If you thought last season’s jockeys’ championship race was good - that knock-down, drag ‘em out stoush between Douglas Whyte and Zac Purton, the one full of finger pointing and trash talking antics - well, rarely do sequels deliver, but this new season has a new protagonist and “Whyte versus Purton II – the Magic Man arrives” is shaping up as a blockbuster.
This triple threat match has more twists than any Hollywood thriller: three leading men worthy of starring roles anywhere in the world and relationships more rocky and unpredictable than any Cantonese day time soap opera.
We were taken aback when experienced SCMP racing editor Alan Aitken proclaimed wonder rookie Joao Moreira the favourite for the jockeys’ championship. If, as Bart Cummings once put it, patience is the least used quality in racing, then hindsight is the most over-used, and we will be applying a liberal dose of hindsight when we say we vehemently disagree with our esteemed colleague’s assessment.
Of course, the hindsight we refer to is that since the bold claim was made, there have been a couple of significant events relating to the jockeys’ championship. Firstly, Purton keeps winning, but the biggest was Moreira getting rubbed out for another three meetings to make it six meetings in total, including the psychological blow of missing the biggest day of the year and a chance to defend the International Jockeys’ Championship.
But if Moreira is still favourite, we also want odds about either the 13-time defending champion Whyte, or the best rider in the world right now, Purton. Let’s run the rule over each contender and give our own hypothetical odds assessment.
THE CASE FOR ZAC
He is the best jockey
Well, let’s start with the obvious. At Sha Tin or Happy Valley, all things considered, we think Purton is the best rider of the three right now. He has taken the undisputed mantle as the guy who you want on in any situation. He has reached that sweet spot in an athlete’s career where he still has the athleticism and hunger of youth, but is now armed with the emotional balance, perspective and wisdom of age and experience. He is a calmer, more focused individual, not as prone to the emotionally charged ups and downs of yesteryear. Yet, he still looks pretty in the saddle and the tactical “thinking game” of his make-up nearly matches that of the mastermind Whyte.
Here’s a hypothetical – and it alludes to one of the factors against Purton – how many winners would Purton ride if he had “dream team-like” support from John Size? When that was put to a few analytical types around the racetrack, the consensus seemed to be “at least 110.”
There’s something to be said for a 13-win lead – that’s the break Purton has over Whyte right now after 19 meetings. Admittedly there’s a long way to go, but there is also nearly a quarter of the season gone and who’s to say he can’t build on the lead further?
Yes, Moreira has made rapid gains in the nine meetings at which he has ridden, but he still trails the leader by 18. The Brazilian would have to maintain a hell of a hot streak until the end of the season to catch him.
Yip still to fire
Look, we all know Dennis Yip Chor-hong is suffering from a trainers’ championship hangover worse than anything Alan Garner ever went through, and that could be seen as a negative for his chief go-to man Purton, but surely he has some bullets to fire at some stage. Yip seems to have done a reasonable job of retooling his roster after his Class Five handicapper-inspired Championship win, which now seems like something that happened on a pill and alcohol-fuelled rampage. As in, “Did that really happen? Last thing I remember, I was taking a shot of absinthe and I wake up, and Dennis Yip is champion trainer, rides in on a horse drawn carriage and releases a limited edition clothing line to commemorate the win.”
When Yip does roll out some newcomers, expect Purton to get some love. Also, expect some more productivity from the Purton-friendly Caspar Fownes yard too – there hasn’t been much so far.
Tougher penalties from stewards
Ok, this is one that slipped by quietly overnight, but may turn out to be significant in the wash-up. Stewards this season ramped up careless riding charges to a standard three meeting ban instead of two, hence Moreira facing a massive six-day stretch for back-to-back charges when in the past it would have been four.
While Whyte and Moreira have both fallen foul of stewards and spent time on the sidelines, Purton has steadily racked up a reputation as a cleanskin and qualified for the “good behaviour” discount with 150 incident free rides. He will only serve two days if or when he is suspended, which means by getting through yesterday, he basically gained a “free hit” of one extra meeting on his two rivals. If it comes down to the wire, that meeting could make the difference.
THE CASE AGAINST PURTON
He is still batting number eight for Bangladesh
Doesn’t matter how good you are riding, there’s only so far a combination of Manfred Man Ka-leung, Francis Lui Kin-wai and Me Tsui Yu-sak are going to take you. As much as Size is sharing his wins this season, there’s still none for his fellow Aussie. We described Purton’s achivements last season as the equivalent of averaging 50 in test cricket while batting number eight for Bangladesh, and nothing much has changed. Despite Purton’s Group One success for John Moore, there’s still nothing substantial in the lower grades for him there.
BOTTOM LINE AND ASSESSMENT: The best rider with a decent lead and what could be a once-in-a-career opportunity. In our totally fictional and completely hypothetical betting market, set to 130 per cent, we’ve got Purton 1.9 fave.
THE CASE FOR DOUGLAS
Man, it's Douglas Whyte
To quote the greatest piece of argument-ending trash talk ever uttered on a sports field – “Dude, look at the scoreboard!” That’s right, it says “Douglas Whyte’s Hong Kong jockeys’ championships: 13, everybody else currently riding combined: 0.” This guy is a champion. He has faced off similar challenges from Brett Prebble and Shane Dye, and he has done it with and without John Size. That said, championship win number 14 would be his greatest accomplishment yet.
They say to never underestimate the heart of a champion. Whyte is still lurking and it would be a brave, or incredibly stupid, man to call him gone. There’s a school of thought that Size’s relinquishing of rides from Whyte is a psychological ploy to light a fire under the champ. Even if it wasn’t, it will probably work. As focused as Purton is, there’s nothing quite like the steely resolve of a highly motivated Whyte. Last season, when pestered for a return salvo to Purton’s public sledging, Whyte glared “Wait until after I win the championship, then I’ll talk.” He delivered on both counts, rounding up Purton and winning the title eased down, and then delivering his epic “You want to stick your hand in the beehive, you are going to get stung” line to the press.
The Size factor
Let’s face it, Size is training that well that if he decides he wants his old mate Douglas to win the championship, Whyte will romp in. Much has been made of Dream Team relations. Is the honeymoon over? Is this a trial separation? Are Whyte and Size just getting so far below the maximum rides quota that they can surge home late with the young PPGs Size has queuing up at the gate? Whyte is only permitted to ride 40 per cent of Size’s runners and take 40 per cent of his rides from the stable, but are the Dream Team back-ending that so Whyte can ride whatever he wants late in the term? It might not look like it, but if you were a bookie you would want to be keeping Whyte safe.
Aside from Size’s new policy, Whyte still remains on many of the progressive performers, especially those on which he has done the groundwork last term like Luger, Khaya and Sea Dragon, and who is to say he won’t be on some of the better ones come mid-season, when the Dream Team usually clicks into gear.
THE CASE AGAINST
Dream Team 2.0
Size had four winners yesterday at Sha Tin and at one time that meant “Dream Team does it again” headlines and (at least) four more wins for Whyte. The Demon was on just one of them though, with Olivier Doleuze, Karis Teetan and Joao Moreira grabbing the others. Throw the spectacularly in-form Tye Angland into the mix as part of Dream Team 2.0 as well.
If it is a trial separation of sorts, Size might find life is better with a hungry crew of eager young riders (the 41-year-old Doleuze qualifies as youthful on account of his unmatchable coolness and indomitable spirit). The trial separation is going a lot better for Size than Whyte, it must be said, and might continue.
All empires fall
The end has got to come sooner or later, and as Whyte put it in an interview on season’s eve: “It’s harder to be the champ than the challenger.” Now 41 and already an immortal, what is left to prove for Whyte? Would anyone think any less of him if he couldn’t overcome this latest challenge to the crown? Where does Whyte find the motivation this time around?
BOTTOM LINE AND ASSESSMENT: Again, this is Douglas Whyte we are talking about and it’s 13-zip. Fictional and totally hypothetical odds in a mythical 130 per cent market: 2.9
THE CASE FOR JOAO
Everybody loves Joao
All new jockeys, particularly a genuine lightweight like Moreira, seem to be granted at least some opportunities regardless of ability, simply because they are the new guy. But Moreira’s rock star reputation and unparalleled record in Singapore preceded him and he has been given an unprecedented level of support. With near-full books at every meeting, suspensions aside, Moreira has hardly put a foot wrong as far as results go. It is unlikely that the support will wane based on a strike rate comparable to his two rivals (Moreira 17%, Whyte15 %, Purton 21%). Moreira seems to be number one for Moore, is attracting quality rides for Size and he is doing the job.
There's room to improve the off-track game
A clearly accomplished race rider with a well-honed, if somewhat unique style, Moreira hasn’t got much room for improvement from a technical standpoint. There’s only so fast you can pull a whip through from left to right, and he seems to have that move downpat. But once he starts working out which trainers to focus his attention on, Moreira’s strike rate could improve.
At the moment he is basking in everyone’s attention, ensuring a full dance card, but expect to see a more ruthless Moreira the longer he stays. The Brazilian is incredibly polite, but do you think when he spoke to trainers in Singapore he said things like “Oh, someone else has been riding that horse, maybe you should ask him if he wants to keep the ride first?” As Moreira’s relationships with trainers and owners develop, he will become more assertive and discerning.
THE CASE AGAINST JOAO
Trouble with stewards
Moreira’s hyper-kinetic style is obviously effective and endears him to local punters, who love a “trier”. But has the frantic head-down and bum-up manner in which he has gone about things, while admirable from an attitude perspective, contributed to him landing him in front of Kim Kelly’s headhunters too many times? The knock against him is, if it is possible that trying too hard is a bad thing, that Moreira does try too hard on 20-1 shots.
He now has the aforementioned six meetings to have a think about things, but maybe the same close-to-the-edge style that makes Moreira great could turn out to be his biggest weakness in the tight racing of Hong Kong, at least in the short-term, if it keeps getting him suspended.
After already giving everyone a headstart, Moreira trails the lead by 18 wins and is about to sit out the next six meetings. Throw another one on top of that for Purton’s bonus “good behaviour,” and in the end, it could mean Moreira rides at 18 less meetings than Purton over the course of the season. It’s a big handicap.
Talk about big fish in small pond syndrome: if Moreira hasn’t got it, he is a prime candidate to catch some. The new guy honeymoon might soon be over and how Moreira responds when placed under pressure will be interesting. Rival jockeys are already picking his style apart and are starting to flush out some perceived weaknesses. Moreira has an enormous target on his back and while no one does anybody favours in a race here, maybe the existing jockeys, fueled by a little jealousy, are making it just a touch harder for Joao to find a two-wide spot at Happy Valley. There’s no doubt the early success has made him a marked man.
BOTTOM LINE AND ASSESSMENT: Moreira has a perfect chance to reflect upon his whirlwind first month or so in Hong Kong with a break until mid-December. Maybe he needs to return with a more refined style to be a long-term proposition. A champion in his own right, there’s no doubt he can do it - but maybe next season. Assessment: 3.3.