The boys are back in town - will the Magic Man turn the tables?
Don't let the friendly faces on the ground fool you - on horseback, Zac Purton and Joao Moreira are the fiercest of rivals and Hong Kong racing's enduring headline act.
In 2020-21, it's Season 8 of a head-to-head at the top of the jockeys' table which has been through some turbulent ups and downs and, at times, unexpected plot twists.
The writers have done a great job keeping viewers in thrall to a contest which had promised early on to become so predictable.
When Moreira arrived in 2013, the season had been under way for almost 2 months - Purton had posted 14 wins before the Brazilian got his first - and he lost another 18 meetings through suspensions yet went down by 15 wins in Purton's famous dethroning of Douglas Whyte.
The future resembled a churrascaria, where Moreira would
barbeque, slice and dice his arch rival every year, and the next three seasons confirmed that notion as he put up huge margins to Purton in second place. The writers room went into panic but the shifting sands of ride politics behind the scenes came into play in 2017-18 and Purton turned the tables to win an epic battle by just 2 victories and he has not been beaten since.
The following year was not a fair fight, when Moreira flirted with a new love interest, Japan, then was ultimately rejected by her and only taken back by Hong Kong under house rules that made him uncompetitive as a retained stable jockey for John Size - the Hong Kong racing equivalent of having to wear an ankle bracelet.
Last season, it was back to being a club jockey and the pair went at it again for most of the season, the Brazilian holding an advantage early but, seemingly, Purton handled the pressure of the arm wrestle better than Moreira and it showed in his riding. Nobody was calling it a lucky win this time - the best man won. Purton had fewer rides, a better strike rate, outperformed market expectations of his mounts, narrowed the gap between them at Moreira's preferred track at Sha Tin and even widened the margin between them at his own happy hunting ground, Happy Valley.
No matter how you sliced it, Purton was the right winner.
And that's where we stand when things kick off again on Sunday, and the writers have been busy again to keep things in flux, because, while trainers' fortunes are inextricably tied to the quality of their stock at any given time, jockeys' fortunes are strapped on to the kind of support they receive and politics will always come into it.
This is a table I used in a blog about Purton and Moreira a few years ago and how their change in support lines decided the 2017-18 Purton turnaround that ended Moreira's 3-year blitz.
It all came down to this - Moreira had become heavily aligned with champion trainer, John Size. Not a bad thing, you would have thought?
Well, the trick that fans can't see in the form guide is that Size is usually the last trainer, certainly of the leading trainers, to book his jockeys. Ten days before racing would be his norm, while others rush to secure riders 3 weeks out from a race.
So that gave Joao a problem - stick with Size and keep other trainers on the hook waiting or just take good rides when they were available?
He had all the clout in the world to "play the game" as he liked, as he was putting a margin on Purton every year but some trainers were souring at holding the bag when Joao went elsewhere and they were left with whoever did not have a ride.
But they could lock Purton in three weeks out instead of waiting for Joao - and they weren't just any trainers. Caspar Fownes, Dennis Yip and Danny Shum were three of the top six trainers that season and, as you can see from the gold highlighting, there was a big shift in their support in 2017-18 from Joao to Zac. Purton went from 21 winners for that trio to 46 while the Brazilian dropped from 37 wins to just 9 - Purton took the title by 2 wins.
So support matters, especially in the closed pool in Hong Kong. A great jockey without good rides won't win, so the Purton-Moreira bout in 2020-21 will depend as much on support as on their brilliant riding skills. More of that shortly.
As a quick detour, let's quickly deal with whether they have the season to themselves again or not, because Karis Teetan fans will be thinking the Mauritian Magician can make a move on the top two after getting within sight of being only the fourth jockey to win 100 races in season 20-19-20.
Since his arrival in 2014, Teetan has had a couple of bumps in the road but has always worked hard and earned his place, and he has now been third to Purton and Moreira 3 times in a row.
As our figures in this table show, he has kicked things up a notch in the past 2 seasons, but you'll also notice that coincided with an improved supply line. His expected wins, by the betting market, have jumped sharply and he has made the most of the opportunities, even exceeding expectations.
Why? In his first 4 years in Hong Kong, Teetan had just 41 rides for top trainer Tony Cruz, mostly outsiders, for 2 winners. The past 2 season have brought him 375 rides for the yard and 56 winners - and that's the change. Cruz, as you would have seen in my recent blog on the trainers' title ahead, is never out of the top few trainers. He is a perennial key player and being his rider of choice is a shortcut to good mounts - doing an excellent job on them is what has lifted Teetan to the point where he is now but his challenge is finding at least one more good supplier, and there really are not that many to go around.
In this table, you can see the support offered to the top 10 jockeys last season - not in terms of how many rides but the quality of those rides, the expected wins of those rides.
Moreira does in fact get about 36% of all the Size stable rides, and his expected wins (Xwins) on them last season of more than 36 actually produced 31 wins - short of market expectations, sure, but still a very good number of wins from any one source and that Xwin figure says he's getting the cream from the best trainer in town. He also got good opportunities from Frankie Lor, whose season disappointed, like Size's did, and from Fownes, who appeared to unsuccessfully throw his weight behind the Brazilian's title run in the final months of season.
I'll leave the final assessment to you, but is Moreira just too reliant on a strong year from John Size?
This graph shows all too well how important Size is to the Brazilian, this time displayed as quantity of rides overall and separately at 11.0 or less.
And, let's be clear, most seasons for Size are good seasons, so leaning on that success seems a good recipe.
But it still means waiting on Size's decisions to run or not and we saw last season that Purton can sidestep around that advantage with a better spread of supply lines across a handful of good yards that form the foundation of his mounts.
Teetan, however, gets his best rides overwhelmingly from Cruz, worthwhile backing from Ricky Yiu and Fownes, but drops away sharply after that.
Without finding a way to nibble into the backing for Purton and Moreira to crank up better supply, Teetan won't be able to threaten them.
So, let's continue on the support path and the personalities highlighted in green in that table, plus incoming trainer David Hayes, look crucial to the jockeys' race ahead.
John Moore has departed - a negative for Purton, who had 68 rides for 17 wins from the yard. Before Grant van Niekerk was shown the door in April, he was taking up plenty of Moore rides - albeit third in the supply quality chain - so Purton may have got a very minor plus in Moore's yard from his departure too.
For Moreira, a new landscape without Moore is less significant.
In general, as we saw on an earlier table, Moreira does receive the better support of the pair anyway - partly due to being able to ride light - but he gets an added boost by Moore's departure, unless Purton can swap out incoming David Hayes for his support from Moore.
Purton is already booked for some of Hayes' higher profile new imports, like Shadow Hero and Talladega, and Hayes is also taking over a number of horses for the Kwok family, including Beauty Generation, and Purton is their rider of choice.
On the other hand, Moreira has a longer connection with Hayes, having frequently ridden for the trainer on his trips to Australia, including a G1 Oakleigh Plate win for him on Sheidel.
Hayes is using a number of different riders in trackwork and trials and is not showing a preference at this point but that is likely to change as the season blossoms.
As a trainer being tipped for a top 3 championship finish by many, his support might make or break a title run for a jockey.
Another x-factor for the jockeys' race is Alexis Badel.
French jockeys have always done well in Hong Kong but their role in recent years has ceased to be long term and more often comes as 3-month cameos mid-season during the European winter.
Badel has been well-received in his walk-on roles since 2016, most notably last season, when he managed 26 wins from only 254 mounts and managed to finish ninth on the list despite the brief stay. In 2020-21, Badel will take on a full season for the first time.
It's a double-edged sword having a lot more rides - probably more like 500-600 mounts. And that might mean a proportional increase in wins or, sometimes, it might not. It's the difference between a couple on a holiday fling ...
...and the same couple living together.
A full season means more regular, week in, week out exposure for 10 months and more fluctuations of fortune along the way. And that can impact support in either direction.
On face value, though, his appearance looks another negative for Purton.
While Badel can be expected to pick up a lot of opportunities pairing again with Douglas Whyte - where Purton was not much of a factor in the Durban Demon's rookie year - he could also eat into Purton's supply from Danny Shum, who was one of Purton's primary suppliers of chances - with 12.59 Xwins - and actual winners, with 14.
Shum is also a prominent ticket holder in the Badel fan club.
Since the French jockey's first appearance in Hong Kong, Shum has provided almost 15 % of his 744 rides, many of his best opportunities and just shy of a quarter of his wins as well.
Badel might well command the best rides from Richard Gibson again this season, too, but that is less important from a championship viewpoint than the impact he will have with Whyte and Shum, two trainers expected to finish nearer the top than the bottom of the table.
Badel is not a player for the title and can take a little from the supply for Moreira but could be a spoiler Purton.
Of course, the things strongly in Purton's favour are these - his ability to outperform market expectation, basically every season, and his ability to stay out of trouble. As far as the second goes, it is a game changer.
If Moreira goes a year with minimal interference from the stewards regarding his interference in races, he will be tough to beat, but we've seen enough of him so far to think that isn't likely.
Their records on careless riding since Moreira's arrival ago are chalk and cheese.
When I first arrived in Hong Kong, the whole season was 78 meetings but, in 7 years - with about 5 months of that when he wasn't even licensed in HK - Moreira has lost 72 meetings, from only suspensions accrued in races in Hong Kong, and paid out $HKD 1.64 million in fines for careless riding.
Just 48 meetings lost - a third of those in one awful term in 2014-15 - and just $120,000 in fines.
Now that's a meaningful bottom line!
But it speaks to the styles of both riders - Purton more cool, cocky and calculating, Moreira more the Brazilian football genius, a confidence player built on heat and flair and a heartbeat moment here and there of unknowable brilliance.
That meeting of opposites to some extent is why Zac Attack versus Magic Man is such an attractive battle every year, but the ever-changing sands of stable fortunes and trainer support will once again play a major part in who emerges victorious.
There are reasons to think that Moreira has some of the changes in his corner again this season but no-one is under-selling Purton's ability to lift his game.
Go to your corners.