If the US$30m (£24m) Dubai World Cup meeting boasts the world’s most valuable raceday and the number one horse, Arrogate, it can also brag that it has the world’s best jockey riding whether you believe that accolade belongs to Ryan Moore or Joao Moreira whose phenomenal success has earned him the nickname ‘Magic Man.’
Rating jockeys is very subjective and could keep a debating society busy for its’ winter season but if there is one jockey pressing Moore for the top spot it is Moreira, the Brazilian who was born into poverty but, in Hong Kong where the racing has a legitimate claim to be the most competitive of any jurisdiction in the world, has risen into the sport’s super-elite.
Early in March he rode eight winners from 10 rides at Sha Tin. It was the third time he had ridden eight in a day having also done so in Brazil and Singapore. Last weekend he notched up a five timer (half the card) including the Derby, and last season his 168 winners (£18m in prize-money) smashed the record for a jockey in Hong Kong. He is already on 124 for this season.
With no racing background Moreira, 32, was brought up in a shack in a seaside village near Curitiba in southern Brazil. His family were penniless and, at 16, he joined his brother working for a furniture manufacturer.
“When I was very young I was taken to unofficial races and I fell in love with horses,” he recalled sheltering from the rain on Friday. “I had sat on a pony aged three but when I was nine my friends and I would jump over the wall of a riding school in the night, take the ponies out and ride them bareback with bits made from coat-hangers.
“A horse thief!” he joked. “That is how I started off.”
After six months as a general worker in the furniture factory he heard there was a place available at the local apprentice jockeys’ academy. “I had to resign from the job and by the time all the paperwork was in place the position was no longer available and I was told to become a mafu (stable lad).”
Eight months later he was accepted to the academy in Sao Paulo. “I was there for two years but the first six months were unbearable,” he explained. “I wasn’t good enough. I had no experience and all the other kids had ridden in unofficial races. I was left behind. I thought about quitting a lot and many times I had my bags packed but something always happened to keep me there.”
A trainer, Ivan Quintana, gave him his first ride. “I rode it terribly and he said to me ‘you are not born to be a jockey'. A month and a half later I was getting nowhere but he saw I was still trying and he said 'here, let me help you'. He got me going and without him I wouldn’t be here today – it’s only because of him.”
Through Brazil, then Singapore and now Hong Kong with a summer stint in Japan he might not have quite the fame outside his own sport back home but he is in the same league financially as the more successful footballers from Brazil.
He is intelligent, bright and thinks the same way as Ryan Moore only, unlike his British counterpart, he is more comfortable articulating his thoughts. Like Moore he is also hard on himself and good at blocking out pressure.
“From day one in Hong Kong you are under pressure,” he pointed out. “But I got used to it. I felt it most in the Derby not just because I wanted to win it but I felt everyone was watching me. All jockeys are under pressure but those who cope with it the best succeed and it seems like I can cope with it.
“I was born to ride winners so if I don’t I try to figure out why I didn’t. Either I didn’t give it a good enough ride or I didn’t do the form properly. I can’t say I can pick any horse in a race but I usually have the choice of about 40 per cent. I have to work hard to pick the right ones. Most of the time you get it wrong but if I knew what was going to win every race I’d change jobs and be a punter.”
Leading Hong Kong trainer George Moore describes him as a phenomenon. “He is the perfect build, has a great head, great hands, he reads a race, puts in a lot of hard work in the mornings,” he said. “It all adds up to world class.
He has had a couple of rides in Britain but he does not rule out, one day, spending more time riding in Britain. “Maybe in the future,” said the jockey. “Never say never.”
But John Moore reckons he is very settled where he is. “Hong Kong is very lucky to have him on a permanent basis and there’s no incentive for him to leave. Tax is 15 per cent and he probably has the choice of half of the horses in every race.
“They used to call my father (the Australian George Moore who won the 1967 Derby on Royal Palace in 1967) Cotton Hands and he’s in the same bracket. He can get a horse to travel and kick where others can’t.”
It may have been a long journey from seaside shack in a poor part of Brazil to Meydan’s monolithic grandstand and its multi-million dollar prizes but the stage is set for Moreira to weave his own brand of magic.