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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

Moreira's absence a loss for Hong Kong - but not through the betting windows

When Hong Kong's betting turnover lagged in the first few meetings of the season, the idea was murmured that the loss of Joao Moreira to Japan was the reason and the Magic Man's departure was going to be felt more keenly than anyone wanted to let on at Jockey Club headquarters at Sports Road.

At the opening meeting of the season, I heard people say that punters wouldn't know what to back this season without the Brazilian, so to see betting handle down was confirmation of that hypothesis.

As of Monday's National Day meeting, though, God is in his heaven, bluebirds are singing and all is right with the world, with turnover for the season now creeping ahead of where it was 12 months ago.

The early deficit I would have attributed to smaller than usual fields.

There is a correlation between field sizes and turnover and one early meeting at Sha Tin had fewer than 90 entries across 10 races. In a jurisdiction where the long term average field size at Sha Tin is north of 13, that is quite a difference.

That carried with it a question of a different kind - with the shorter break and longer season these days, when the does the requirement to rest horses in the summer start to encroach on their ability to get back to work early in the next season? Since the club went to 88 meetings in 2016 instead of 83, there were more horses having 18, 19 even 20 starts in a season.

Well, 2018 was probably the correct answer to that question, however, that will become irrelevant - we would hope - as the extra ownership permits work their way through the system and the horse population grows by 10-15 per cent now that Conghua is operational.

Still, the question of losing Moreira is one that many punters, and some administrators around the world, would tie to a loss of betting turnover.

It's not a view to which I've ever held. Top jockeys, even with charisma and following of Moreira, do not drive turnover.

The punter doesn't climb out of bed on race day, down a coffee and pick up the form guide to see if Moreira is riding before he or she decides to bet.

In my view, the punter does climb out of bed, down a coffee and pick up the form guide to see what he is riding.

And if he isn't riding, the punter doesn't go back to bed and take the day off betting, he or she says: so, no Joao, what's Zac riding?

And so on down the order. In my view, the star jockeys don't create turnover, but they do give it direction.

A decade ago, when the HKJC simulcasts of racing in feature meetings in Australia were starting to crank up a bit more often, the idea was floated that having a Hong Kong-based jockey fly in for rides was a boost to Hong Kong's simulcast turnover. I examined the proposition then and found it flawed - Hong Kong punters didn't bet more because a jockey knew well was riding, they didn't even prefer to back his rides. The same idea was abroad when Moreira has guest starred at simulcast meetings in Australia in recent years and I didn't find it credible then either.

Still, maybe local racing, where the Magic Man held everyone so spellbound for 5 years might be different, so I had a look at the effect of the "Moreira factor" last season. Just as I suspected, there wasn't one.

In this table are the turnover figures for the 13 meetings last season that Moreira missed through suspension, absence or injury. Next to those figures are the figures from the previous season used for comparison. (This table shows only pari-mutuel holds - Jockey Challenge figures are not included.) As you can see, only once did turnover drop at a meeting that Moreira missed.

More significantly, the rise across all the meetings came out at 5.38 per cent - rounded up for our purposes - and very close to the 5.48 per cent increase in pari-mutuel handle that the Jockey Club experienced over the full season.

But while the effect of Moreira's his absence on a temporary basis looks to be nil, one wonders if there is some sort of effect yet to play out now that he is permanently gone, perhaps more in the commingling area than local turnover.

There always seemed to be plenty of activity from overseas on Twitter during Hong Kong meetings as Moreira's fans tuned in to what his magic, or his critics (I'm looking at you Australia!) kept tabs just to know when to let a barb or two go in his direction.

While Hong Kong still has a fine line-up of riders, few riders anywhere have the natural charm and charisma of the Brazilian. And it isn't even about just being a great jockey. It's a long time since I've heard any describe Frankie Dettori as the world's best rider, but he still has no match when it comes to star appeal.

Likewise, Moreira has a touch of something indefinable that is and will be missing from the Hong Kong season.

And Hong Kong's loss is very likely Japan's gain as the Magic Man sets about his "test" to see if his Japanese is up to scratch and he qualifies for a full-time licence in the land of the rising sun.

Considering you don't meet that many jockeys who brilliant at their native language, I doubt we'll be seeing Joao making speeches to the emperor, but passing a test that the Japan Racing Association would dearly like to see him pass? That may be a horse of another colour altogether.

And if Moreira joins Christophe Lemaire and Mirco Demuro as permanent fixtures on the roster in Japan, it's another blow to Hong Kong's once-famous ability to attract the star riders. Lemaire and Demuro would once have been strong candidates to be here full time themselves.

Next month, in addition to Moreira, Lemaire and Demuro, the JRA roster will feature Ryan Moore, Hugh Bowman, William Buick, Oisin Murphy and Brenton Avdulla. Good luck to the locals, that's a hell of a lineup.

Once upon a time it would not have been unusual to see all of them at Sha Tin. The ability to attract a wide range of top overseas riders waned in the second half of Douglas Whyte's long domination as the foreign riders felt they were starting off a huge handicap just to get going in Hong Kong. In recent years, the standout pairing of Moreira and Purton has had an even greater effect as they rode a third of the available winners between them. The race will be uncompetitive again when Purton runs away with the title in 2018-19.

And the proliferation of generous retainers available for European riders has made doing the hard yards to gain acceptance here look pointless.

In recent years, most of the rising European and British stars who have ridden here have been on short stints for the fine tuning of their skills in a different and competitive environment rather than because they thought they might make a future here.

The backbone of the jockeys room has been and will be riders from Australia and South Africa, but the club seems to have all but exhausted the Australian mines, with some top younger jockeys who would come to Hong Kong declined for reasons unstated and left disappointed. The long resume riders the club would like to have here from Australia - like Bowman - are doing far too well where they are to be shifting base.

So turnover is back on its axis, never mind the theories, but Moreira's departure will be felt in Hong Kong's star power.

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