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An untimely lean spell could be costly to both trainer John Size and jockey Joao Moreira in their Hong Kong championship quests.
Zac Purton and Joao Moreira seem set for a grinding push through the final five fixtures of the Hong Kong season if the results from this week’s rare Tuesday night meeting at Happy Valley are anything to go by.
The two perennial protagonists for the Hong Kong jockeys premiership did not so much trade blows as swing and miss through eight races, in which their respective mounts were found wanting.
But the fruitless evening could be particularly worrisome for Moreira, who now has only five race meetings to pull back a two-win deficit on Purton, with the two men static on 127 and 129 wins.
Moreira had an interrupted June after a medical stand-down robbed him of the best part of two meetings at a time when the momentum had swung Purton’s way. What is perhaps more troubling for the Brazilian’s camp, though, is the form of his long-time main backer, John Size, who now finds himself seven wins behind the front-running Frankie Lor in the trainers’ title race after losing that Tuesday skirmish with his former assistant 0-1.
Moreira last rode a winner for Size on June 5. Since then, the 11-time champion trainer has saddled 62 runners for just two winners; and it was Purton, not Moreira, who held the reins for both of those victories.
Moreira’s three rides for Size on Tuesday finished third, 10th and 12th and his strike rate for the trainer for the month of June is an unusually low four per cent, after one win from 21 mounts for the stable.
Things looked different through April and May when Moreira bagged seven wins from 39 Size rides, at a healthy strike rate nearing 18 per cent.
Size’s own win strike rate for the season is running close to 13 per cent – Lor’s is above 15 per cent – but since the start of April he has operated at a 10.7 per cent rate, while the month of June brought a win strike rate of just 5.9 per cent, regardless of who was riding.
The trainer sent out a total of just four winners in April – Moreira rode three of those and Purton the other – but his stable then produced 11 wins in May before dipping back down to four all told in June. Of those 11 May wins, Moreira was up top for three.
Purton and Moreira both have said often that whoever wins the title is the rider who has garnered the strongest support during the season.
Moreira is not Size’s stable jockey, of course: the rider and trainer have enjoyed a long and successful connection and would appear to have the kind of relationship that enables the Brazilian to have the freedom to take the rides he needs to in order to achieve his targets, yet within that, there was an expected degree of loyalty to the Size yard when required and vice versa.
The arrangement has been successful, with Moreira clinching champion jockey titles and Group One wins for the stable on champion sprinter Beat The Clock, Hot King Prawn and Waikuku; while Size has won multiple champion trainer titles in the time that Moreira has been closely associated.
This Friday’s race meeting at Sha Tin will be key to the champion jockey contest. Interestingly, while Size loaded up 13 entries across the 10 races, Moreira will ride just one of them, Sight Spirit in Race 3.
The defending champion has other important support to lean on: Lor has provided him with six wins from 16 rides since the start of May and his three wins for the premiership leading trainer in June came at a 60 per cent win strike rate. He rides two horses for Lor on Friday.
Another of Moreira’s biggest backers, Caspar Fownes – successful on Tuesday with the Alexis Badel-ridden Kokushi Musou – has dried up as a source of winners for the Brazilian: Moreira has had 29 rides for the stable since the start of May for just two wins and they came on the first day of that month. Fownes has saddled nine winners altogether in that time. The Brazilian rides two of Fownes’ runners on Friday.
Other trainers to engage Moreira on Friday are Chris So, Ricky Yiu and Paul O’Sullivan. He has eight rides all up.
Purton has a full book of 10 rides, with three of them for Size. He also has two each for David Hayes and So and one apiece for David Hall, Manfred Man and Lor.
Purton has enjoyed pretty much the same level of backing from Lor as Moreira has, with six wins from 19 rides since May 1, and he has enough of a broad spread of support to make his opponent work hard for any gains he might achieve.
With only two and a half weeks of the season remaining, the two jockeys will have most of their rides already locked in. There is little room, if any, at this stage of the season to manoeuvre for new sources of support: what they have arranged now is what will determine whether they succeed or fall short.
Last season, Moreira won the title by a clear 32 wins; he did that by riding at a 21.6 per cent strike rate to Purton’s 17.5 per cent. This time, Purton is riding at a season’s strike rate of 20.6 per cent to Moreira’s 19.6 per cent: it could not be much tighter and for all that the ‘big two’ have vied for the title for nine seasons now, it has never been this close with so few races remaining.
The final five meetings of last season yielded eight wins to Moreira, while Purton was suspended for the final two fixtures and notched four wins in the three meetings prior.
Purton has the edge this time but his own blank return on Tuesday showed that winners are particularly precious and well-earned at this late stage of the season.
If Size has a store of primed ‘ammunition’ ready for one final push in his bid to claw back Lor’s big lead and bag what would be a record-setting 12th champion trainer title, it would have been natural to expect that Moreira would be the main beneficiary. But, given his willingness to use Purton – having been a reluctant supporter in the past – will we see more Size-Purton winners than Size-Moreira winners before the season is over?
One way or another, the trainer’s form and support through the season’s final stage will surely prove to be a big factor as to which of Moreira or Purton will be champion jockey for a fifth time.
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