How much longer for the Zac & Jo Show?
Updated: Oct 6, 2022
Any look ahead to the jockeys’ championship in Hong Kong has to focus on the seesawing duel of the Zac Purton and Joao Moreira Show - but for how much longer?
Moreira arrived like a Typhoon 10 in October 2013, when only his ubiquitous presence in the stewards’ room prevented him, not Purton, from being the one to end Douglas Whyte’s 13-year reign.
Purton’s avoidance of careless riding bans proved the crucial difference, Moreira gave him the rounds of the kitchen in the next three seasons but there’s no question that the Brazilian’s presence drove Purton to new peaks and he was the right winner in the latest edition of an annual face off which has become Hong Kong racing’s most recognisable staple.
The ninth annual Zac & Jo Show kept last season bubbling to the last meeting, although, like many a mature entertainment production, it did require the writers’ room to come up with some unusual and unlikely twists to keep it afloat.
Zac Purton’s cracking start had him 12 in front of the field after 114 races and there looked a real danger that he might run away with it, but the script writers stepped in as Purton’s international day fall put him out for five weeks and Moreira was clear when he returned.
Then it was Moreira’s turn to be ankle tapped, as just three days after Purton’s return, the Brazilian made a dog’s breakfast of short-priced Zone D at Happy Valley and seemed to have arrived at the conclusion by the 250m mark that the race was gone and then failed to ride his mount out. It was a lapse in concentration from Moreira and his 6-day ban was the oxygen Purton needed.
While Moreira sat on the sidelines for most of February, Purton went on a rampage, with 19 winners and was one in front again when Moreira resumed. From then on, it was a constant arm wrestle to the final day where Purton finally put it to bed with three races left.
It was an epic but was it their best contest? Mathematically, no as Purton won by only two in 2017-18, and four times in nine years this pair has ridden more wins than in 2021-22.
And, in terms of quality, I think we’ve seen both jockeys ride better than they have in the last couple of seasons. On our jockey ratings, Purton (19.7) and Moreira (17.17) each returned one of their lower final ratings since they became arch rivals. They still usually have six points or more on the next best, so it doesn’t show up in results, but, at the absolute peak of the Zac & Jo Show, both were easily clearing 20 each season.
That could be the effect of injuries – both have had well-publicised physical issues in the last two years – or could be a reflection of the quiet, slow burn out taking effect due to the pandemic.
Many overseas look at twice-a-week racing in Hong Kong as a dream situation, but it is more of a pressure cooker than most realise.
Punters in Hong Kong racing are not fussy about where they back a winner and the mounts of just Purton and Moreira would carry north of $HK 40 billion in legal wagers every season. Illegal wagering, by the HKJC’s own estimates, could pile on another four or five times that figure.
Every ride – no matter how low the class – is subjected to granular post-mortem analysis, particularly in the Chinese language media, right down to whether a jockey held his whip the right way or had the appropriate look on his face. It is one of very few places where a jockey can be metaphorically hung out to dry for a beaten ride on a horse rated 20. There is nowhere to hide.
One of the questions to be answered in the pandemic period was at what point the lack of a summer break would see riders crack. That seven-week end of season break is one of the great blessings of HK racing – the pressure is off, punters and participants alike clear their heads and rediscover their energy and enthusiasm for the new campaign.
In 2020 and 2021, there was no summer break. Sure, jockeys did not ride for a few weeks but were unable to leave town and some even wound up making an early return to trackwork.
By the time this year’s break rolled around, riders, in particular, were mentally cooked and, for the two under the most searing hot lights, it was showing.
Perhaps, having vacationed well and given both their minds and gnawing injuries some relief, both Purton and Moreira will return for 2022-23 with batteries charged and ready to do it again.
Purton took a quiet holiday with his wife and kids in Dubai and the Maldives - instead of his usual return to Australia with all the eating, drink and socialising and associated weight increases (which then put his body under more pressure as he works them off quickly for the new campaign).
That seems to have had the expected result, the champion rider said this week he is happy with his fitness and could ride immediately if he had to, but there will be ongoing physical niggles from the series of injuries over the past few years. Purton also lost one of his most staunch long-term supporters with the retirement of Paul O'Sullivan but it's not significant in the title race picture - last season he had just 29 rides for the yard for 4 winners.
Moreira, a year older, has had his own ongoing physical issues and underwent hip surgery in a recent off-season, but the rumour mill has also been running warm that there is a family issue - his wife has had enough of living in Asia for the past 12 years.
Now comes news that the Brazilian will return late and miss the first 2 meetings of the new season, due to treatment he has been receiving during the summer, and he will be alone - Mrs Moreira and the children will not be with him when he does arrive.
For a family man like Moreira, this is going to put additional pressures on him personally, so we'll see how that plays into his form.
Whatever happens this season, the time is drawing ever nearer when neither will be riding in Hong Kong – I would be surprised if they were still here in 2 years - which brings us to how the pecking order shapes up behind them.
The Zac & Jo Show is a doubled-edged sword. It is the primary reason over at least the past five years that the HKJC has struggled to get traction with some of the big riding names for even short stints. Even Christophe Soumillon, one of the world’s great riders and extremely popular in Hong Kong in his own right, found life difficult recently and departed with some uncomplimentary remarks about the riding landscape.
At the height of Douglas Whyte’s dominance, he was still only riding around one in seven winners each season and, in by far the tightest finish with Brett Prebble in 2010, the top two jockeys rode 199 of the 767 winners.
Contrast that with around one in three collected by Moreira and Purton every season, Karis Teetan is good for another 8-10 percent and the best of the local riders, Matt Chadwick, Vincent Ho and Derek Leung, rounded up 18 per cent of the winners between them in 2021-22. That’s about 60 per cent of the winners spoken for each season and an unappealing equation to other big names used to getting their pick.
The season ahead does promise a potential resurgence of the South Africans.
When Whyte was dethroned by Purton in 2014, it broke an unbeaten 18-championship streak for South Africans stretching back to 1996 and, between Whyte, Robbie Fradd and Basil Marcus, they had won 21 of the previous 22. How times have changed.
Teetan, a Mauritian who came through the South African academy, has been cemented in third on the ladder behind Purton and Moreira for some years as the honorary “Safrican” flagbearer, although we saw promising, if brief, roles from Grant van Niekerk and, to a much lesser extent, Aldo Domeyer. None has been a title contender, though and, Teetan aside, it has been mainly a South African-free zone.
In Lyle Hewitson and Luke Ferraris, there are worthy agents of change who could push into the top half dozen this season.
Hewitson, still only 24 but a 3-time champion in his homeland, endured a dreadful first stint in 2019-2020, failing to get an audience. He landed just 3 wins from 251 rides but impressed as an individual, coping with dignity during what will be one of the great character-building lessons he will ever experience. Hewitson left, rode winners in Japan, went home to grab his third South African title then returned for another crack at Hong Kong last season that did not look to be going any better than the previous before he too was involved in the Hong Kong Sprint smash, fracturing his pelvis.
Again, his admirable attitude proved critical and, in March, it all changed. Hewitson rode his second winner of the season at the start of March then went on a run, often in tandem with Whyte’s stable, that racked up 18 wins in 149 rides and ended his campaign with 27 – a very respectable return for an entire season. Now that he has broken the ice, Hewitson will be a major improver.
Ferraris, only 20, has even more upside. When he arrived last season, there was a fear that the unfashionable yard of his father, trainer David Ferraris, could be a drag on his prospects and that he might be too young for the mental side of Hong Kong. Ferraris just ticked along for much of the season, his father returned to South Africa in late December, and he had a couple of droughts but there were signs that he can make big strides. For one thing, he is as good a barrier jockey as anyone riding in Hong Kong and riders will tell you how vital good starts are in this environment.
In terms of connections, towards the end of the campaign he was forming a meaningful relationship with several of the mid-range stables but also, more notably, with Tony Cruz.
Cruz told the press he liked Ferraris and would be using him more – not only does that mean winners (as it is forever since Cruz missed the top four) but it means chances at the big end of town too as Cruz is a regular Group One player. The new trainer, Pierre Ng has also indicated he will use Ferraris.
Silvestre de Sousa is back for start of the season, giving Brazil an unprecedented numerical advantage. With Moreira, Ruan Maia and Vagner Borges, de Sousa will be one of four Brazilians, the biggest “national bloc” amongst the expatriate riders.
Barring injury or other unforeseen circumstances, Moreira will be in the title race, Borges and Maia grinding out tradesmanlike but lucrative seasons further down the order. De Sousa though is a difficult one to predict – he has run hot and cold in the past, despite collecting 91 wins over several separate stints, including Group Ones and the 2018 International Jockeys' Championship.
In one stint, he grabbed the public imagination as a sharp, strong rider but, in other visits including his latest in 2019-20, didn’t quite catch fire. It also seems clear that the reason he will start the season – he has previously come for shorter stints during UK off-peak times – is that demand has dipped from the heady days when he was 3-time British champion.
Alexis Badel, with 50 wins, had a better 2021-22 than it seemed at the time. That was only eight fewer than his first full campaign but with two Group Ones on Wellington and some other features, he took to his stakes tally to a new high of $117 million.
The gap in his performances has to do with the stewards’ room. After he and now-departed Blake Shinn had their own duel over who was most penalised for race day offences, Shinn edged him out but Badel still missed 12 meetings to go with 13 he missed the previous season and that will hold him back.
One final aspect to consider is that there will be a 10-pound claimer for the first time in a couple of years in 2022-23, with Angus Chung returning from training in South Australia.
The extent of his talent in the tougher arena in Hong Kong is still an open question, but he did perform well enough in Adelaide to say that he is going to command plenty of demand while his ten and seven-pound claims hold up in his first season and being attached to the Tony Cruz yard will give him every chance.