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Three riders share their views as to what makes the ‘big two’ so dominant.
Well, here it is at last: race meeting number 88 of the 2021-22 Hong Kong season and Zac Purton and Joao Moreira are all but inseparable at the top of the jockeys’ premiership. For 10 and a half months the two warriors of the weighing room have battled it out around Sha Tin and Happy Valley and now they have races 827 through 837 to determine who will be champion again.
The two protagonists have been doing this every season since 2014 but it has never been this close. Each has four Hong Kong premiership trophies but with their tallies locked at 132 wins apiece – 32 per cent of all wins this season – it is going down to the wire after a grinding campaign that has seen the lead switch between them half a dozen times.
The past few weeks – their veteran bodies having endured the rigours of race falls, illness and the wear and tear that comes with being an athlete approaching 40 – have seen them trade blows, race-by-race.
It has been like that epic fight scene from The Quiet Man, a film from Hollywood’s golden age, when John Wayne and Victor McLaglen trade punches all around the village until, bludgeoned to a standstill, they pause in the local pub and Wayne finally lands the mighty knockout.
Who will be standing triumphant at the end of Saturday’s 11 races is anyone’s guess at this point but the battle has been enthralling not only for racing fans but also for the men who share the jockeys’ room with Hong Kong’s two outstanding riders of their age.
“One thing about them is they’re both very hungry to succeed,” says Derek Leung, who has been well-placed to observe the ‘big two’ at a time when the jockey cohort has been divided into two separate groups on race days as a Covid-19 safeguard. “I sit next to Zac now in the jockeys’ room and last season I sat next to Joao.”
This year, Purton and Moreira have been in the same pod, whereas last season they were separated in different rooms on race days.
“The level they are riding at, it’s not just the riding skills, the mental toughness is as important,” Leung adds. “It’s a long season and they have to stay hungry, and it’s tough to keep doing that for so many years. They’ve both had to overcome injuries and they’ve kept going month after month and kept it so close and that is really tough to do.”
The level they are riding at, it’s not just the riding skills, the mental toughness is as important.
That mental strength in both riders has been apparent to Harry Bentley who brings a relatively fresh view, having arrived in Hong Kong for the first time in April 2021.
“It really is a grind here, you never switch off, you’re constantly looking at form and asking for horses to ride, you can’t slip up,” he says. “And especially Zac and Joao: of course, things come easier for them in the sense that they get a lot more rides, but they have to be seriously on the ball and can’t miss a trick.”
Frenchman Alexis Badel, sixth in the premiership standings after another Group One-winning season on the star sprinter Wellington, is well-placed to assess their styles.
“They’re not where they are by accident,” he says. “I think Zac has a lot of finesse. He’s very good at judging the pace and he studies it diligently. Also, he’s very focused on what he’s doing and is hard to destabilise.
“Joao is one of the top riders in the world too: he works relentlessly and then his talent as a rider speaks for itself. Horses run for him and he makes decisions very quickly, and he has the aggression you need for Hong Kong racing.”
Bentley sees the sharp minds of both the Australian and the Brazilian, working at racing pace, as being a cut above their peers.
“They’re both cool under pressure, particularly on a tight track like Happy Valley, their decision-making under pressure is extremely good and that minimises mistakes. That’s why they ride so many winners,” he says.
“I think Joao is the real momentum jockey, he gets a horse balanced and rolling forward. Zac manages to somehow get horses in a great position, more times than not, and over the course of a 10-month season it’s the difference between winning a lot and potentially losing a lot that you could have won.”
There has been some occasional behind-the-scenes needle in the past between Purton and Moreira but they have, over time, developed a relationship at work that is underpinned by respect.
“I’ve seen them often discussing things and having a proper chat,” observes Bentley. “They’re certainly amicable with each other and have a mutual respect but then there’s also that competitive edge between the two of them. They can sit down and have a conversation but when it comes to a race and business, they won’t give each other an inch.”
Badel adds: “Joao is very quiet and focused on race day and an extremely nice guy. It’s very difficult to have any trouble with him. Zac is more chatty but also very focused, he’s very open too and easy to talk to.
And Leung, who has been closer than most to both men due to his changing room proximity, says, “They’ve both been fair to me. Joao is always humble and willing to talk, and, if you ask him, he will always give you very good advice; Zac will have more casual talk in the jockeys’ room.”
As things are, Purton actually leads Moreira by virtue of the fact that a tie would be decided by who has the least dead-heats and the Australian has one to the Brazilian’s two. But whatever the outcome of the final day showdown, Purton and Moreira have produced a title race that will be talked about for years to come.
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