One last push: Moreira’s Sha Tin swansong to be followed by freedom
As retirement looms for Joao Moreira after a one-off farewell appearance at the Hong Kong International Races, the Brazilian told Asian Racing Report that he feels a sense of freedom around what could come next.
Joao Moreira will bid farewell to Hong Kong racing on International Day. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit /Getty Images)
One win was never enough for Joao Moreira at the height of his powers so it should be no surprise that on Wednesday he announced two upcoming farewells. The 2022 Hong Kong International Races will be his Hong Kong swansong, and the fan favourite then intends to quit the sport after six months riding in what he hopes are some of the biggest races in the world.
That retirement looms is no great surprise: in late September, when Moreira requested to return home to Brazil, he did so while using a walking stick after receiving treatment for a debilitating hip problem that had halted his 2022-23 campaign. He limped back to his homeland after 15 winless rides at two ineffectual meetings. He had just turned 39 and many wrote him off.
The four-time Hong Kong champion was given three months to return, and the good news is that Moreira has recuperated, physically and mentally, within that timeline.
“I am fit, and flying physically,” he told Asian Racing Report on Thursday. “I appreciate the time off the club gave me. I was able to heal, physically and mentally, and do it around the people who love me. If I wasn’t 100 percent fit, and feeling positive, I would not even consider taking rides.”
Moreira will partner with G1 Osaka Hai winner Lei Papale in Hong Kong. (Photo by JRA)
After it was revealed in Asian Racing Report that the jockey had committed to ride at the December 11 showpiece, many fans were confused when the club then released a statement saying that Moreira had relinquished his licence to ride in Hong Kong.
He soon clarified that moving away from full-time riding in Hong Kong was part of a broader plan ‘to ride in races around the world’, at least for as long as his most recent platelet-rich plasma (PRP) therapy treatment keeps the pain away. The rides at HKIR were “a chance to say goodbye and finish on a good note”.
The pain will eventually return – PRP is not a long-term fix for his ailment – and Moreira is likely to require hip surgery one day regardless of when he retires. Until then, the idea of a refreshed, energised and highly motivated Moreira making one last push, chasing feature race rides around the globe in the new year is an exciting one, but first there is the biggest day on the Hong Kong racing calendar.
He is booked for three Japanese-trained horses in International Day Group 1s. The meeting will provide what Moreira described as a ‘full stop’ to a nine-year tenure that brought four championships, more than 1200 wins, including 21 Group 1s and two Hong Kong Derby successes.
Joao Moreira drives John Moore's Rapper Dragon to a famous Derby victory. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)
“As you could imagine, I have a lot of mixed feelings,” he said. “I am doing the right thing, but it is a full stop, a cycle being completed. It’s been a great journey, and I am very happy with what I achieved in Hong Kong. There is also the feeling of loss, that all of those great times I had in Hong Kong are not going to happen again, and it is unlikely that I will have those types of experiences in other places.
“I hate that the end of my career as a rider is coming, and I hate that it is coming not because I want it to, but because of injury.”
I hate that the end of my career as a rider is coming.”
Such has been the grit and grind of the past four years for Moreira, both on track and off, that they must have seemed like ‘dog years’. He wasn’t alone; from 2019 Hong Kong was in turmoil, first through political unrest and upheaval, and then crippled by longterm Covid restrictions immediately thereafter. Throughout it all, Moreira was physically and mentally burning out as he pushed himself past his physical limit against a supreme competitor in the form of his great rival Zac Purton.
“Life in Hong Kong had become so difficult, and I wouldn’t be the only person considering not being based there,” he said.
Before he returned home to continue his rehabilitation, Moreira described the feeling of the degenerative issue in his left hip as ‘ten-out-of-ten’ piercing pain.
“When I ride, it feels like my hip will break,” he told Asian Racing Report at the time. “Because of the pain, I found it hard to concentrate, and consequently my performance is down … All together it has been affecting me psychologically, big time, and I am the kind of person that if I cannot do something 100 percent, then I would rather not do it. That is me.”
The past four challenging seasons still contained a fourth title for Moreira in 2020-21, but it was the Magic Man’s first four seasons, including three consecutive championships, that changed Hong Kong racing forever.
If it wasn’t for a late start and slew of suspensions after moving from Singapore, where he was a four-time champion, he may have got closer in his first season, 2013-14. As it was he was runner-up with 97 winners. The next three campaigns brought records; new single season marks of 145, beating Douglas Whyte’s previous mark by 30, and then 168 the next year. In 2016-17 he rode 170 winners, including a record eight in one day.
Towards the end of an unsuccessful battle for the 2017-18 championship with Purton, Moreira made the shock announcement that he would attempt to become a full-time rider in Japan – a jurisdiction where he had dominated at record-setting pace and reached unprecedented popularity during two previous off-season stints. He failed the exam and returned, but the aborted escape was a sign that the ‘bubble’ life of Hong Kong racing was wearing thin. It didn’t stop him winning and when Moreira became the third jockey to pass 1000 winners in 2020, it was in his eighth season. In comparison, it took Purton and Whyte 12 terms to reach that mark.
Moreira singled out 2014-15 horse of the year Able Friend – one of his seven International Day G1 winners – as the best Hong Kong-trained horse he had ridden, but not necessarily his favourite.
“I have a soft spot for the difficult horses, the ones that I knew the horse so well that I was able to get the best out of them,” he said.
Top of that list is Beat The Clock, who Moreira rode in 23 of his 25 starts, and all of the sprinter’s 10 wins, four at the top level.
“I just had the feeling he would not have a similar performance if he was ridden by other jockeys. My style just fit him so well. It was like Douglas Whyte and Akeed Mofeed, nobody could have ridden that horse better, his style suited that horse, and I think my riding style suited Beat The Clock better than anybody else.”
Joao Moreira aboard the mighty Able Friend. (Photo by Getty Images)
Joao Moreira after winning the G1 Centenary Sprint Cup on Beat The Clock. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)
What about Moreira’s memories of Beat The Clock’s trainer John Size? The duo combined for 365 wins – nearly 30 percent of the jockey’s 1234 wins in the jurisdiction – but the relationship seemed to sour, professionally at least, when Size withdrew his support for Moreira towards the end of the epic 2021-22 premiership race with Purton.
“I will miss getting the best out of each other, and consequently getting the best out of the horses,” Moreira said. “John and I, at the end of the day we were not able to communicate as perfectly as before, but when we were on top of the wave we were working as an incredible team. I look back on that time and am very thankful I got to work with such a great trainer.
“I have learned a lot from John, and I really hope I can retain a friendship with him because he is such a lovely person and I respect him very much. He is a man that I learned a lot from and I will keep a friendship with him as long as I can.”
Joao Moreira and John Size celebrate Beat The Clock's win in the G1 Centenary Sprint Cup. (Photo by Getty Images)
Most of all, there are no hard feelings for Moreira, and the time and space of being back home with loved ones in Brazil for two months has already provided perspective. “Everything that has happened already looks different, just another chapter to the story, just part of it, the cycle,” he said.
As he looks forward to the six months beyond HKIR, the theme that keeps coming up for Moreira is freedom. “Hong Kong is a good place to ride, you get well recognised, you get well paid and you ride decent horses,” he said.
“The things that are not good are that you get locked in and that you are not allowed to go to other places to ride. Now I have this feeling I can go and ride in some other places, that is a good feeling. I just hope I get opportunities to ride decent horses wherever I go.”
Although he was always known as a natural lightweight, in recent seasons Moreira has quietly struggled. When he does return, albeit for a short time, it will be as a stronger and healthier jockey who focuses more on feature races, where the weight scales are generally higher.
“It is going to contribute to my wellbeing, big time,” he said of being away from the twice-weekly pressure to ‘waste.’ “When you are trying to ride light, you are really putting your body into severe stress. So not having to do that, that is going to help me keep myself happier, healthier and satisfied being around horses.”
So what of the Magic Man’s third act, beyond retirement from race riding?
“I am yet to decide,” he said. “One day I will consider training over here (Brazil), but I would only do that if I felt I would be supported by the horse owners, or I might go to university for a while and study.
“Here’s one certainty: I won’t be away from horses, and I will still be involved in horse racing.”