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Moreira’s heroic homecoming: Fantasma’s return a boost for Brazilian racing

As Joao Moreira faces the beginning of the end of an illustrious international career, he is going back to where it all began and officials hope his presence could spark the struggling sport.

Joao Moreira is back in his home town of Curitiba. (Photo by Michael Cox)

There is a board in Escola de Preparaçāo Para Jockeys – the São Paulo Jockey School – that stands as a reminder of just how close Joao Moreira came to not becoming the Magic Man. 

It carries a list of the apprentices boarding at the on-course school, statistics and the date by which a certain number of wins must be reached for the rider to stay at the school. 

When Moreira was scrapping for his career and, like all new apprentices, needed six wins in his first six months to stay in the programme, and it has become part of local lore how, needing two wins on his final weekend to continue  or head home to a life of struggle in Curitiba, he scraped his way to a narrow victory on a filly named Arctic. 

This weekend he will get a chance to inspire the six apprentices whose names are on that board now and provide a publicity boost for a struggling sport when he returns to the track at Cidade Jardim.  

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Joao Moreira at São Paulo Jockey School. (Photo by Michael Cox)

On December 11 Moreira plans to ride at the Hong Kong International Races, competing in the four Group 1 races that total more than US$12.9m, but a week earlier when he returns from injury in São Paulo it will be in a race worth little more than US$800.

“And that race is for Arabian horses,” said Brazilian handicapper and media commentator Ricardo Ravagnani, who has watched Moreira’s meteoric rise from its earliest days as a struggling apprentice. He compared Moreira’s return to when the footballer Ronaldo, the Fenômeno, returned home to Corinthians FC in 2009. 

“Ronaldo was also coming back from injury, towards the end of his career, but he had a huge impact. A lot of young footballers leave Brazil, they become famous and make a lot of money, but not many of them return to play at home. 

“I am excited to see Moreira ride. I don’t know what is motivating him to ride in races that are worth less US$100 to the winning jockey, but it is clear he is here to compete, he has that look in his eye that he wants to win each of those nine races.

“And if his presence is a chance for us to review our sport that would be great.”

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Moreira’s return has been welcomed by trainers and owners; he has a ride in each of the eight thoroughbred races in São Paulo and competes again in ten of 12 races at the Taruma Hippodrome in his hometown of Curitiba on Sunday.  

On Saturday Moreira will ride against 60-year-old legend Jorge Ricardo, the all-time leader for wins by a jockey in world racing history.

The 29-time Brazilian champion has won more than 13,000 races in a career that started in 1976 but it says something of the state of racing in South America – particularly Brazil – that he travels from Rio to São Paulo via an eight-hour overnight bus, not plane. 

The great Jorge Ricardo. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

The paltry prizemoney on offer at São Paulo is a sad situation for a sport that was once second only to soccer in terms of popularity in the world’s sixth most populous nation. 

“Racing has no mainstream popularity now,” Ravagnani said. “There is no newspaper talking about racing, there are no radio shows talking about the sport and it is not on free television. There is nobody outside of our bubble looking at us. And that is the main problem.” 

While unregulated sports betting in Brazil is booming – and advertising for offshore bookmakers appears on mainstream sports broadcasts – less than 50,000 people in a country of 214 million people have betting accounts with the heavily regulated racing operators. 

“There is a new wave of gamblers because of betting on sports,” Ravagnani said. “The horse racing industry should be surfing this wave, and Moreira could be an important part of this. Nobody knows about him outside of our bubble, but if we tell this story people will listen carefully. Maybe they will also think ‘Oh I have a young boy, he isn’t too big, maybe he could be a jockey too’ and maybe people will take more of an interest generally.” 

São Paulo apprentice school boss and long time official Rodrigo Shulze was pleasantly surprised when Moreira contacted him about returning to the track where the jockey once rode eight winners at one meeting in 2006. 

Joao Moreira has been back riding trackwork at Sao Paulo. (Photo supplied)

Champion jockey Joao Moreira has returned to the saddle in his native Brazil. (Photo supplied)

Whenever that legendary performance is recalled Shulze playfully reminds Moreira that it should have been nine wins, and that he was defeated on a Shulze family-owned horse. “I was pissed at the time but I am over it now,” Shulze laughed. 

The school had a remarkable record of producing top class talent early this century. Of the graduates during that golden era, Moreira won four Brazilian championships and four in Singapore, Silvestre de Sousa is a three-time British champion, Eurico Rosa da Silva was champion jockey in Canada seven times and Manoel Nunes recently clinched his fourth premiership in Singapore, to go with six titles in Macau. 

There are only seven apprentice’s names on that board now, in line with a reduced horse population, and four more junior riders will join in the new year. 

“We miss an idol, and for the first time in a long time in the sport, it will be good to have an icon riding on the track,” Shulze said. “A person that can be, for the young riders and apprentices to follow, somebody that was in the same situation as everybody here but crossed the Earth to find a better life and conquer the world.” 

In Brazil Moreira is known as “Fantasma” – Portuguese for ghost – and his reappearance has delighted trainers, even if it is for a one-off guest spot for now. 

Much of Moreira’s improvement from struggling apprentice to world class rider is credited to the late trainer Ivan Quintana, and three of the jockey’s rides on Saturday are for Quintana’s son Lucas. 

“When he walked into the track the other day and I saw him I was standing right where my dad would have been,” Lucas said. “It brings back a lot of happy memories. I feel a lot of joy for the memories Joao created for my father.” 

Joao Moreira and trainer Lucas Quintana. (Photo by Michael Cox)

Late trainer Ivan Quintana. (Photo supplied)

“Segurança” is the Portuguese word Quintana used to describe the feeling he will have when Moreira jumps aboard his mounts on Saturday (Brazilian jockeys traditionally are not legged aboard by the trainer, but rather grab the horse’s mane and leap with a single-leg hop on to the horse). 

The word means “safety” or “confidence” but another word Quintana mentioned – joy – keeps coming up in conversations and is something that trainers at the track have noticed from the returning superstar as he has works his way back to full fitness. 

“He is happy, and I think the most important thing is that he is happy,” Shulze said. “I can see, day-by-day on the track, that he is smiling more. That is amazing to see. 

“It is inspiring. Joao has his finances sorted, and he is competing in a sport that carries a huge risk. It is the only sport in the world where an ambulance follows the competitors around, so it is obvious he is motivated by more than money.

“We will take it, and we should manage it, to put him in the spotlight, to make it known that there is a person like this that could ride anywhere, but he is riding here”

Officials will be heartened by Moreira’s plans to stay in the sport in Brazil in some capacity beyond his planned “retirement tour” over the next six months – the amount of time Moreira feels he has left in the saddle – but Ravagnani said that publicity spotlight will be hard to come by. 

“When I visited him in Hong Kong in 2014, we could not have a coffee at a normal cafe because people were coming up to talk to him all of the time,” he said. “Here in São Paulo he walks everywhere and nobody knows him.” 

Joao Moreira celebrates after winning the G1 Hong Kong Gold Cup aboard Time Warp. (Photo by HKJC)

When Moreira appeared on ‘TV Jockey’ this week he was wearing an expensive tailored suit and the hosts asked if he planned on wearing something as flashy when he walks into the São Paulo jockeys’ room on Saturday. 

“He will look like an alien,” Ravagnani joked. “Going in and out of the jockeys’ rooms, wearing beautiful suits like that, but he said he will be acting as if he is in Hong Kong. 

“He has no enemies here in Brazil, he is a guy everybody admires, he started with nothing and he wants to be that kind of example. 

“I am not sure there is enough to sustain Joao here as a jockey, he is riding for beans, but there is a lot of talent here, and he can inspire the next generation.” 

 

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