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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

Will the jockey show be back out front in 2019-20?

Updated: Sep 15, 2019

Last season, it was the thrilling trainers' premiership that kept us guessing until the final day but the jockeys might have their turn again when we come to the finish of the 2019-20 campaign.

Zac Purton danced circles around his rivals and took the thrill out of the jockeys' title from a very early stage, and has been, pound for pound, the best jockey in town for the past two seasons, regardless of the buts and ifs.

A shift in support from Joao Moreira to Purton by three key trainers in 2017-18 was the underlying "what if" that saw the Australian snatch back his title after three years of Moreira reign - but it was a fully deserved turn of fortune.

Last season, Moreira was walloped by 168 wins to 90 "but" the Brazilian missed the early season then was hampered by the rules around his role as retained jockey for the John Size stable. As a result, he had almost 200 fewer rides than Purton and the overall quality of his rides suffered a blow out too.

Stung by his season of having to play second fiddle, the Magic Man now has, as Julius Caesar noted in identifying Cassius as a future danger in Shakespeare's play, "a lean and hungry look."

He has been industrious at pre-season trackwork (including off days like Sundays) and, returning to a club jockey position, Moreira will give Purton a serious race indeed this time around.

He has retained one potential disadvantage however - his tight relationship with champion trainer John Size.

So how is being first in line with the trainers' title favourite a problem?

It would be wrong to frame it as only a problem, obviously.

Size means guaranteed winners, horses which surge through the classes taking multiple races and setting a great foundation for a successful title bid.

But waiting for Size - who decides his runners and books his jockeys later than any other trainer - also shuts down winning links with other yards.

It was Moreira's waiting until late to settle his rides that caused Caspar Fownes, Danny Shum and Dennis Yip to switch their support to the more accessible Purton two years ago and changed the landscape at the top of the jockeys' table just when it looked like Moreira was going to be cemented in as perennial champion.

So that will still be a factor hovering below the surface, as will the contrasting careless riding records of Moreira and Purton - the Brazilian continues to spend more days out suspended than his arch rival.

An interesting sidelight, if these two do again break away at the head of affairs, will be how heavily the betting public places its fortunes in their hands to the exclsion of others.

Only one previous season had topped a century of odds-on favourites - 103 in 2010-11- but last season saw 134 of them, 73 successful, and Purton (54) and Moreira (42) handled most.

Along with firmly-established riders like Karis Teetan and last season's big find amongst the locals, Vincent Ho, Grant van Niekerk had a promising start and Aldo Domeyer made a great impression in a short stint. Silvestre de Sousa can be expected to make a splash again during his winter sojourn at Sha Tin, although his ability to make more of an impact on Purton and Moreira than he did then is limited by the brevity of his presence.

The real unknown factors are exciting "freshmen" - South Africa's Lyle Hewitson and Australian Blake Shinn. Both have the potential to take a good slice from the tallies of Purton and Moreira but 'by how much?' is the million-dollar question.

It's not easy to get a guide as it's not a simple task to compare apples to apples when it comes to first season jockeys. Some have been before for a month or two before they return later to tackle a full season and attempt to build on whatever that start yielded, so they have some advantage - at least in theory.

The simplest rule is that there are no rules.

On the (somewhat arbitrary and a long way from complete) list here, I've included some riders from a long time ago when the number of races was significantly lower than it is now, just as a look at some significant first season performances. Some are recent, to give a frame of reference for the current crop, while othrs are included for alternative reasons.

The lowest on the table, for example, Australian Noel Barker and England's Philip Robinson are included bcause they later won championship titles after modestly successful starts and current champion Purton falls into that category as well.

At the other end of the scale is Moreira, a statistical outlier whose first season dwarfs all others.

In his favour, he had won the International Jockeys' Championship at Happy Valley the previous season, and surfed into town on a tsunami of publicity touting him as the "world's best jockey". That ensured supply but, on the obstacle side, the first 90 races of the season were already over when he arrived, then he missed another 18 race meetings due to careless riding suspensions.

It's a miracle to have reached almost 100 wins in the circumstances but, as usual, Moreira is just not a suitable measuring stick.

Nor is Douglas Whyte's debut season, as he did a 3-month stint early in the season that ended on international day, returned to South Africa while the next 241 races were decided before returning in April for an historic QE II Cup win on London News, whereafter he was induced to stay. So his 50 wins came from only 181 rides.

Technically, Chris Munce and Brett Prebble weren't on their first run around the block in the seasons listed but, after unsuccessful part-season stints prior, they returned with better results in their first full season.

And just for interest's sake, Darren Beadman is included twice. His actual first season was in 1992-93 with 44 wins then he was disqualified over a running and handling charge and sent home early the next season. There were a number of one-offs and cameos in between but, when he was finally forgiven and allowed to return full time again 14 years later, he managed to improve on that despite the disadvantages of being a stable retained rider.

So like for like is not easy to pin down when we consider expectations for Shinn and Hewitson.

Both are extreme talents but have their differences too.

Hewitson (on the left of the photo) is a youth sensation. Twenty two in October and (behind Chad Schofield) the second-youngest club jockey in history, he already has 2 championship titles on the resume from only 3 years' riding, mostly, as an apprentice - the first making him the first junior to win the South African open title since Michael Roberts in 1973, and the second after missing a big chunk of the season through injury and still racking up more rides than any championship winner there for 14 years. Being set loose in Hong Kong so young could be a risk - the mental aspect of the game in Hong Kong is testing for anyone - but Hewitson presents as especially smart, articulate and confident for his age, and with so much scope.

Shinn was a junior sensation himself, in his time, but arrives in Hong Kong with the benefit of some great achievements since then and also having survived some serious bumps in the road - helpful on the mental side. He comes at the peak of his powers as a 31-year-old world class rider in the same league as Purton and Moreira, provided he can secure the right support.

Roughly 40 per cent of the runners each season start at odds of 11.0 or less, but they provide more than 80 per cent of the winners. In 2018-19, Purton, Moreira and Teetan, combined, took up 35 percent of the rides in that price bracket and returned 322 of the 662 winners from it. Purton, alone, brought home a quarter of those winners.

In the coming season, Moreira's chunk of that key bracket will be much larger than 2018-19, Purton's may not reduce by much, so the chasers - more than 20 of them - will likely be squeezed into fewer than 305 winners at 11.0 or less they shared then.

The danger for Teetan, third in the last two seasons, is whether it is his position in that bracket which comes under the most pressure. Winners at longer odds come and go but that mother lode up to 11.0 is where all riders need a strong foothold.

No jockey has won the championship at the first attempt, so we're putting that aside, but key for the two new boys is how deep an impression they can make in that key zone of demand. I'm expecting both will have enough of an impact to prevent any records being broken by the leaders but a season of 40 winners looks a tough but achievable target - anything better than that and they're really cooking with gas.

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