It’s a kind of magic

A bold Brazilian has conquered Hong Kong on horseback. Joao “Magic Man” Moreira, the jockey who is dominating one of the toughest racing circuits on the planet.  

‘And this is where the magic happens.” 

For long enough that phrase belonged to the hit MTV show Cribs, a cheesy but strangely compelling offering in which assorted rappers and ballers allowed cameras into their not-so-humble abodes, before delivering the payoff line as the door to a satin-sheeted bedroom was teased open. 

But nowadays the magic happens mainly in Hong Kong. And it happens twice a week, when most Brits are either pondering what to have for Wednesday lunch or rubbing sleep from their eyes as Sunday morning dawns. Joao “Magic Man” Moreira is the smiling Brazilian face of a racing franchise that is gaining significant traction in the British betting market. 

However, on a busy barrier trial morning at Sha Tin, he’s just as keen to talk football. The deep brown eyes that watered slightly at the price he had to pay to secure a pitchside seat for the Champions League clash between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich light up at the memory of a balletic move from fellow Brazilian Marcelo.

And the Manchester City fan present (yours truly) is delighted to hear that Moreira feels wonderkid Gabriel Jesus “was the best bloody player in the country” before injury intervened. 

Moreira’s back-story will be familiar to some British fans, but a recap is essential to understand what has shaped the character of a man who, in the words of local training legend John Moore, has “tipped Hong Kong racing upside down”.

Born into grinding poverty in a shack in the southern Brazilian state of Parana, Moreira was the youngest of eight, born by accident after his mother’s sterilisation operation failed. A startlingly frank interview with Michael Cox of the South China Morning Post just before Royal Ascot in 2015 read like the prototype for a racing rags-to-riches movie.

Too hungry to sleep; unable to attend a friend’s funeral due to having no shoes; delinquent behaviour as gangs beckoned; and squashing rats by torchlight as the wind whistled through holes in the wall.

That’s a challenging Yankee by any standards, but Moreira took the skills he used on stolen ponies in the dead of night as a kid and honed them into two championships in Sao Paulo, which funded the purchase of a new house for his mother.

Mum would still prefer to have her son there, but by now the young tearaway, fuelled by a conviction that the non-footballing Jesus was in his corner, was off and running.

Things didn’t click in France or the UAE. But they certainly did with a move to Singapore in 2009. Moreira raised the bar with record numbers in the Lion City – including a flawless eight from eight at Kranji in September 2013 – and he has scaled even giddier heights since moving to Hong Kong. True, there was more than a little local difficulty with the stewards in the early days, but Moreira has shredded the record book since.

Douglas Whyte’s 2006 record of 114 winners was smashed when the Magic Man rattled off 145 in 2015. Last season’s new record of 168 looks certain to be bettered again this year, and Moreira went global with a historic eight-timer at Sha Tin in April which saw him share the front page of the South China Morning Post with a heavyweight story about the Chinese Premier’s stern warning over HK independence.

So what sets Moreira apart? Maybe he isn’t that special. After all, he lies only seventh in the TRC global jockey rankings. The fact that those worthy ratings are based solely on group and graded contests is the sticking point here, but could any of a top six headed by Moore, and also including Hugh Bowman and Frankie Dettori, hope to match the level of dominance exerted by Moreira on a circuit where brutally competitive handicaps dominate? I very much doubt it. Horses that any reasonable judge would price up at 6/1 will routinely go off nearer 6/4 on the HK Tote if Moreira is booked.

 The fact that his low, crouched “hide-behind-the-horse” style is winning one in four races tells a tale of unprece­dented dominance, and Richard Monahan, one of the key men responsible for pricing up the Jockey Challenge market, reports plans afoot to handicap Moreira in a bid to make the hugely popular local bet competitive again. The Jockey Challenge was over before the lunchtime plates were cleared on 5 March, and aspects of that eight-timer were strikingly similar to a feat achieved much closer to home back in 1996.

True, there were a couple of steering jobs that most seasoned pros would have made look routine. However, Moreira was sublime in floating from a wide draw to the inside rail and out again aboard Cool And Neat for his fifth success. By the time commentator Brett Davis called Prawn Baba home with the perfect payoff – “a wave of the wand, a puff of smoke and the Magic Man pulls one out of the hat and makes it eight” – there was an air of something astonishing yet inevitable happening.

Frankie Dettori tasted that feeling first-hand dur­ing his Magnificent Seven at Ascot and has no doubt that Moreira deserves all the accolades his golden spell has garnered. 

“I haven’t had the pleasure of riding with Joao that often but his statistics are incredible,” says Dettori. “It’s very hard in Hong Kong, but he’s very good from the gates and always finds himself in the right positions. The numbers don’t lie. He’s ridden twice the winners of his nearest rival in Hong Kong. He’s ridden eight winners in a day more than once. Everything you see tells you he has to be an outstanding jockey.” 

Significantly, Dettori adds one caveat when asked whether Moreira would replicate his success in Europe. “He’d have to adapt if he came to Europe because it’s not all about sprinting here,” he adds. “We’ve got to go a mile and well beyond, so he would have to change his tactical awareness, but he’s proved himself in Dubai and Australia so I’m sure he would have no problem.”

Moreira’s response when I ask him about Dettori gives a broad hint that his own stardom owes more than a little to studying a certain Italian from afar. 

“I’ve followed Frankie ever since I was an apprentice in Sao Paulo and he’s the most brilliant jockey I have ever seen,” he says. “Frankie is what I say is a ‘calculist’. By that I mean he knows how to time his run perfectly – not just once or twice, but almost all the time. His posture is amazing and he knows exactly how to socialise and deal with people, and that is very important for a jockey if he wants to make a career last.”

Moreira’s career already includes a Shergar Cup winner for Godolphin and a desperate near miss at the 2015 Royal meeting when the 50/1 shot Medicean Man came within a short head of landing the King’s Stand Stakes.

The appetite to return is keen if the right ride is offered, but Moreira doesn’t hesitate when asked which big European race he’d most like to win. “The Epsom Derby is the one,” he tells me. 

“It seems something very far away for me, but I never thought I would end up riding big winners in Hong Kong and Australia, and to win at Epsom is certainly a dream of mine.”

A quote like that should be music to the ears of Epsom’s PR team, but what Moreira says before getting the leg up on his first trial mount of the day is even more intriguing. “Hong Kong is a place I don’t belong to, but for the time being I’m very happy to be here,” he adds. “Things are going very well and I look on this place as very special. It has been very good to me, so I appreciate that and hopefully I can make good use of other options that are about to come up.”

A man who talks about being very happy to stay for the time being, before tantalising mentions of other options about to come up might just be considering those options very closely. Or maybe he is just being mischievous. Either way, for the time being Hong Kong remains the place where the magic happens. But what is magic if it isn’t about keeping the audience in suspense?

Graham Cunningham is a former Channel 4 and Racing UK analyst, now based in Hong Kong.

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