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In a special column ahead of the Hong Kong season finale, Michael Cox reflects on the night Hong Kong racing changed forever.
In Sha Tin’s world of unstable Pamela Anderson/Tommy Lee-type jockey/trainer couplings, Douglas Whyte and John Size were Beyonce and Jay Z, the pairing that had stood the test of time in a me-first, material world. Beloved by all: classy, classic and commercially successful. But then, in 2013, it was over.
The Hong Kong racing season finale of the 2012-13 season will be remembered for Ben So’s ice-cool ride on Flying Elite to clinch the title for Dennis Yip in the final race of the season in front of a raucous sell-out crowd at Happy Valley. But there was more going on that evening than the trainers’ title chase and its dramatic conclusion.
What does it have to do with Saturday’s season finale? Well, hopefully we see Purton and Moreira’s jockeys’ championship battle come down to the final race, but aside from that, there are already some important parallels with that famous finale nine years ago.
July 10, 2013 was the night Hong Kong racing changed forever: Yip’s victory was considered an incredible upset at the time, but time brings perspective and perhaps it was simply an early sign of the rise of local trainers.
When Ricky Yiu beat Francis Lui for the title two seasons ago, it was written up as another fairytale. On Saturday both Yiu and Lui will finish in the top five. Also on Saturday; fifth-season trainer Frankie Lor will lift the championship trophy. It will not be considered an upset.
The most significant happenings of that evening in 2013 can’t be found in the race results. And no, we are not referring to the retired five-time champion trainer and Yip mentor Brian Kan sending the sell-out crowd into raptures when he walked into the centre of the parade ring like a boss after the last. That uniquely Hong Kong racing moment was the first time Kan had been seen in public since being released from Stanley prison for vote-buying in a local election. The crowd reaction was like WWE wrestling when a retired former champ like The Rock makes a surprise return. Cue that really loud professional wrestling announcer voice: “OH MY GAWD, is that Brian Kan’s entrance music? … IT IS!”.
We are also not referring to CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges presenting a plaque to trainer Andy Leung, resplendent in his lucky red jacket, for career achievements, one year after having his date of birth legally changed on his Hong Kong ID card so he could be licensed for one more season (on an unrelated side note, Leung is now ‘warned off’ and features on the Jockey Club’s ‘undesirables’ list, mugshot and all, that is handed to participants at the start of each season, but that’s a story for another day).
The most significant event of the night was what seemed a minor cameo at the time, and largely forgotten in history: the much-hyped “Magic Man” Moreira from Curitiba, Brazil, via Sao Paulo and then Singapore, winning a Class 4 handicap early in the night on a fly-in, fly-out one-day contract to help with a jockey shortage.
Somewhere at Happy Valley that night, Size, reeling as his championship chances slipped away, met his new bae, Moreira, for the first time.
It was love at first sight and a whirlwind romance ensued. Within six months Moreira was moving in and winning everything at Sha Tin.
Even as Size slipped from contention that night, most thought the Size/Whyte marriage was sound: Whyte had just defeated yet another challenger to his throne – the brash, trash-talking Zac Purton – and won his 13th straight championship. The feeling wasn’t that Purton was going to overhaul his nemesis soon either, it was that normal transmission had been resumed and another challenger had been vanquished, like Brett Prebble, Shane Dye and Felix Coetzee before him. The Size-Whyte winning machine had simply steamrolled another victim.
Behind the scenes, though, Size was looking away from his long-term partner.
To understand how the Size/Whyte partnership fractured – and how Size and Moreira have cooled at such a crucial stage of a defining jockeys’ championship – we need to look back to the epic contest between Prebble and Whyte three years earlier.
Approaching the midpoint of the 2009-10 season, as it became obvious that Prebble could challenge Whyte, Size went to Prebble and said he would be withdrawing support; it wasn’t personal, he just wanted to support ‘his jockey’, Whyte.
Fast forward to 2013, as Yip clung on gamely under a sustained challenge from Size, Whyte wasn’t feeling the exclusivity, and aggressively chased rides from Yip. It was not only worth wins for Whyte, it eroded what was Purton’s main source of support that season (25 of his 89 victories were for the surging Yip). And when Yip won the title, it was the end of the so-called “Dream Team” of Size and Whyte.
Moreira has ridden more than 360 winners for Size – more than three times as many as he has for any other trainer in Hong Kong, including some of the biggest races on the calendar. Moreira did well to strike a balance between John Moore and Size, to the point that his success with the latter led to them being labeled “Dream Team 2.0” – but he has not won for the handler since June 5, aboard Tuchel.
Just as in 2013, there have been hotly contested trainers and jockeys championship battles, and Size’s main man, this time Moreira, has won 24 races for the trainer’s main championship rival, this time Frankie Lor.
And last season as Caspar Fownes, an on-again, off-again partner of Purton’s who had re-emerged as a contender, attracted the services of Moreira, who no doubt was attempting to abrade his rival’s support base. Fownes won the title, Moreira riding 39 of his 79 wins. Size was second.
As Size’s chances of a record-setting 12th title slip away the new policy with Moreira – whether it be a trial separation or an expensive divorce – seems obvious in its reasoning: for the master trainer, loyalty can’t just flow one way. But if Moreira is standing on the podium next to the new champion trainer Lor on Saturday, then perhaps the Brazilian has made the right decision anyway.
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