It’s vintage edge-of-the-seat stuff. Joao Moreira, the reigning Hong Kong champion and the 12th-ranked jockey in the world, was three behind former champ Zac Purton, the 13th-ranked rider in the world, before the third-last raceday of the season began at Sha Tin yesterday. Then he won four races. The only problem for Moreira was that Purton also won four.
That’s eight of the 11 races on the card between them, and that’s how it’s been all season. Two of the most gifted riders on the planet displaying a barely credible level of domination over perhaps the most competitive jockey colony there is. The score at the moment: Purton 129, Moreira 126 (with third-placed Karis Teetan back on 50). In 19 races’ time (eight at Happy Valley on Wednesday and another 11 at Sha Tin on Sunday), one of the most exciting title races in racing history anywhere will be decided.
What kind of demands has trying to keep hold of his title in the face of such intense rivalry made of Moreira? How difficult is it to keep up the pace? And what kind of relationship does he have with Purton? He spoke to Paul Haigh.
The Hong Kong Jockeys’ Championship differs from those in other countries in two very important respects.
For a start the title is more prestigious in Hong Kong than in any other racing jurisdiction. The champion jockey is a heroic celebrity in Hong Kong as he is nowhere else.
This is largely because Hong Kong is the only part of the world in which racing takes precedence over all other sports, not just on TV or on the sports pages, but in general conversation among ordinary Hong Kongers. In Hong Kong, it’s inconceivable that any rider should want to sidestep the championship, as for example Ryan Moore does in Britain, in order to pick and choose the best rides around the world.
At the time of the Audemars Piguet/ Champions Mile meeting at the end of April, Joao Moreira was asked on TV what it means to him to be described as ‘The Magic Man’ or just as ‘The Magician’. His reply was significant.
“It’s very nice and important to have nicknames. When I say important it’s because it means you’re doing something different and it’s working, and it’s getting people’s attention and they are trying to describe you in a way that shows they think of you as different. That definitely helps your reputation in a good way.”
Ruling the roost
Before he came to Hong Kong four years ago, the 33-year-old Brazilian not only broke every record in Singapore, but broke them so comprehensively the old cliché about them being made to be broken seemed obsolete in the the island republic. Since then, he’s ruled the roost in Hong Kong in almost identical fashion, smashing numerical and prize money records that few imagined a rider could even edge past, never mind eclipse.
Joao Moreira’s own pride in his achievements since his arrival in Hong Kong is unquestionable, particularly because of his belief that this may be the toughest testing ground, the hottest hotbed of competition in the world of race-riding.
“Hong Kong is a very unique place,” he said in late April. “Everyone here tries to understand what the other jockeys are doing around them and, to do so, you also have to try to come with tricks, because if people already know what you’re going to do, they can set up their own plan and come and beat you. You become vulnerable. But, because everybody else does it, the jockeys themselves, because we have a smaller community of horses in Hong Kong, you have to come up with different things nearly every race.
“That’s what makes Hong Kong racing very special, and if you’re not smart enough to adapt yourself to this system very quickly, it is a very hard place to be. And that’s what makes Hong Kong racing very tough. When I say tough, either you understand it right away and hit the ground running, or very soon you’re going to be packing up your things and going home.
“I’d say Hong Kong racing is very unique. First impression when you go out there to compete … is that the pace is very fast and the jockeys are very aware of what is coming next second and in the next ten seconds and everyone here has a very good sense of pace so you don’t want to need an excuse. You need to be sharp, and to have a really good horse, to go out there and win.”
The second way in which the Hong Kong Jockey Club Jockeys’ Premiership (their term for it) differs from all others is that there are no jockeys’ agents. None at all. Agents are banned because they’re reckoned in some way to be a threat to the rigid integrity that is the HKJC’s most prized possession.
A jockey therefore has to handle his own affairs in what is recognized as the most competitive environment for rides in all racing. He can have advisers, but no agent. So he must be a self-salesman as well as a diplomat. Of course he has to have tremendous ability. But there is more to it than that. He has to have skill at juggling promises and obligations. He must have charm as well as talent in the saddle. Above all, of course, he must treasure his reputation for reliability as well as for brilliance. It is truly an extraordinary situation for any athlete to be in.
Fortunately, both Moreira and his now arch rival, 35-year-old Australian Zac Purton, have all these qualities in sackfuls.
If anyone still makes the mistake of underestimating the intelligence of jockeys, they should think again before they meet either of this pair. If the cards had fallen differently both Purton and Moreira might have been hotshot businessmen or even academics. These men wouldn’t be where they are now if they weren’t as adept at handling people as they are at handling horses.
When Moreira arrived in 2014, Purton was already champion, having taken over from Douglas Whyte, who, almost incredibly, had ruled for 13 consecutive years. Whyte accomplished this not just through his skill as a rider but through his equally unquestionable skill at retaining the loyalty of owners and trainers. No-one can become champion jockey in Hong Kong without that sort of skill.
If Moreira has a weakness in the self-management department it is only in comparison with Purton. It is a relative weakness but he doesn’t deny it himself. When he came from Singapore his reputation was so high and his riding weight at 114 pounds gave him an advantage of between five and seven pounds over his main rivals that he seemed unstoppable.
The twin advantages he had over Purton, the defending champion who had taken over Whyte’s mantle after years of graft and self-adaptation, meant that, for a while after his arrival, Moreira won the battle for mounts hands down.
Oh, and he was brilliant, mustn’t forget that. With startling talent that seemed to improve the best performance of almost every horse he sat on, Moreira simply swamped the opposition in those first few years.
But then something went wrong, as he explained in conversation after that TV interview.
“I point out another thing,” he said. “I’ve lost some of my supporters. I don’t want to mention stables or names, but I have lost some. How did it happen? Because it’s impossible, you know. You can’t keep everybody else happy for too long. In the end, when you say to anybody else here, ‘I’ll help you out today’, and you do it, in the end you will disappoint them. You can’t help it and they get upset. So they look to other riders.
“And, when somebody has helped you, they feel that when you are riding for someone else you are saying, ‘I don’t want your help anymore.’ Eventually it happens. Eventually you disappoint people. It’s inevitable.
“I haven’t fought anybody. I haven’t disrespected anybody. I’ve tried to do the right thing all the time. But still, it’s impossible to keep everybody else happy for a long time. And it’s expected: this disappointing people. By me anyway. I’ve gone through this three times. No sorry … two times, and this is the third time that this is happening to me.
“When I was based in Brazil, I dominated for four years. On the fourth year, the same thing happened. Some of the trainers were not committed to support me anymore, not because I’d done any bad to them. It’s just because they get tired of being told ‘Sorry, I can’t ride for you today’. But that’s part of the sport. Some people understand, some people don’t. And it’s impossible. It’s impossible for you as a jockey or for you even trying to be a very nice person to keep them all happy. However hard you try, it’s just impossible. No-one can do it. Not even Jesus Christ was able to keep everyone happy.
“But still I say I’ve got some very nice people that support me. People that are very loyal and I’m very, very pleased to have those. Let’s say I get to the end of the season and I lose the premiership. Okay. If I had to choose between keeping the premiership and keeping my friends, keeping all these people that I have had supporting me, I would have no doubts. I would lose the premiership to have these people for as long as I can, because they are not just supporters, they are good friends. They are good advisers. They are very understanding. They are very respectful. They are very ….. how do you say it? What else could you say of good people? I am trying to describe the scenario to you, trying to be honest, and I don’t think I have anything extra to tell, but if you come up with a question ….
Paul Haigh: This battle with Zac? Usually by this time of the year you’ve got everything sewn up and usually you’ve broken records.
Joao Moreira: “Hmm, what is your question?”
PH: Are you enjoying having a bit of competition? Or is it pressure you really don’t need?
JH: “It’s enjoyable. If you don’t want to be in the position where you’re being hunted, that would be silly because it must mean you are going to have to chase. You will be behind. But I am in front,” [This was at the end of April] “and being hunted. So that’s okay. Zac has been riding very well, he’s a very talented rider. So everything that he has got so far, he deserves. Two more things that I would add to this: I think I may have dropped form. Maybe because I lost some support and I haven’t really been riding at my very best some of the time this season. Or maybe I lost some support because of this.
“But, at the same time, I have faith in myself and know what I’m capable of. The past has proven it. And what I can say is I’ll be pushing on towards the end because, just as it is important to Zac to win, it is important to me as well. I’ll try to win. If I don’t win, it’s not the end of the world, not to me. If I win, it’s another one.
“Zac doing what he’s doing, he’s doing it better than I’ve been doing. But this is good for the sport itself because all the fans they like to see a competition. And they want to see this dispute of both of us. They want to see who is going to fight harder.”
PH: How do the two of you get on?
JM: “Very well. Don’t worry about that. It’s not a competition between deadly enemies at all. No, we’re not enemies. When we get out there on the turf or on the sand, well then maybe. But we don’t cross the line in regards to putting each other in danger.
“He’s very respectful, but he’s smart. He knows what he has to do to beat me just as I know sometimes what it takes to beat him. That’s competition. We come out of the competition and we’re good friends. We’re respectful. We have some laughs. Zac is a very unique character and I myself I have been enjoying riding with him and against him, because from Zac, no doubts, I’ve been learning a lot.”
PH: You said you were conscious of a little dip maybe in your own form. Have you got any reasons you can put your finger on, apart from the loss of support?
JM: “I would say I’ve had some personal problems which have been sorted out. But the main thing has been losing my supports.”
PH: Okay, one more question: Have you got any ambition to ride outside Hong Kong, or are you happy to ride here for the rest of your career?
JM: “No, I don’t want to be based here for the rest of my career. Definitely not.”
PH: Where would you like to be then?
JM: “I would like to be everywhere. But we can’t have the world, can we? But what I can say is I would love to ride in Australia for a bit. I would love to ride in Japan for a bit and I would love to ride in England for a bit. These three places before I go back to Brazil where I’m going to retire, I think I’m going to be jumping over to these places whenever I can have the chance, to have the experiences, to learn a little bit more, because everywhere you go, it’s different. People are different, relationships are different. Environment, air, grass, greenness. Everything is different, and I bet you agree with me.”
That interview was more than two months ago. Meanwhile Purton, himself a man as likeable and friendly as any you could hope to meet when away from the arena of combat, has, with all the relentless determination of a Pinkerton’s agent, been gradually hunting Moreira down.
Suspensions haven’t helped the Brazilian. Maybe there’s been an inevitable erosion of his confidence too that may have come not just because of the loss of his ‘supports’ but from the realization of just how formidable opponent Purton has become.
Heading for Japan
The astonishing announcement by Joao Moreira that he is leaving Hong Kong and going to ride in Japan next season came at the end of May. Some will interpret this as a concession, as an indication that Zac has won the battle for supremacy and has effectively run the great Magic Man out of town.
But this is a wrong interpretation.
As he said at the time of the APQEII, he longs to win, but he has other ambitions too. Watch Moreira fight all the way to the line to keep his title from Purton. Watch the dignity and charm with which one of them is going to have to concede after the season ends on Sunday, and the graciousness with which the other accepts the concession. These are two of the main contenders for the Best Jockey in the World accolade, and they both know it. (They may be ranked 12th and 13th in the TRC Global Rankings, which are based on rides in Group and Graded races only, but it is arguable both men would be higher if they were based in other jurisdictions. Hong Kong has relatively few Group races compared with, say, the U.S., Europe or Australia.)
The Magic Man is now learning Japanese. Not quite from scratch because he’s been having lessons for a few years. Just as he once learnt English while he was dominating in Brazil. So much for those who might think his decision to leave Hong Kong was in any way impulsive, still less the product of a sulk. Expect him to be back to his imperious peak when the Japanese season starts this autumn. Expect him to dominate again. Expect records.
On form at least though, his fourth year there might be the problem.