If you’re a member of the horse racing fraternity or a punting enthusiast, then Datuk Seri Teh Choon Beng’s name would ring a bell. Otherwise, if you’re an ignoramus like yours truly, you’d be asking, who?
“Did you read the material I sent you?” he asks gruffly as I enter his office at the Penang Turf Club (PNTC) recently.
Uh. Yeah, I flipped through. Honest.
I note a sign on the wall: “You cannot defeat an ignorant man in an argument.”
I’m secretly relieved. On the same wall, another sign reads,: “In this office, make sure the brain is engaged before the mouth is put into gear.”
“I listen to what people tell me,” he contends, “but I don’t religiously believe everything they say. I’m a good employee but bad employer because I expect perfection from the job.”
Hence his favourite phrase, “Don’t bulls**t!” Teh has no qualms about ticking off his staff, especially for tardiness and for not backing their facts with proof.
“I’m wearing a 24-year-old shirt,” he tells me, breaking into a half smile.
I’m tempted to repeat his favourite phrase but instead, smile politely. He turns 71 today but his mind is razor sharp and memory, elephant-sized.
Much revered among his generation, Teh is listed in the Guinness Book of Records for saddling the most winners at a single horse racing meeting on Aug 3, 1991 in Bukit Timah, Singapore. He had saddled seven winners for the same owner (Auric Stable) in one afternoon.
He has been champion trainer of the Malayan Racing Association (MRA) 13 times — a record he pompously states, “no one in the next century will even come close to.” His closest rival, the late Ivan Allan, earned the title seven times.
Indeed, Teh is known for his arrogance. And he is entitled to it since he reigns supreme in the annals of horse racing.
“I don’t care what people say about me. When I voice myself too freely, I annoy a lot of people. Honesty and transparency must be there — that’s why nobody can shake me.”
Teh could have risen to greater heights had he ventured out of Malaysia but preferred the relaxed pace of life in idyllic Penang. Still, not a bad achievement for a man who has put Malaysia on the world horse racing map but confesses to not knowing how to fold a shirt!
He says, “I have two older sisters and I came along 12 years later so I was spoilt by the women in my family.”
After 62 years in the industry, Teh has been there, done that, witnessed it all and is not about to shrivel into a dried-up prune. That fiery passion for horses continues to burn as the retired trainer now sits as a committee member and trustee of the PNTC, committee member of MRA and a member of the Totaliser Board Malaysia.
Most of the PNTC committee members are old guns but Teh has recruited two youngsters, lawyer Saw Lip Khai and architect Teoh Mei Shean, to learn the ropes and balance the team. Teoh is the first woman to come onboard the committee. Together they’re on a mission to raise the level of racing in the country.
The Tehs came from a wealthy family, trading pepper and coffee. Unfortunately, saving was not their forte and when the business collapsed, Teh’s dad, Teh Say Leong, had to turn to the stables to work for trainer John ‘’Doc’’ Rodgers. At times, junior didn’t have money to pay his school fees and was ridiculed by his teachers.
“I only wanted to work at the stables to help my father who eventually became a trainer,” he reveals. Teh was nine then but had to mature quickly.
“I admired trainers who came in big, flashy cars and I told myself, why can’t I be better than them? That inspired me to work hard. My dad did not intend for me to become a trainer but he allowed me to follow my heart.”
Driven by his desire for material things, Teh mastered the game quickly and was churning out champion horses. He observed his father and Doc Rodgers in action, picking up fundamental skills and experimented with new methods. In 1972, at 33, he clinched his first champion trainer title — the youngest in MRA’s history. Ironically, his dad holds the oldest champion trainer title — at 71 in 1970.
Since then, it’s been one accolade after another as his career took off. As his reputation grew, top owners began flocking to him. His philosophy: hard work, a little bit of good fortune and a large investment in good staff.
Teh says, “Yes, trainers often come to me for advice but it’s a trade you can only master through trial and error. You have to have good eye, judgement and luck. I’ve had several trainers under me but none of them have emerged champions.”
When Teh retired in November 1995, veterinarian Dr Tan Swee Hock, who was then an assistant trainer indentured to Teh, inherited his stable lock, stock and barrel.
“They were big shoes to fill,” admits Dr Tan, in hindsight. “There are lots of ups and downs but more downs. I’ve never been a champion trainer but then again, not everyone is a top scholar.”
Teh has dished out plenty of pointers to his protégé, telling him to feed the horses well, not to cut corners and “never to leave your work on track” i.e. make sure the horse peaks during a race and not during track work.
Dr Tan, 60, was a vet for 15 years and has been a trainer for the past 15 years. As a vet, he was more concerned with the well being of a horse but when he made the switch to becoming a trainer for a different challenge, the focus was on training the horse to win.
“If a horse has a problem, it’s easy for a vet to tell the trainer to not push it too hard, but as a trainer who has brought the horse to a certain fitness level, you have to sometimes take risks.
“I’m a very emotional person and as a vet, I was so wrapped up in my cases but as a trainer, I’ve learnt to be less emotional. When the horse wins, it’s very satisfying.”
Speaking in awe of his former boss, syce Abidin Abdul Ghani says Teh was a stickler for discipline.
“His rule was that we couldn’t smoke in the stables. To check, he would appear out of nowhere and catch us red-handed. We’d get scolded and wouldn’t dare do it anymore,” he recalls. “It was also amazing that he could tell the bloodlines of all his horses.”
Abidin, 62, is among the many long-serving staffers at PNTC. He has spent 40-odd years working there, 20 of those years as a syce with Teh. So great is his love for the club that Abidin has recruited 10 of his extended family members to work in the grounds.
He says, “I’m already a grandpa. Maybe I’ll retire in another year or two and take it easy.”
These days, Teh clocks out from the club at 5.30pm, exercises and reads aplenty. In the mornings, he sits in the garden and gazes at the koi to calm his mind. The fish are so disciplined that unless it’s their mealtime, they will refuse to nibble on food! Teh’s home is filled with mementos and pictures of winning horses. The house number is four — an inauspicious number among the Chinese but he dismisses it.
“I don’t bother about feng shui or numbers although I like the number nine. Every religion is good but I’m not religious. To be successful, all you need is hard work, dedication and common sense.”
A doting father to three children who are all abroad, he diligently writes them letters, advising them on prudent investment possibilities. Do they respond?
He shoots me a look and shakes his head, “No, I don’t think so!”
Things are improving