By Hans Ebert
While Derek Leung with 23 winners on board at the moment continues to focus on winning the annual Tony Cruz Award that is given to the season’s most successful local rider, racing at Sha Tin on Sunday served up a glimpse of what we might expect to see next season…and what might prove to be this season’s ongoing on-course horse opera.
It’s hard to tell how it’s happened, but we’re glad it has: 10-pound claiming apprentice Dylan Mo, who many thought would never make the grade, has turned things around, and is not only riding with a great deal more aggression, strength, and confidence, he’s in demand by almost every stable. Above all, he’s riding winners.
On Sunday, he made light work in winning on the John Moore-trained Richcity Fortune with computer syndicates on Overload backing what looked a certainly on the handicaps and the way the yielding track was playing: Suiting those up on the speed and going like the clappers.
In fact, on what was a “telling” Sunday, the young apprentice, though still very much a work in progress, rode off with the Jockey Challenge beating far more fancied names like Joao Moreira, Zac Purton and Matthew Poon aka The Poon Train. These, folks, are the uncertainties of horse racing.
With a full book of very good rides, Poon, the new arrival from Adelaide, who won over racing fans there with his aggressive riding style and will to win, was back after another short suspension that has slowed down his “motorvating” rate in Hong Kong, and expected to upset Moreira in the Jockey Challenge. Dylan Mo had other ideas and proved to be the fly in the ointment.
The Poon Train, below, did his best and rode a winner, but it wasn’t enough to better a very well-supported double by his fellow apprentice on a track that most of the time favoured horses on the speed.
In fact, the first three races saw horses get to the front, move further ahead and win by yawning margins. It stayed like this for most of the meeting with Mo taking out the ninth race by cheerily bouncing out the very heavily backed Cheerful Boy straight to the front and holding off the challenge of Smiling Charm, which stormed from the clouds with Douglas Whyte in the saddle. It was the sorcerer and apprentice stuff.
Only in the last race of the day was when things didn’t go according to script and where nearly everyone got involved in The Charge Of The Light Brigade did Keith Yeung maintain serenity and patience before flying down the outside at odds of over 40 to 1 while most of the other riders thought they were all riding equine versions of Usain Bolt.
When crossing the finish line, Yeung, who’s enjoying a good winning streak of late, looked as if he had secured his retirement plans.
It’s an interesting race to watch, particularly the ride of Kei Chiong on the fourth placed Doyeni. The result of an adjourned enquiry into the ride could have a marked bearing on where Hong Kong’s only female rider goes from here.
The pinup girl of Hong Kong racing might have ridden twenty winners so far this season, but to many astute judges of riding talent, last season’s Most Popular Jockey might be another victim of that thing called hype, and just might have got a little lost along the way.
Has young Kei become “difficult” and unprepared to listen to advice? Hope not. But like the kryptonite necklace that befell Supergirl, something could be affecting the Super Girl of Hong Kong racing.
As for Joao Moreira, he rode an expected short-priced double, but at least to these eyes, the brilliant Brazilian seems distracted these days- almost preoccupied. Perhaps he’s thinking of his next port of call? Perhaps he’s wondering when to call time on his Hong Kong gig? After all, he’s always made it clear that he wouldn’t be staying in Hong Kong forever.
The day earlier, Zac Purton had executed a great winning treble in Macau, whereas Joao Moreira returned home empty handed, a rarity for the magic man. On Sunday, despite his brilliant party trick to get Jumbo Luck to jump from an outside barrier, and, in the twinkling of an eye, have it on the rails and leading, and continue to lead all the way home, as the day progressed, there wasn’t that usual spring in his step.
Perhaps it was the gloomy weather, but with Hong Kong racing going through the final aria of what feels like it’s been a long season with only one more Group 1 race to come, those jungle drums having been beating loudly for some time that a powerful stable, and now reported as a given, will be retaining a well-known jockey from Sydney on a full-time basis. No prizes for guessing who.
If this were to happen, Joao Moreira would lose a very key part of his support system and riding arsenal. And though no matter how much he enjoys riding even Class 5 winners, he has acquired the taste for not only winning on Group 1 horses, but winning on the very best Group 1 gallopers that have created a, well, deep impact with their dominating performances. Gallopers like Satono Crown and Maurice from Japan.
When Joao Moreira recently won the Audemars Piguet QE11 Cup with a breathtaking piece of riding that many will remember forever aboard the Noriyuki Hori-trained Neorealism from Japan, some of us at Sha Tin that day, saw a glance between the Brazilian rider, and the master Japanese trainer that seemed to speak volumes. Whether right or wrong, it seemed to cement an already strong partnership.
Of course, a foreign jockey being granted a license to ride full-time in Japan is no stroll in the park. But then again, Joao Moreira is no ordinary jockey. Many would say that he’s in a class of his own. After three seasons in Hong Kong where he has rewritten the history books and created new ones, does the world’s best racing jurisdiction have the Group 1 horsepower to keep the Magic Man interested in pulling more and more enchiladas out of his sombrero?
It’s always been said that Joao Moreira is about looking after número uno. It’s nothing personal, it’s only business, and the Brazilian’s agility isn’t exclusive to the saddle and race tracks. The man is constantly looking at new challenges. Speak to him and it’s there in his eyes- that fire burning inside that silently screams out that he’s adamant not to get into a rut and settle for city comforts and complacency. Not Joao Moreira. That, and ensuring that family comes first.
He wants to test himself on the world’s greatest racing stages- the Melbourne Cup, Le Prix de L’Arc De Triomphe, The Breeders Cup, Sha Tin and its four Group 1 races during Hong Kong International Day. He wants to boldly go where no other jockey has gone before.
In Hong Kong, racing fans have always seen Joao Moreira as being in a class of his own. This has also created an uneven playing field with many lamenting the lack of value. IF he were to leave, value would return along with a far more level playing field.
As one Hong Kong racing fan from the land Down Under put it, “Joao Moreira’s only fault is that he’s too good.”
Of course, there is the consistent brilliance of Zac Purton who rode his 700th winner in Hong Kong on Sunday. This is no mean feat from a rider who, believe it or not, is possibly only really hitting his straps now and is thinking about his own career plans for global expansion and domination.
He’s more than ready to take over the void left if Moreira were to bid Adios to Hong Kong racing on a full-time basis. There’ll also be plenty of rides to go around for everyone- Sam Clipperton, the find of the season whose best years are ahead of him, the extremely hard working Nash Rawiller who’s managed to build up a strong and loyal support system, the popular Neil Callan, the likeable Karis Teetan, very possibly, the arrival next season of Tommy Berry, good local riders in Derek Leung and Keith Yeung, plus the ten pound claiming apprentices Matthew Poon and Dylan Poon.
For the HKJC, no one is indispensable. IF Joao Moreira were to leave, the odds are they would have prepared for this day. Let’s not forget that for almost two years there were rumours that the brilliant Brazilian will join Godolphin in Australia. Perhaps what’s more intriguing to watch are the comings and goings within the training ranks. John Moore has three more years to go before compulsory retirement, and has been the trainer with the owners who have the deep pockets to purchase some very good gallopers.
Just as Joao Moreira has dominated the riding ranks, John Moore has gone home with most of the silverware by winning the Group 1 races through some very astute purchases, which he will readily credit to son George. The Moore-Moreira partnership has been a very successful one during the big race days.
In the upcoming Group 1 Champions And Chater Cup, John Moore saddles up six of the eight runners. The other two are supplied by Tony Cruz. This is not exactly an ideal situation, but what’s the solution, Sherlock? The return of David Hayes, someone who still commands plenty of respect with many of this city’s big owners, and certainly understands the quirks of this city? But this rumour has made the rounds and not gone anywhere other than around in circles.
The easy answer is better trainers with strong roller decks comprising big spending owners. Easier said than done. But let’s see how Michael Freedman, below, settles in, who will be the owners in his stable, and how wisely he invests their money.
We’re tipping that the upcoming Summer break will be a time for ringing in some important changes for the HKJC led by the opening in July 2018 of the Conghua Training Facilities in Guangzhou, and exactly how this will work and what it will mean to the present and future of horse racing.
As always, there will be a long look at the total racing product, and how and where everything can fit better- sponsorship, co-mingling, co-mingling partners, the venues at Sha Tin and Happy Valley for the different customer segments, the various delivery platforms and the speed in which they provide the content. There’s then the content itself. How can this be improved, and what else could it be?
These are all exciting challenges. It’s what should keep those interested in the sport and pushing the envelope to create an even better product and being proud of it.
When one looks at this Big Picture scenario in a holistic manner, horse racing in Hong Kong really is the future of the sport. It’s the leader and where every other racing club is forced to play catch up with the HKJC. It’s a good position to be in.