By David Morgan
Joao Moreira was saying the right things late last season, even as his battle with Zac Purton for Hong Kong’s champion jockey crown diminished to no more than a retreating skirmish. The Brazilian delivered the classic soundbites demanded of a champion sportsman locked in a match with his principal rival, but words only convey so much and his body language betrayed him.
Moreira is a jockey with a rare fluidity to his racing make-up. While Purton holds a poised, near-perfect seat in keeping with his polished style, Moreira’s low crouch flows with a kinetic energy plugged directly to his psyche. When his performance dips from its high peak, even a fraction, it does so in a way that is more obvious than with any other rider on the Hong Kong scene: as last season’s title challenge waned, an unfamiliar half-beam smile and forced bearing reflected a muted flatness to his riding that was incompatible with the buoyant, bright verve of his brilliant best.
He was struggling. The ‘Magic Man’, the rider who had swept through the circuit like a typhoon in his first few seasons, plucking three titles and posting win tallies far beyond previous records – as if that was how it should always have been – and who had pressed Purton to the max one year earlier, was in a slump.
“I had big problems when it came to the end of last season, I just could not keep focus,” he admits. “Trainers that I usually ride most for, they were not having their best season and that affected me quite a bit,”
After months of intense vying, Moreira faded as Purton drew away and clinched his fourth championship with a safe nine-win advantage.
It was not supposed to be that way. The Hong Kong Jockey Club’s marketing promotions had piped the tune of an “epic” fight to the wire. Moreira had led the race by 10 wins in mid-February, only to see Purton mount an off-track strategy and on-track assault that turned the deficit on its head and had him in pole position by late May.
As any sportsman would, Moreira attempted to rally and press to the end. He went to Happy Valley on 24 June and notched an early win to move to within three of the ascendant Purton, but the Australian fired through the rest of the card with a slick four-timer. In real terms, that was the end: Purton held a seven-win advantage with five meetings left, two of which Moreira would sit out through suspension, including the finale.
Through the season’s crucial concluding two and a half months – from the start of May to 15 July – Purton outscored Moreira by 41 wins to 29, the former’s strike rate being 22% compared to the latter’s sub-par 16%. Purton had seven more rides in that period, with Moreira side-lined for three of those last 22 meetings due to suspensions.
What is noticeable in the numbers is that Moreira, the king of multiple-win race days, peaked with one four-timer and three trebles in that time span, alongside three blank days and seven meetings at which he left with only one win. Meanwhile Purton – who nabbed a five-timer, a four-timer and three trebles during the term – had only two blank days, and took a total of seven wins from the three days Moreira sat out.
“That was a big frustration,” Moreira says. “But, you know, I was losing a lot of support. On the other hand, Zac was doing a very smart job and he used the media to grab the attention of the trainers, in regards that if they wanted to see a show, he needed support, and he got it.
“He did it very well, so that was a lesson to all of us in the jockeys’ room. He’s very smart at using the press and using it for his own benefit. That’s not me criticising him, it’s just recognising that he did what he needed to do, and he did it in a very clever, professional way.”
Purton is a sharp and hardened operator, seasoned in Hong Kong racing’s cut-throat culture in which jockeys book their own rides; if they are to rise to the top, they must not only make connections with owners and trainers – over lunch, dinner, or at the Sha Tin trainers’ stand – but also actively poach rides from fellow jockeys. The off-track process is a complex juggling act, in parts ‘political’ power play, self-promotion, compromise and hard-nosed soliciting, all to get on the horses that matter.
Even with Moreira’s challenge all but buried, Purton kept up the tried and trusted mantra that his rival was still a threat, pressing home his season-long line that Moreira was getting the better support, the better choice of horses and the advantage of a lighter body weight. But, by then, with support evidently waning, the ‘Magic Man’ was struggling to muster the positivity needed to overturn what had become an inevitable defeat.
“In a short period of time I lost focus and Zac closed up, and the luck turned, and the pressure I put on myself turned everything upside down and I could not manage it. When I lost that focus, I was not able to keep up,” Moreira says.
Moreira and Purton are the two standout Hong Kong jockeys of the past seven seasons; between them, they brought an end to Douglas Whyte’s 13-year reign as champion. After Purton’s initial title in 2014, Moreira won the next three premierships on the bounce; Purton grabbed the crown back and has held it for three seasons in a row, making the most of the fallout from Moreira’s aborted move to Japan in 2018.
The Brazilian and the Australian are as dissimilar in personality as they are in riding style, yet they share the commonality of being family men. Moreira and his wife Taciana have two children, and, as last season’s championship hopes began to unravel, he found that the pressure was infiltrating a casa Moreira.
“The biggest problem I had was the frustration I had at home from my family,” he reveals. “They were feeling it, and probably more than me. I looked around and I saw my kids and my wife a bit disappointed, not with me, but with the result that we ended up having.”
His family watched via television as his championship drive stalled and Purton seized the moment.
“I told my wife, ‘don’t watch the race, it’s not going to change; win or lose it’s still the same and you keep on torturing yourself when there’s not a need’, and then she tells me she can’t because she’s part of it. My son, Miguel, he’s in front of the TV screaming and shouting. He’s a child and he doesn’t understand how things work,” he says.
“For me, coming home and having to deal with their frustration was a big deal because I felt for them more than I felt for myself. Winning and losing, I’ve had that experience many times but having a family lose with you is a different story, that was a bit tough.”
But his family has also given the support he needed to put the disappointment of last July behind him and lift again for the new season.
“People don’t know my wife much but she’s very faithful,” he says. “When it comes to race days, she spends time praying because she wants to pass on positive energy to me and it helps. And, also, it helps counter when you have people there around you with bad energy.”
Moreira’s smile was back to full beam after he completed his first six-timer of the new campaign aboard Excellent Proposal at Sha Tin on 20 September. When he wound up a treble on 1 October atop Computer Patch in the G3 National Day Cup – five days after his 37th birthday – his post-race mounted report to trainer Tony Cruz was buzzing with his usual enthusiasm.
“Now I’m going through a different time, I’ve got my confidence back,” he says. “I know I can ride, there’s not a question about that, but even knowing I can ride, if I’m not feeling good with myself and if things are going wrong, you lose your confidence and all the confidence you have in yourself, you start doubting.
“These days, I’ve got confidence, I’m strong, I’ve got focus, I know I will have a good season. I know. That’s all I want with regards to my job. I might not have much time left in my career: how much I have is hard to tell, but while I have a good momentum and I’m still feeling very healthy, I want to make good use of it.”
Moreira is adamant that he is in a good place physically and mentally, but he knows that there are some fractured relationships that still need to be fixed. How well those will mend, he is not sure.
“I look back at some mistakes I made and I’m working on them, trying to turn them around. There are a few things that I can’t change: there are a few trainers who are not willing to use me anymore,” he says.
“We didn’t have problems, it’s just the comfort that we used to have, to work together, it’s not there anymore, so I’ve been having to readjust the trainers that I ride for. I’ve done not too badly, because I know there are some trainers that are very good and are very kind and are committed to supporting me with good rides.”
One of those in his camp is John Size, his primary patron. The 11-time champion trainer had, by his high standards, a moderate campaign in 2019/20 with only 46 winners, a return well below his usual benchmark of 60-plus.
“He’s important, for sure, but it’s not enough to have only John Size, I know I need support from many other trainers,” he says.
Such is the high benchmark Moreira and Purton have set, and so dominant in the Hong Kong narrative is the jockey’s title, that it is easy to overlook the fact that by anyone else’s standards, Moreira’s 2019/20 season overall was a raging success. He logged 138 wins, banked more prize money – a hefty HK$206.9 million – and won more of the circuit’s Group 1 races than anyone else.
“I want to make sure I get on the horses that can maybe win the Group 1 races, which is all that a jockey wants. Any jockey wants to win the big races – you might not win the championship but if you won the Hong Kong Cup that might be enough,” he says.
“I do want to win the championship this season, of course, but it’s not something that I have to have in my mind right now, thinking about it all the time.”
It is rare for any sportsman, no matter how great, not to endure a dip in form, the trick is to arrest it early and bounce back strongly. Moreira believes he is doing just that.
“I’m confident that I’m able to have a good season once again and I’m committed to having that good season. I’m very committed; I’m very, very committed,” he says.
His position at the top of the premiership after the season’s opening month – 18 wins to Purton’s 12 – attests to that. It is a positive start, yet the end is a long-haul nine and a half months away.
“It’s going to be hard,” he says, “but it’s going to be very exciting because it’s still very unpredictable. We try to guess how it will turn out but it’s only a guess, so I just tell myself, we can do it. I have my faith and my family supports me very heavily.”
Moreira’s early season form has him performing at the high level his fans have come to expect, winning at a strike rate of 24 percent. If he is to maintain that standard throughout what will be another draining campaign, the positive energy he draws from family and close associates will be as vital as any strong backing from owners and trainers.
His recent six and three-win displays back his assertion that he has regained the focus he struggled to hold in last season’s battle with Purton. Gone is the fatigued dullness of that late-season slump, the Moreira smile has regained its spark, and he is flowing through his races with a vibrant synergy of thought and motion that speaks with a clarity words cannot match.