Michael Cox



‘Mok Lui Lai’ says goodbye: Strange days at the HKIR

Sunday’s International Races showed that times are changing and that the Sha Tin faithful might themselves have had a change of heart, writes Michael Cox.

There were some strange occurrences at Sha Tin Racecourse on Sunday.

First of all the crowd applauded a beaten odds-on favourite back to scale, but second was the overwhelmingly gracious send-off for Joao Moreira, something that was no sure thing. 

The beaten favourite was Golden Sixty, a winner of 22 of 24 before he was rolled by California Spangle in the Hong Kong Mile, so you would expect he had some credit in the bank, but this isn’t your usual racing crowd. 

There are some fundamental differences between Hong Kong and Japanese racing ‘fans’, but if it could be boiled down to one point it might be that in Japan the crowd yell a horse’s name, or nickname, and in Hong Kong they yell a number. 

A failure by a Hong Kong favourite is generally the catalyst for the crowd to hurl vile verbal abuse. That isn’t booing you hear, it is an expletive that rhymes with boo in Cantonese and duck in English. 

Despite Moreira’s ‘fan favourite’ status around the world and stellar record in Hong Kong, he heard it many times at Sha Tin and Happy Valley. A particular low point was when the 2017 Derby winner Rapper Dragon, suffered fatal injuries under Moreira and the crowd booed the devastated jockey in the parade ring before the next race. 

Perhaps the most vociferous reception Moreira received was that same year,  after Pakistan Star famously stopped during a race when 1.2 favourite. 

What might have saved Golden Sixty and Vincent Ho from the wrath of 45,000 punters on Sunday was that he at least filled a quinella spot.

The biggest betting pools by far in Hong Kong are the quinella and quinella place (duet) bets, so missing the placing all together is the biggest crime.

More than HK$1.7 billion (US$218 million) was bet on Sunday’s 10-race card through the Hong Kong Jockey Club, but perhaps the warm receptions for Moreira and Golden Sixty were a sign of change: it’s not all about the betting anymore.

“Maybe because they haven’t been able to come to the races for so long that they have come back with more of an appreciation,” said Zac Purton, the jockey that had lowered the boom on Golden Sixty and has heard some ‘boos’ of his own over the years. 

The crowd were given a chance to say goodbye to Moreira in the same parade ring before Sunday’s races. 

“The journey has been outstanding and the memories will stay in my heart, all the good ones and there have been plenty,” Moreira, with his hand on his heart, told the crowd. “Thanks to all the public for coming here for my farewell. I just would like to say thank you, I love you all very much.”

The relationship between Hong Kong racegoers and its top jockeys is a complicated one; the answer to “who is your favourite jockey” for most punters would be whoever rode the last winner. Moreira’s recent history makes it even more messy. 


James McDonald was popular with punters after steering home the hotpot Romantic Warrior. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)

When Moreira announced he would return to Hong Kong for the International Races three weeks ago and then requested the withdrawal of his fulltime licence, indicating it would be his last time riding in the city, the Brazilian’s health became a talking point. 

Just over eight weeks earlier he was on a walking stick after receiving a round of Platelet-Rich Plasma (PRP) injections on his damaged left hip, a treatment that at first inflames the joint before the white blood cells begin their healing work. 

The Hong Kong racing public can be highly suspicious and prone to believing wild rumours, a trait not helped by a local coverage sometimes more akin to celebrity gossip reporting than racing journalism. 

 A viral Whattsapp voice recording of a man claiming to be friends with Moreira spread among sections of the racing fanbase; the message contained spurious claims that the jockey’s injuries were not as serious as was being claimed. 

Then Hong Kong Jockey Club CEO WInfried Engelbrecht-Bresges poured some fuel on that fire when he told the press that officials were hearing “conflicting messages about whether he can ride.” 

Where these mixed messages were coming from, or why anybody other than Moreira was being asked about such sensitive topics as mental health, was a question left unanswered. The message from the club, relayed through the local media, was clear: that the Jockey Club executives felt there was a “loss of face” due to Moreira’s surprise decisions and about turns over the last few years. 

It is a tension that runs right back through the Brazilian’s shock departure for Japan in 2018 that was ultimately aborted, leading to Engelbrecht-Bresges claiming “you can’t just walk in and out of Hong Kong” (which of course Moreira was doing) and then forcing Moreira into the penance of being retained stable rider under 11-time champion trainer John Size for a season. 

The background noise had some wondering what type of farewell it would be for Moreira. In the end, it was handled with class and grace by all. Moreira referred to Engelbrecht-Bresges as ‘boss’ in his speech, they chatted casually on stage, and the jockey was treated to a tear-jerking big screen video tribute. It wasn’t a fairytale farewell on track for the Magic Man, but there were far more cheers than slurs from the fans as he returned from what is likely to be his final ride in Hong Kong.

Joao Moreira and Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges at the HKIR. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)

The section of fans that gather closest to the Sha Tin winning post on HKIR day are more like Japanese fans – those with home made signs and amateur photographers with long lenses – indeed many of those in that scrum had taken the four-hour flight from Tokyo. 

The young locals there represent the future of Hong Kong racing fandom and ensured that Moreira was sent off with class, and from some at least, the love expressed from Moreira was reciprocated. 

“I love Mok Lui Lai,” one of the local trackside fans, Christophe Sung, told Asian Racing Report, referring to Moreira’s Cantonese name.  “I love his riding style, he does things so smoothly, but most of all he loves the horses. 

“I feel like sometimes some jockeys don’t even like the horse. But you can see with Moreira that he does, the way he pats or hugs the horse. Douglas Whyte also loved the horse, but some of the jockeys will pull the bit and release anger, punish the horse, but Mok Lui Lai didn’t do that, so I like him.” 


Ten years ago the then-South China Morning Post Racing Editor Alan Aitken summed up the general sentiment to horse welfare in Hong Kong in his own brusque and politically incorrect style.

“It is still the case that any small, noisy, angry group at a racecourse in Hong Kong is more likely to wok-fry a horse in oyster sauce than protest over perceptions of its welfare,’ he wrote. 

That delivery might leave a queasy feeling in the stomach and challenge contemporary sensibilities, but ‘Hats’ was shooting for a general truth and if he did miss the mark, it wasn’t by much. The fact it would not get past a sub-editor in 2022 speaks to a shift in public perception, and the fact it is no longer true. 

The extensive media coverage and social media outrage surrounding last year’s Hong Kong Sprint fall, in which three jockeys were hospitalised and two horses died, shows that times, thankfully, have changed. 

Maybe Moreira’s nine years of Magic helped. The reception for Golden Sixty certainly showed the attitudes to the horse have shifted at in the public section at Sha Tin. 




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