Joao Moreira will turn from friend to foe in front of his adoring fans at Sha Tin in just over six weeks when he rides champion Maurice in the Champions Mile as he continues to build an association with Japan's all-conquering horses.
Free entries for Hong Kong's spring features closed on Monday and were released by the Jockey Club on Wednesday, but the biggest news was that Hong Kong's leading jockey would be aboard 2015 Hong Kong Mile winner Maurice, a horse that could start the dominant favourite in the HK$14 million feature against what looks a weaker-than-usual local crop.
Moreira got a close look at just how good Maurice is on international day late last year, and now the leading jockey will find out first-hand when he rides the Noriyuki Hori-trained five-year-old on May 1.
Maurice, with Ryan Moore aboard, outlasted Moreira's mount Able Friend on international day in a classic battle between Asia's two best milers, but with Able Friend sidelined indefinitely and Moore committed to Coolmore's Air Force Blue in England's 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket on the same weekend as the Champions Mile, the plum ride was offered to Moreira.
“Obviously, he is a very good horse, but the main thing is that he has proven that he can travel - he did it here when he beat Able Friend,” Moreira said. "“We already know how good he is, but being good and being able to travel are two different things. That was the main factor in the decision, that he has shown he can bring his A-game overseas.
"Hopefully, I can ride him a few times at trackwork and get a feel for him and obviously I would like to maintain a relationship with the connections in the future and have the opportunity to ride more Japanese horses.”
Moreira, who won the World All-Star Jockeys series in Sapporo during the off-season, will also ride two Japanese-trained horses on the Dubai World Cup card at Meydan on March 26 - Katsuhiko Sumii's Last Impact in the US$6 million Group One Sheema Classic and Hideyuki Mori's three-year-old Yu Change in the US$2 million Group Two UAE Derby.
“It is something that I hoped would happen for me as a result of riding in Japan in the jockeys series, and now I know they are looking at me,” said Moreira, who also rides three Hong Kong-trained runners - Gun Pit (Dubai World Cup), Peniaphobia (Al Quoz Sprint) and Super Jockey (Golden Shaheen) - at the world's richest race meeting. “This is what a jockey dreams of, having options like this."
Meanwhile, all four of December's international winners were among entries for the three spring features released yesterday with Maurice's compatriot, Hong Kong Cup victor A Shin Hikari, entered for the Audemars Piguet QE II Cup, along with Vase winner Highland Reel.
However, A Shin Hikari is unlikely to make the trip with trainer Masanori Sakaguchi unhappy with the grey's physical condition since his flagship win at Sha Tin.
Maurice and A Shin Hikari headline 21 Japanese entrants across the three features - the QE II Cup (2,000m), the Champions Mile (1,600m) and the Chairman's Sprint Prize (1,200m) - with early indications suggesting they could be set to send one of their biggest raiding parties ever.
Australia is well represented with 20 entries, with the trainers of Happy Trails (QE II Cup), Suavito (Champions Mile) Buffering and Chautauqua (Chairman's Sprint Prize) already suggesting they are targeting Hong Kong. However, the most fascinating entry comes from David Hayes and Tom Dabernig, who have entered 2014 Hong Kong Derby third Dibayani for a potential return to Sha Tin in the QE II Cup.
On the local front, the only big name to be missing from the free entries was last year's Chairman's Sprint Prize winner Gold-Fun. He will not line up in the race, now an international feature for the first time, this year after trainer Richard Gibson flagged he was heading for a break in the aftermath of his flat fourth to Contentment in the Queen's Silver Jubilee Cup.
There are 52 entries for April 24's QE II Cup, while there are 43 entries for the Champions Mile and 44 entries for the Chairman's Sprint Prize, both to be run May 1.