Noriyuki Hori’s booking of Joao Moreira for Carrot Farm’s Neorealism in Sunday’s HK20 million G1 Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup (2000m) at Sha Tin is further confirmation, were it needed, that Hong Kong’s Champion Jockey has joined an exclusive group.
Only the very best riders from outside the JRA fold get the call-up to partner Japan’s star gallopers at home and abroad. Moreira, like another jockey with a claim to the unquantifiable “world’s best” tag, England’s Ryan Moore, is a firming favourite on that small, select roster. Hori, the JRA’s classically aloof champion trainer, appears to hold the Englishman and the Brazilian in high esteem, and, in Moreira’s case, no wonder - the rider’s strike rate for the handler is 62% thanks to eight wins from 13 rides.
“Hori is a brilliant trainer,” Moreira says. “He goes through those minute details to get to perfection. He may not get there, because no one can, but if you try for perfection then the results will come, as he’s shown.
“Most of the Japanese trainers, they respect you as a rider so they give you good opportunities and when they give you instructions, they leave it mostly in your hands as the jockey, which is great. But they also come and give you as much information about their horses as they can. That puts you in a spot where, obviously, you can make mistakes but much less than when you’re riding for a trainer that gives you a specific instruction.
“One thing about Hori that is very important is that he understands the horses,” he continues. “He looks at horses and he understands them. He tries so hard to look at a horse and tries to figure out where a horse is at. So, for me, as a jockey, it’s a great opportunity to be working with such a nice guy and such a good trainer. He’s a lovely person; he’s kind, as I’ve found most Japanese people to be.”
It is less than three years since Moreira first experienced racing in Japan – the fulfilment of a dream rooted in the wonderment he felt as a 16-year-old when he came across a scattering of Japanese racing magazines. A handful of rides on the G1 Yasuda Kinen card of 8 June, 2014 yielded no wins, including sixth in the big one aboard the John Size-trained Glorious Days for Hong Kong. But Moreira, being Moreira, did not take long to make an impact in the Land of the Rising Sun.
He returned 14 months later and bagged outright victory in the 2015 World All-Star Jockeys contest thanks to a treble in the annual four-race competition. Last May, Hori handed the record-breaking Brazilian the coveted ride on Japan’s Horse of the Year, Maurice, in the Champions Mile at Sha Tin. The result? A sublime win.
There followed a short stint at Sapporo in August, a warm-up to grease the wheels before the start of the Hong Kong season. Moreira wowed with 17 winners from 53 rides, including six in one day – seven in a row, taking into account the previous day’s finale – which equalled Yutaka Take’s JRA record. His Japan-side tally stands at 24 (all at Sapporo) from 79 rides, at a strike rate of 30%. And with December’s success in the G1 Hong Kong Vase atop Hori’s Satono Crown, and last month’s brilliant win on the Yasuo Tomomichi-trained Vivlos in the G1 Dubai Turf at Meydan, Hong Kong’s standout rider has strengthened his position as a “gun for hire” when Japan’s major players are on the lookout.
“It’s a good place to be and for many reasons,” Moreira says. “When you go over to Japan, you give yourself a chance to gain exposure over there, get known by the trainers, and then if you do well, when they take horses to the Melbourne Cup, to Dubai, or here, they have your name in mind. That’s a pretty good thing!”
A world stage rider
After a tough start to his career as a jockey in Sao Paulo, the once-impoverished kid from Curitiba in southern Brazil is now achieving global recognition. Two wins for Hong Kong in Dubai back in 2014 clearly helped matters, that G1 brace coming atop Amber Sky and Sterling City; and a series of in-and-out raids to Australia have borne fruit with 21 wins from 163 rides Down Under - four of them G1s - and for top rank trainers such as Chris Waller, David Hayes, Gai Waterhouse, John O’Shea and Darren Weir.
“I try to find ways to get to specific points,” Moreira says. “Those points are winning races and winning big races.”
Moreira wins more than most. His Hong Kong tally stands at 550, delivering two champion jockey titles with 145 and 168 wins on the board, totals that have put 13-time champion Douglas Whyte’s previous record of 114, an epic return until three years ago, deep in the shade. This term, already, he has 137 Hong Kong wins to his credit at a 26% strike rate, including a sensational eight-timer at Sha Tin on 5 March. And all of that after more than 1000 wins in South America and his untouchable, record-smashing four titles in Singapore that gave rise to the “Magic Man” moniker.
“When I was in Singapore, I looked at Hong Kong as being a place for those really good jockeys that can handle the pressure and still get it done,” he reflects.
“Hong Kong is a well-recognised jurisdiction in terms of quality, toughness, competitiveness – it is top standard, as good as you can get. If you’re in a jurisdiction like Singapore, which is one step back, one step lower, you would be looking up and trying to get to Hong Kong. That’s what I wanted to do.
“When I arrived here, I realised that all of that quality, competitiveness and toughness was here, and so was the pressure,” he continues. “But the pressure is worth it because if you are able to handle it and do well, you are going to be recognised worldwide. It has happened, and I’m very proud of that, I’m proud of what I am achieving here. This place is pretty good!”
With wins in each of Hong Kong’s December international races and Champions Mile scores with Maurice (2016) and Able Friend (2015), the APQEII Cup is the only one of Hong Kong’s six most senior Group 1 races that has so far eluded Moreira. Last year he sided with Japan’s Lovely Day, but the favourite was all-at-sea on the rain-softened turf as Werther sluiced clear.
“I’ve never won the race so it would be nice if I could,” he says, but he is not dwelling too much on his QEII blank. “I do look at these races but I don’t put pressure on myself to win those races I haven’t won. If it’s meant to be, then it will be. No one has everything they want!”
Neorealism has a strong claim in this year’s race. The six-year-old chestnut is a classic Japanese late-developer that is expected to peak this term. The Neo Universe entire impressed first-up this year with victory in the G2 Nakayama Kinen (1800m), but it is last year’s G2 Sapporo Kinen (2000m) win under Christophe Lemaire that is really exciting Moreira.
“I’m psyching myself up on that race where he beat Maurice, in the Sapporo Kinen,” Moreira says. “If Maurice was in this race, he would be a hot favourite! So, if he can bring that sort of form to this race, I think he has to be a winning chance.”
Neorealism rounded out last year with two efforts at a mile, both under Moore. A fine third in the G1 Mile Championship at Kyoto and a fair ninth in the G1 Hong Kong Mile at Sha Tin both suggested that the 1600m was on the sharp side, but the experience of the latter could prove vital to success on this return visit.
Against Neorealism will be classic-placed Dicton from France, Australian G1 winner The United States and a select home team that features last year’s runaway winner Werther, as well as two other past APQEII Cup victors, Blazing Speed (2015) and Designs On Rome (2014).
“Obviously, there will be some really good horses in the race, very competitive Group 1 horses - it will be a tough race and whoever wins will not win by a big margin, that’s how I see it,” Moreira concludes. “But I think I’m going to be on board a very nice ride, a horse with a really good chance of winning.”