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Who, asks Michael Cox, is the best jockey in the world right now?
Who is the world’s best jockey? It’s an unwinnable argument fraught with subjectivity and recency bias.
Let’s wade in anyway: on recent evidence – and specifically Sunday’s superb winning ride in the Japan Cup aboard Vela Azul – Ryan Moore is the best jockey in the world.
I can already see the snarky social media missives from the ‘Zacophiles’ pushing Zac Purton’s claims; another five-win haul at Sha Tin pushed him past 50 wins for the season, fastest ever to meet that mark. He is on track to smash arch rival Joao Moreira’s all-time record for wins in a season en route to a sixth jockeys’ championship.
Zac Purton is in a race of his own when it comes to the Hong Kong jockey premiership. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)
Frankie Dettori fans might still mount an argument for their hero; the Italian is 51 but still capable of rides that combine nerve, imagination and execution under pressure – (Exhibit A: the tactical masterpiece aboard Trawlerman in the 2022 Ebor Handicap). Then again, those who witnessed his zero-from-eight effort a few weeks ago in Sydney might disagree.
Surely it is just a matter of opinion? Is there some way to measure this ‘best’ business? In 2014 the International Federation of Horseracing Federation Authorities (IFHA) created the World’s Best Jockey Rankings, which is based on the results in top 100 ranked races – by IFHA ratings – each year.
Dettori is a three-time winner, and Moore has also won the award three times, including last year, and it stands as a reasonably fair way to measure a rider’s global success in a 12-month stretch.
But ‘best’? Australian-based New Zealander James McDonald is a runaway winner of the 2022 World’s Best Jockey Rankings and will receive the World’s Best Jockey Award at a gala function in Hong Kong next month.
James McDonald made the most of his Hong Kong visit with a dominant win on Romantic Warrior. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)
McDonald is a young champion with a smooth style and ice in his veins, but he cannot match Moore for the variety of situations in which he has excelled.
Moore has achieved G1 wins in 11 countries – and has ridden at least three G1 wins in nine of them – highlighting the outstanding feature of his career: his ability to excel in a wide range of conditions.
One of the great challenges for the modern jockey is the variety of racing styles and surfaces they face; the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp and the Hong Kong Vase at Sha Tin are both 2400m Group 1 races with a right hand hand turn into the home straight, but riders face a completely different set of challenges within.
What makes Moore so special is how at home he seems on any continent – whether it be the undulations of Europe, the flat tracks of Asia or even the United States – and how adept he is at adapting to those foreign environments.
Moore’s steer on Vela Azul in an interference-ridden Japan Cup combined some of his best in-race attributes; the patience to allow things to unfold, but then the skill to react fast, change direction at speed in the straight and find a narrow gap late.
— Team Iwata (@JayRAye02) November 28, 2022
He has showcased that skillset many times at Sha Tin; his rides on Ping Hai Star in the 2018 Hong Kong Derby, in which he read the early speed beautifully and showed nerveless patience, or on Maurice in the 2016 Hong Kong Cup, where he trucked from back in the field like he was steering a semi-trailer through peak hour city traffic.
Manoeuvring the ‘Beast from the East’ Maurice off the rail at full speed to a one off spot isn’t something that can look pretty, but his move to find clear air for Vela Azul showed Moore’s deft touch: the shift barely decipherable and the horse did not lose its stride or rhythm at a key moment.
At 30, McDonald is nine years younger than Moore so perhaps the comparisons are unfair – he may yet assume a similar globetrotting status, especially given his strong association and success for Coolmore in Australia.
But, in the spirit of the unwinnable debate and at the risk of sparking even more social media outrage, let’s compare anyway. As of right now, McDonald has ridden Group 1 winners in four countries; his native New Zealand, Australia and sole G1 wins in Hong Kong and at Royal Ascot, on Nature Strip earlier this year.
It's Royal Ascot glory for James McDonald and Nature Strip. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
Moore has ridden Group 1s in five different countries in the last 10 weeks: France, Ireland, England, America and now Japan.
The Hong Kong International Races on December 11 will pit each of the aforementioned ‘world’s best’ candidates against each other at Sha Tin, plus Hugh Bowman and Joao Moreira.
Moreira’s imminent retirement and his comments to Asian Racing Report this week regarding the restrictions that were placed on him during his time as a full-time rider in Hong Kong made for interesting reading and left a sense of ‘what could have been’ for the Magic Man.
“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.”
Purton has been restricted in travel so much over the last five years and starved of competition to a point he is creating rivalries with the record books to keep himself motivated.
After HKIR, Moreira intends to embark on a ‘magical mystery tour’ of world racing; hopefully he can make one last bid to be part of what will always be a spirited debate.
However many stops Moreira’s hip allows him to make in 2023, it will be difficult to log as many frequent flyer miles as Moore, which is what helps make the case for the Brit being the best in the world right now.
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