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Zac v Joao: Eyes on the prize

In any sport where there is ‘a contest for the ball’, there is an old adage: ‘play the ball, not the man’.  

Nine race card at Happy Valley 'A' course, Wednesday July 6

Zac Purton: 129 wins

Joao Moreira: 128 wins

THE SCENE-SETTER

‘Play the ball, not the man,’ is a saying that soccer-mad Brazilian Joao Moreira and Australian rugby league fan Zac Purton would be familiar with, and perhaps both could adopt a horse racing version over the final four meetings of the season. Ride the race, not the man.

As feisty as these two rivals can get, and as much as the jockeys’ championship has become a two-man game, there are no match races in Hong Kong racing. The wide spread of weights and relatively fluid handicap system means that races are less thought-through, pre-planned tactical battles – like you might see in a weight-for-age Group One – and more a fast-paced, think-on-your-feet tussle in which riders have a plan A, B, C and D … and then throw them all out of the window when the unexpected occurs.­ If the two riders become preoccupied with each other there are fields full of other talented jockeys ready to take advantage.

Last Friday’s feature race, the Reunification Cup, was a case in point, as Moreira – in particular – played the man and may have negatively impacted his own chances.

The predicted fireworks in the opening stages occurred but as Purton crossed on Nervous Witness from a wider gate, Moreira could have taken a box seat or one-out, one-back position. Rather than take that option he pushed along in an apparent effort to keep Purton tracking wide into the turn. In the end, both horses finished unplaced and the early jockeying certainly had some impact. Would he have ridden the same race had it not been Purton crossing?

Or earlier in the season? Well, some would say yes and point to Moreira’s aggressive ride on Brilliant Fortune on October 1, where he pulled the whip from the gates and made a beeline for the rail and pressured Nervous Witness, to no avail.

That is not to say gamesmanship and identifying key threats in a race are not important – particularly favourites – but perhaps the rider that simply ‘watches the ball’ over the last four meetings will reap the benefits.

THE KEY MATCH-UP: Race 9, Class 4 (1000m)

Zac Purton: No 1. Stoltz
Joao Moreira: No 12. Special M

Happy Valley 1000m races are about as close to equine drag racing as horse racing gets. There is no time to think and watching Purton and Moreira battle it out here in the last race of the night will be a highlight.

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Zac Purton riding Stoltz (Number 8) wins the Race 9 Cheong Ming Handicap (Class 2) at Happy Valley Racecourse on April 27, 2022. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit /Getty Images)

Purton is on the more fancied runner, Stoltz, a last-start winner over the course and distance, who has won three times over the trip in his first season.

Those wins have been from four, five and four, each as hot favourite. Now Purton contends with top weight in a mixed-band 75-95 ratings race from barrier eight of 12.

Drawn one below him is Moreira on Special M. John Size sends six horses to the Valley and this is the only ride he has given to Moreira. Special M might be the outsider but, dropping in weight and up in grade, he could swoop late on the A course.

ZAC'S BEST: R4 No. 5 See U Again

Danny Shum’s three-year-old See U Again gives Purton another golden opportunity. Purton replaced Moreira four starts back and has been beaten as favourite on three occasions since but gets barrier one here over 1000m.  Purton did not do anything wrong last start and a similar box-seat ride will be enough to get See U Again his maiden victory. 

JOAO'S BEST: R2 No. 6 Wonder Years

Being a Happy Valley 2200m specialist is not necessarily a sign of talent. Races over the distance are generally only run or the bottom rung of horses. Wonder Years has a record of one win from ten starts but seems to have found a niche over the 2200m.  

That being said, low grade handicaps over the three-turn course are my favourite kind of race. The stop-start sectionals invite mid-race moves, which fail as often as they succeed. It is going to take a well-timed run on Wonder Years from the back for Moreira to claw one back early in the evening. 

THE EDGE

One interesting aspect to note with four meetings remaining: Moreira has four more seconds than Purton, and that is the tie-breaker if riders are level on wins at the end of the season.

In practical terms, at least as things stand, if Moreira draws level he is in front.

Looking at the respective book of rides it is Purton who again has the advantage. He has a couple of standout favourites led by See U Again – and Moreira again will be content if he can keep it close.

Zac Purton v Joao Moreira, July 6

Zac PurtonJoao Moreira
Race 1-Tailor Made
Race 2Kowloon GreatWonder Years
Race 3Go For TeaOne Step Ahead
Race 4See U AgainDouble Six Pop
Race 5Touch FaithFarshad
Race 6Compassion SuperLeslie
Race 7Sunny DelightCharizard
Race 8The RunnerRising From Ashes
Race 9StoltzSpecial M

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