Zac Purton dominating, dueling with Douglas Whyte and riding a card full of favourites, Karis Teetan grinning his way to a treble, even the local kids winning races: Saturday at Sha Tin was a glimpse into the years BM – that is, “before Moreira” – a time not too long ago.
When colleague Alan Aitken remarked before Joao Moreira’s arrival in October, “It’s cat among the pigeons time,” he was almost there. The result of the Magic Man being set upon Hong Kong has been more akin to letting a lion loose in a chicken coup.
To think, it’s only been a shade over four months. Such has been the seismic impact of Moreira’s landing, it seems it has always been this way – everyone is on edge.
It’s not just the jockeys being affected. Stewards are more flustered than a cross-eyed air traffic controller trying to keep Moreira’s wayward riding in check, and professional punters are trying to weigh up the value of his seemingly over-bet rides with the simple fact the guy just keeps on winning, sometimes when he shouldn’t.
It took Moreira being absent through yet another suspension to really feel the gravity of his presence. To be fair, Purton looks rejuvenated as the weather warms up and he may yet give his Brazilian rival a run for his money, but even the Australian admits this championship is all about opportunities. Moreira simply gets more.
In the days BM, Teetan looked every bit like the lightweight golden boy, in the right place at the right time. He had opportunities thrown at him, primarily from Tony Millard, John Moore and John Size. He had 16 wins before international day and even won on both Hong Kong Derby contenders Able Friend and Designs On Rome on the same card – although that was once Moreira had already arrived and was suspended.
In the turbulent times AM (after Moreira, for those slow on the uptake), Moore dropped Teetan and went with Moreira, as did Millard and Size. Then came another lightweight in the form of a Mirco Demuro cameo. Throw in a few suspensions and Teetan goes from a high to a rut.
After his treble, Teetan mused it wasn’t so much missed opportunities that made it tough when Moreira was around, it was his mere presence that made it difficult for everyone. It sounds like Moreira is psyching his rivals out.
“When Joao is here it makes it so much harder. I’m not saying we can’t ride against him, but at the end of the day he does sit on the best horses. You’re always riding second best,” Teetan lamented.
As far as impacting opportunities goes, no one feels Moreira’s influence more than the local riders, particularly the only just-graduated-from-apprentice-school trio of Keith Yeung Ming-lun, Vincent Ho Chak-yiu and Derek Leung Ka-chun.
On Saturday, Ho had two winners and Yeung scored a much-deserved victory on his return from a shocking fall in December, still carrying a pin in his left collarbone.
In the time BM, there might have been one or two foreign lightweights, but the local lads could always pick off a lightly handicapped chance – even a last-start winner stepping up in grade – because they could make the weight when others couldn’t. It was the one advantage they had over Purton, Whyte or Tye Angland, who can’t get much below 118 without some sort of amputation.
Now an in-form horse being assigned 113 pounds has a trainer begging for Moreira to be on board – booking a month in advance if necessary.
It’s not just a perception thing from jealous rivals that has Moreira on every good chance and that his rides are all in the market – his 238 rides have gone out at average odds of a skinny 7.7 for a one-dollar investment.
While completely in awe of Moreira’s talent, Ho said the freakish rider had been given a running start before he even started on October 20.
“Moreira came and everyone just wanted him, but before he was even riding he was already booked. The media already had him down as being very good so the owners and the trainers followed – and, of course, he is very good,” Ho said. “Many of the good chances, he is already on them.”
Locals losing rides to high-profile riders has been going on since locals were first legged on board, but while Ho accepts his lot, the 23-year-old is also determined to make the most of limited opportunities.
“Even when we ride perfectly and win even, we are never first choice,” he said. “It makes it difficult, but the club wants to bring in the best riders and we can only prove ourselves, and try to prove we are good enough to ride winners. We just have to keep our heads down and ride hard. It’s a tough game for us, but we are working hard.”
Ho has been booked on a high-profile chance on Wednesday at Happy Valley – Rainbow Chic for former boss Caspar Fownes, and it’s carrying 133 pounds, too.
Here’s hoping for his sake he can bring it home because Moreira will be back on Sunday and life will return to normal – just like it has always been.