyer Gary Alderdice and his girlfriend Natalia.

Natalia was strikingly beautiful. She was a dancer and escort. Some of us knew her. Gary fell in love with Natalia, and left for Vladivostok to try and buy her out of the escort business. Both were found shot to death in a tiny hotel. The million dollars he had taken with him for the buyout was gonski.

A character in life, a mystery in violent end – SCMP

At the Taipa Hyatt, we knew management. They would always look after us well. We would check in around 4pm which gave us time to shave, shower, call our contacts and finalise plans for the evening ahead, especially whatever was suggested after dinner. There was military like precision to ensure that nothing got in the way of us having a good time.

The hotel’s Lobby Lounge was where everyone congregated for Happy Hour. This was where we would meet with jockeys and trainers, go through the card for the weekend races, and with this only being early Friday evening, there was plenty of downtime to be footloose and fancy free, let fly and trip up along the way.

Frankly, the racing was secondary. Winning before the races in all its many ways was what mattered. Winning at the races was a bonus. It meant paying for a couple of extra days of celebrating.

The casinos were not for us. There was one next to the Hyatt where we would drop by on the way back for a quick game of “big/small” until spotting a girl working at one of the tables put her pedal to the metal- magnets- to curtail any winning runs. We never returned.

A business partner in music from Indonesia and always dripping in gold- would often join these jaunts to Macau. He would leave us to spend days and nights at his favourite casino. He was Prince Sihanouk there. Why not? Winning to him was losing “only” a couple of million. It was his formula.

For the rest of us it was either dinner at the Flamingo at the Hyatt- the African Chicken, codfish balls and Baked Portuguese Fried Rice being particular favourites- or dropping by our favourite restaurant at the time for Macanese cuisine- Litral.

From here, it was following whatever was planned for the night- karaoke at China City with a couple of jockeys and where there were always new female friends from- where else?- Eastern Europe to meet, and then taking in some all-night karaoke joints at the Lisboa before checking out the bar at the Mandarin hotel.

There was always quite a menagerie to be found here- many in the racing fraternity, hookers, regulars, the Russian mafia and the obligatory Black soul band with their Vegas shtick.

What was always surprising was that there were never any ill effects from hours of drinking and carousing the night before. We’d meet up for breakfast at 10am, exchange tales about the night before and then it was off to the races.

There were signs by the elevators just as one entered the club that read, NO MOBILE PHONES ALLOWED INSIDE. This didn’t stop anyone from walking by security talking to their bookies and making bets.

The same signs were displayed in the club’s restaurants, but, again, despite the presence of security, phones were used, bets were made and bookies made personal appearances and sat next to you offering odds.

Where things got hazy was trying to remember the signals to be given and discussed with jockeys the night before: “Did he say he would have the whip under his left or right arm if his horse was going? And was it HIS left arm which would then be camera right?”

With us would be an old amateur jockey who had ridden in China. He was meant to be an expert in reading a horse’s condition. He couldn’t speak much English and all we ever heard about the condition of a horse was “good” and “bad” and sometimes just a manic sounding laugh.

We never ever knew what that laugh was supposed to mean except that all the laughing made his dentures fall out.

If we had a horse running, we would troop down to the paddock area where the trainer would give riding instructions to the jockey.

Having been with the jockey the night before, plans had already been confirmed. The trainer seldom knew. This is not to say that the best laid plans always came off.

There was the time we had two horses in the same race. One was the most expensive purchase for Macau racing at the time, a galloper trained in Australia by Robert Smerdon. He was meant to just win and was at 7s. The other was a natural leader and at around 30 to 1.

As planned, the outsider set the pace…but with nothing else doing much, he led all the way. Our expensive purchase came a plodding seventh. The one we never backed won the race- a Cup race. My business partner and I tried to look happy at the Cup presentation. But it didn’t work. He had lost so much, mainly “face”, that he immediately returned to Hong Kong. Our trainer disappeared and the horse was immediately sold.

I stayed back that day and had dinner with the jockey of the winning horse. The dinner was an outdoor buffet at the Hyatt Regency and we placed the winning Cup on our table. Everyone thought we had pulled off a smart betting coup. If they only knew.

Over the years, Macau has attracted some world class jockeys- the brilliant and enigmatic Eric Saint Martin, William Mongil, Olivier Doleuze, good friend Brent Thomson, so debonair that you expected him to ride with a cravat, and a very good young Indian rider named Srinath.

Either riding or training over the years have been Geoff Allendorf, Tony Ives, Danny Brereton, Rob Heffernan, David Taggart, Craig Robertson, Claude Charlet, Philip Waldron, Lisa Cropp, Nigel Day, Christian Reith, Michael Cahill, Ricky Pietsch, Joe Lau, Malcolm Thwaites, Barry Baldwin, Russell Cameron, Nigel Tiley, Tung Biu, Geoff Lane, and cameos by the legendary Brian Kan. Excellent Hong Kong born riders Stanley Chin and Peter Ho were also riding in Macau.

There were then the Didham Years when John Didham owned the Macau Jockeys Premiership for five consecutive years.

Quiet, smart and an excellent rider, Johnno didn’t say much- still doesn’t- but nothing escaped him. We became friends then, remain friends now and talk about many things. Most can’t be published.

Outside of racing, we enjoyed quite a lifestyle. I had left Universal Music and was with EMI Music. It opened the door to inviting friends like John and our old mate Harry Troy to attend a dinner for David Bowie, meet Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees and singer-pianist Diana Krall.

John and the long lunches at California in Lan Kwai Fong with others dropping in and out were legendary for the endurance level that went into making them last often for fourteen hours straight.

Those were the years when former jockey Peter Leyshan was training whereas riding were Sammy Hyland, below, Steve Arnold, MJ Odendaal and Irishman and top bloke Robbie Burke.

Dittman The Enforcer would make celebrity cameo appearances when the MJC managed to lure the great George Moore out of retirement to be trainer with son Gary as his stable jockey.

Other than years earlier when the MJC brought out around 4-5 female Swedish jockeys to ride there with Jenny Moeller, who married Bobby Vance, easily being the best, and bringing in the Sheriff- John Shrek- to try and bring some respectability to the joint, having the Moores in Macau was quite a marketing coup.

They were a marquee value name, they had connections, they had the towering figure of casino magnate and prominent horse owner Stanley Ho on their side.

Gary was Gazza from whom we expected the unexpected including a wardrobe that often had a touch of Michael Jackson-influenced military stylings to it. He was also a very good jockey.

As a trainer, he would kiss and hug winning riders and jump on his winning horses. It added to the weirdness of a racing club losing its appeal and a grip on being a legitimate success.

On our side, we had seen one of our best horses and the hot favourite for the biggest race of that season given a shockingly obvious losing ride. To his “credit”, the jockey whispered to me in the paddock that the horse wasn’t going to win. Thanks.

There were then jockey friends not being relicensed for being “too successful.” There was the expose with photos of horses being put down. Owners had pulled disappearing acts.

On the weekday night meetings, especially, odds on horses were changing during the course of the race.

Those fun times of coming over to Macau had also lost its gloss. Sure, there were the small bars, but downtown Macau was winding down fast.

The last time I was there at the races was about a decade ago. My girlfriend at the time had booked us into a small hotel in Coloagne for my birthday. We decided to take in the races before catching the ferry back home. It was good to see Gary and Pete and a few familiar faces, but the vibe wasn’t right.

Seeing everyone running around to have bets on races in Singapore, Malaysia and Macau looked tacky and desperate. Plus the girlfriend was in another of her morose moods.

The ferry ride back home was quiet. “The Thrill Is Gone” was playing in my head. “Eyes Wide Shut” had run its course.

Timing, it’s always about timing. And the times once enjoyed in Macau had disappeared. There were also changes to be made in Hong Kong. New priorities came into play.

I’ve been back to Macau once in a while for a weekend to try some of the new restaurants that have opened up. There were never any plans to go across the bridge to Taipa. The past lived there. I have no idea nor interest in its present.

As for Macau, when hanging out in Discovery Bay is more exciting, well, that’s saying something about nothing.

Thinking back to those early glory days of Macau racing, it should wake up those running horse racing in Sri Lanka.

They need to understand how it can be so much more than some string hoppers with pol sambal.

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