After a six-week offseason, this Sunday (September 2) kicks off the new Hong Kong racing season, after what was a remarkable end to the 2017/18 season.
The enthralling battle between two of the world’s finest riders, Zac Purton and Joao Moreira, for the Jockeys’ Championship created global interest, making every single race an important one as the season drew to a close. It was a battle that went down to the wire, having to be decided on the final day of the season, which stretched over the course of 88 meetings and 807 races.
The 2017/18 season wasn’t short of talking points and memorable moments. The Jockeys’ Premiership was just one major subplot of a fascinating season. Trainer Frankie Lor would exceed all expectations with his second-place finish in the premiership, 22 wins behind his former master John Size – a record for a first-season trainer. Who could forget the antics of Pakistan Star, who originally gained a cult following for his phenomenal finishing power, before garnering worldwide attention for stopping in his races. He would overcome his behavioural problems and conquer dual Group 1 races, enhancing his already enormous popularity.
Time Warp would become the first horse to ever break the two-minute barrier over the 2000m at Sha Tin on his way to winning the Group 1 The Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup. And on the eve of the HKJC’s Licensing Committee’s announcement of jockey contracts for the upcoming season, Joao Moreira would shock the racing world with his decision to Hong Kong in the hope of gaining a licence to ride in Japan.
We take a look at some of the bigger players to look out for in the 2018/19 Hong Kong racing season…
Purton’s effort to win the Jockeys’ Premiership last season should not be underestimated. In fact, it was nothing short of astonishing. Purton ended the season with 136 winners (his best ever total) and a strike rate of 21.42%. When you look at the statistics, you get a feel for just how enormous an achievement it was for him to topple the Magic Man. Purton was on the back-foot right from the word go, with Moreira riding the first five winners of the very first meeting. During Moreira’s three-year championship reign, he’d ridden 483 winners compared to Purton’s 292. In those three years, Moreira had beaten Purton by 50, 88 and 63 wins. After the April 15th meeting, with 24 meetings in the season remaining, Purton trailed Moreira by 15 winners. Over the course of the final 24 meetings, Purton outscored Moreira by 56 winners to 37. It would take 804 races, but Purton achieved the impossible and beat the invincible, steering Rise High to victory on the final day and clinching the title in the process. What makes it even more impressive is when you consider Purton can only ride 120lb, while Moreira can ride the minimum weight, opening up about 25% more opportunities for him. Not only did the Australian record a personal best tally of winners, but he would claim eight Group 1’s in three different countries (Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia), as well as taking out the International Jockeys’ Championship at Happy Valley in December.
With Moreira now gone, Purton has the Championship all but wrapped up before the season has even started, and looks certain to once again break his record number of winners. Unfortunately, it will be a rare occurrence to get any sort of price about his mounts. What used to be known as the ‘Moreira factor’ might now become the ‘Purton factor’. Even though Purton will have first choice over the majority of the best rides, he can still only ride 120lb, meaning there is plenty of opportunities available at the bottom of the weights. Purton is the only jockey with a full book of 10 rides for Sunday’s opening meeting.
Moreira isn’t the only jockey to have departed the Hong Kong riding ranks. Brett Prebble, Olivier Doleuze and Tommy Berry have also vacated, while Nash Rawiller continues to serve his disqualification. Overall, that’s 229 winners from last season that will be up for grabs this time around. Chad Schofield is one rider with a huge opportunity to build on a successful 2017/18 season. He notched up 38 winners and finished 5th in the Jockeys’ Premiership. With his ability to ride light, Schofield will be able to pick up plenty of rides down in the weights that the likes of Purton physically can’t ride. Now with a couple of seasons experience under his belt, this could be a breakout year for Schofield in Hong Kong.
Much like Chad Schofield, Karis Teetan has the benefit of being able to ride light. Teetan finished 3rd on the Jockeys’ Premiership last season with 52 winners and looks likely to ride plenty more this time around. Importantly, Teetan has the support of leading trainer John Size, who recorded 87 winners last season. It’s no secret that Moreira was Size’s go-to rider and they shared a particularly close friendship. With Moreira gone, Size will need alternate riders to fill the void, and he’s highly unlikely to turn to Zac Purton. That opens up a great opportunity for the Mauritian Magician to try and mount a challenge at the top of the premiership.
If the whispers are to be believed, the Hong Kong Jockey Club are yet to announce one more jockey who will join the riding ranks for the upcoming season. It’s believed that this European-based rider has ridden in Hong Kong previously with a little bit of success. He will join newly-contracted South African jockeys Callan Murray and Grant Van Niekerk, who will be looking to make an immediate impact.
As alluded to above, Pakistan Star created global headlines for his ‘quirky’ temperament just as much as his freakish ability. At the end of the 2016/17 season, he suddenly came to a halt in an 1800m race in which he started the $1.20 favourite. He continued to perform the same thing in barrier trials, earning himself a ban from racing (much like Chautauqua in more recent times). After a six-month hiatus and a bit of time with renowned horse whisperer Monty Roberts, the 5YO returned to the track in February and would go on to claim back-to-back Group 1 victories to close out his season. A crack at the Hong Kong Cup (2000m) at December’s international race meeting looks certain to be on the cards, but when he lines up, he’s one of the more exciting horses in the world to watch. It could be worth keeping an eye on his stablemate Pakistan Friend too, who produced a Pakistan Star-like performance to win at Happy Valley in his only career start to date.
Hong Kong’s equal highest-rated horse with a rating of 128 after claiming the Group 1 The Chairman’s Sprint Prize at just his eighth career start back in April. That was his first crack at Group 1 level after bolting in to land a Class 2 at Happy Valley in the start prior. The scary thing is, this horse still looks relatively untapped, despite having won seven of his eight starts. Zac Purton picked up the ride in somewhat fortunate circumstances leading into the Group 1, but he will be thankful he did as this horse could be the sprinting star the Aussie hoop had been looking for following the retirement of Aerovelocity.
Another horse Purton will be excited about is Hot King Prawn, who profiles very similarly to Ivictory. Ivictory has seven wins from eight career starts, while Hot King Prawn has six wins from seven. He was last seen back in June when taking out a Class 2 sprint at Happy Valley by 2.25L, which saw his rating jump to 112. This season it will be time for him to take on the big boys, and it looks highly likely that Purton will be forced to choose between the two stablemates at one point or another.
The 2018 Hong Kong Derby winner joined a star-studded honour roll when taking out the 4YO Classic in March. He was later tested against Group 1 opposition but was no match for the likes of Pakistan Star. He’s one of a number of horses that create plenty of interest for races such as the Hong Kong Cup. Can he live up to the lofty heights set by previous Derby winners?
A winner of four of his five starts to date and another exciting prospect for John Size.
It’s not hard to see from what’s mentioned above that leading trainer John Size is likely to maintain his position at the top of the Trainers’ Premiership once again in 2018/19. Size has five of the top 12 rated horses in Hong Kong in his care, and with the likes of Ping Hai Star, Hot King Prawn, Conte, and Nothingilikemore still coming through the ranks, he looks set for another big season. Size looks to have a stranglehold on the sprint races, but with equal-highest rated Mr Stunning now under the care of former assistant trainer Frankie Lor, it makes things a bit more intriguing. Size will be hoping Ping Hai Star can go to the next level this preparation, as the middle-distance ranks look particularly strong and other stables are very well represented. The other thing for Size to overcome is the loss of his main man Joao Moreira, who rode the majority of the trainer’s winners for the past three years.
Formerly John Size’s assistant, Frankie Lor went out on his own last season and took the land by storm, notching up 65 winners, a record for a first-season trainer. Notably, most of Lor’s wins came in the lower classes with tried and tested horses from other stables. His ability to turn those horses into winners was quite remarkable and really put his name on the map. With that success is going to come better quality of horses and some big profile owners. We’ve already seen Mr Stunning – the equal highest-rated horse in Hong Kong – transferred to Lor’s stable from John Size. It’s hard to say Lor will be able to bring about the same type of improvement in Mr Stunning as he did with other horses, given Mr Stunning is already a Group 1 winner (and a Group 1 runner-up on three other occasions), but it certainly adds some intrigue to the Group 1 sprints that were previously dominated by John Size. Can Lor mount a challenge this season or will second-year-syndrome take its toll?
We look forward to covering as many Hong Kong race meetings as possible for the upcoming season, starting with Sunday’s season opener! Stay tuned to @Before_You_Bet on Twitter for updates!
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