Slippery slope for Purton as Moreira makes grand entrance
Brazilian jockey's arrival this Sunday means Purton will feel the squeeze as he tries to dethrone perennial champion Douglas Whyte.
Joao Moreira’s arrival this Sunday will put the squeeze on the already tight top end of the jockeys’ championship, but the Brazilian’s presence is more of a threat to Zac Purton’s new-found second place in the pecking order than it is to the status of 13-time champion Douglas Whyte – at least in the short term.
Purton’s career arc has been, until now, parabolic, and is left with only one place to go higher – Hong Kong’s champion jockey. He has improved his win total after each of each of his six seasons so far, culminating in last season’s haul of 88. But as far as improvement goes, the road has become much narrower – another 10 wins would probably result in a title, but the law of diminishing returns really kicks in now; it’s much more difficult to go from 88 wins to 98, than from 30 to 40.
It’s as if Purton had climbed to what he thought was the peak of the mountain, only to get there and find out it was just a ledge – with another steep incline to the summit ahead of him, requiring another heart and soul effort to reach. And that was before Moreira announced his imminent arrival.
Last week, Moreira charmed the press with his self-effacing demeanour and modestly stated ambitions at a press conference, and expectations from the outside range from him becoming champion next season – or even this season – to “welcome to A-grade champ, you might just have to slip down the batting order”. Whatever the case, Purton no longer has exclusivity on the “next champion” tag in the jockeys’ championship discussion.
There was a feeling that even though Purton had failed to get over the high-rise hurdle that is beating Whyte for the championship last term – it was only a matter of time before he did. Father Time would take care of the succession plan; the younger Purton, now 30 and having staked his own burgeoning support network based around local trainers, and become more mature and consistent, would eventually wear down the champ, 11 years his senior.
The "Magic Man" certainly has a superstar's sense of timing: at his last night riding at Kranji on Sunday, he scored on six of 12, including the Group Three feature on War Affair and the final race of the card on the aptly named Superb Success. Nine winners at his final two meetings gave him 179 for the season so far (based on calendar year) and just 27 short of his record of 206 in 2012. Moreira leaves Singapore with more than 700 winners in less than five seasons. And, of course, there's no truth to the rumour rival jockeys were queuing up to give him a lift to the airport.
So here comes Moreira, lighter and slightly younger than Purton, and just as hungry. Even if he doesn’t state his ambitions out loud like the brash Aussie, Moreira’s desire to win is graphically illustrated through a hyperkinetic and super-competitive riding style – which just screams Hong Kong – and by massive numbers in the win column.
Moreira’s conservative talk should be even scarier for opposition jockeys than if he was flapping his lips like Muhammed Ali, because he looks in it for the long run. Moreira rolls into town with the usual “new boy” status, and that always guarantees a few early free kicks, but times it by about a thousand in this case given the star aura Moreira’s personality exudes.
He will have rides thrown at him early, but when it gets down to the post-international day grind and he hits the invariable slump, or suspensions stop his momentum, how will he react? The fact this looks less like a test run, and more like the logical “next step” career move is bad news for those hoping Moreira might not like coming second, third or fourth, and go back to the comfort of riding half the winners in Singapore each season.
So why does Moreira’s arrival impact on Purton more? As was shown last season, Purton’s support network of trainers is far more fragile than the strike force Whyte has steadily built over the last decade and a half – even given the apparent cooling of the Whyte-John Size coalition. In fact, Purton’s is probably less stable than the platform that Matthew Chadwick is provided with by former boss Tony Cruz.
Just when Purton seemed to be forming a similar relationship with Dennis Yip Chor-hong, Whyte disrupted that supply chain by getting on some of the eventual champion trainer’s best up-and-comers. Whyte getting the ride on just one of Yip’s new horses alone – five-time winner All You Wish – essentially caused a 10-win turnaround in the standings in 2012-13. The emergence of lightweight star Karis Teetan and the return of a rejuvenated Brett Prebble also threaten to eat into Purton’s win total.
The good news for Purton is that his performance level has gone to another level again this term: he is better prepared physically, and more consistent, seemingly wearing his losses better and without the same angst of the 20-something firebrand who clawed his way to the near top. And given Purton will have at least a 12-win head start on Moreira due to a sensational start to the season, maybe this is the best chance he will get to pull the sword from the stone. Still it’s likely to require another no-holds-barred battle with Whyte to do it.