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São Paulo to Saudi Arabia: where to next for ‘happier’ Moreira?

Joao Moreira is dominating in Brazil and says he is refreshed ahead of the first stop on his farewell tour, the Saudi Cup International Jockeys Challenge, where he will compete against Frankie Dettori.

Trainer Nilson Lima and Joao Moreira after a win at São Paulo in December. (Photo by Firo Menezes)

Putting aside an update on the hip injury that halted Joao Moreira’s Hong Kong career for a moment, or the impressive statistics he has compiled since returning to the track in his homeland, what is most notable is the smile that has slowly returned to the champion jockey’s face. 

As well as the physical ailments that prompted Moreira to hand in his Hong Kong Jockey Club licence earlier this season and seek a career-extending treatment, it was anxiety and depression that had pushed the four-time champion to ultimately return home to be with family. 

Speaking to Asian Racing Report from his hometown of Curitiba on Wednesday, Moreira said that the number one message he had for his fans in regards to his mental and physical health was that he is “happier” and more at ease, and nearing 100 per cent fitness ahead of his planned ‘farewell world tour.’ 

“I am feeling happier and fresh,” said Moreira.

“The main thing is that I am happier. I am still feeling some pain in my hip, but the treatment I have done has improved me enough to make me feel better and that makes a massive difference psychologically as well. The effects of the treatment may not last forever, but I have an amazing physiotherapist and I feel like I am riding well.

“It took me a while but now I am feeling like I am coming back to my best. I rode a race the other day when I felt like, ‘yes I am nearly there.’” 

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Joao Moreira rode a double at São Paulo's Cidade Jardim on January 14. (Photo by Firo Menezes)

That seems an understated self-assessment considering the incredible statistics Moreira has compiled in recent weeks. Some might say he is happier because he is winning but it could also be the case that Moreira is back to his prolific winning ways because he is happy. 

After returning from the Hong Kong International Races in December, Moreira notched five winners and two seconds from a total of ten rides at São Paulo’s Cidade Jardim, and since taking a ten–day break with family over Christmas, he has ridden eight winners from three meetings; a four timer at Curitiba and two doubles in São Paulo. Overall, since returning to Brazil, he has 15 wins from 61 rides at a strike rate of 25.6% and has placed in more than half of his races there. 

Moreira will now take that winning form abroad. He was yesterday announced as one of the riders for next month’s Saudi Cup International Jockeys Challenge, the first stop on what he hopes will be a year that includes big race opportunities in Australia and Japan. 

“That is what I want and I am trying to make it happen,” he said. “I am motivated, I have plans.” 

The first confirmed international stop is Saudi Arabia’s IJC, competing against Frankie Dettori, the 52-year-old legend also completing a global lap of honour in 2023. “It is always a pleasure to ride against riders like Frankie,” Moreira said. “I really want to test myself in that type of competition, where the adrenaline rises and the competition is tougher. Saudi Arabia is also a place that I have never been before so I am looking forward to that.” 

Joao Moreira and Frankie Dettori at Happy Valley in 2019. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit)

Moreira, now 39, had ridden at just two meetings early in the 2022-23 Hong Kong season before a painful labrum tear and degenerative problems in his hip pushed him to seek PRP (Platelet-Rich Plasma) treatment, a process that provides temporary relief to what Moreira described as ‘ten-out-ten’ pain. 

Forgoing hip replacement surgery that may have ended his career, but is one day inevitable, Moreira rode at two meetings in Brazil before returning to Sha Tin nearly three months after PRP treatment. In an emotional Sha Tin swansong, he placed three times from seven rides on international day. But since then Moreira has been in sublime form. 

He admits the intensity level isn’t as great as the Asian jurisdictions he came to dominate but riding in Brazil has its unique challenges. 

“You know how they say good horses make jockeys look good? It is true, it is harder to ride horses that aren’t as good, that are not as educated or talented,” he said. “There is a lot of dirt racing here as well, a much higher percentage than in Hong Kong. It is a totally different story here. In Hong Kong it is all about getting cover, but in Curitiba, man, you do not want to be behind a horse, the kickback is just too painful.” 

Joao Moreira with nephew Fernando and son Miguel at São Paulo. (Photo by Firo Menezes)

Curitiba kickback aside, Moreira is feeling better and nearing 100 per cent fitness, but he maintains that the prognosis for his career has not changed: he still says that 2023 is likely to be his last year riding.  

“It is difficult to predict how long the effects of the treatment will last, considering how much my hip has deteriorated,” he said. “The timeline has not changed though.” 

Moreira put that timeline at around six months back in December, and as sad as that might seem, a rapidly approaching retirement date might be contributing to Moreira’s enthusiasm. 

“I am making the most of the end of my riding career,” he said. “I am just enjoying it, I am just doing everything I can to have fun. I can be riding in a claiming race for very low prize money, on a shit track but I know what I am there for. I just want to go there and win races, it is not about the prize money, it is about how it feels.” 

One aspect of riding in Brazil that has helped Moreira feel more comfortable is that he can speak in his native language of Portuguese. When Moreira arrived in Singapore in March, 2009, he could barely introduce himself in English, let alone ask a trainer for a ride. 

“That is a big deal,” Moreira said. “In Hong Kong I had to develop that skill, on how to manage situations and deal with people. It was stressful. The intensity here from dealing with people is so much less and I am a lot more comfortable. I don’t get that feeling that I say something and they aren’t understanding what I am saying. That pressure of speaking English is gone and that makes a massive difference. I am doing so much better because of that. I don’t have control of everything around me but because I can speak the language, at least I have control of my own business.” 

Moreira may take his first rides since his return in Rio this week but it is a ride at home that has him most excited, and sums up the general tenor of his refreshed attitude to the sport. 

“I am riding a horse that is owned by my brother Jair in a cup race,” he said. “The race isn’t worth as much money as any race in Hong Kong, and it won’t make the news anywhere, but some things are worth more than money. I am so excited to be riding for him, it will mean the world to us if I can win.” 

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