Not since Brett Prebble pushed Douglas Whyte to within one win, all of eight years ago, has the Hong Kong Jockeys' Premiership produced a head-to-head duel to the last. But with Joao Moreira clinging to a two-win lead over the fast-closing Zac Purton, this season's contest has the makings of a classic thriller.
The two protagonists, though, hold differing views as to how the race will unfold through the campaign's final 13 meetings.
“I don't think it's a fight, Zac is going past me,” Moreira, the defending champion, said during a candid interview at Sha Tin this morning (Tuesday, 29 May).
Purton, shortly after a steaming barrier trial session beneath a beating morning sun, was not convinced.
“The way I see it, Joao's still in front and people are trying to put the cart before the horse,” he said.
Purton is the man who wrested the title from Douglas Whyte after the South African had dominated for 13 straight seasons. That was in 2014, but for the past three seasons, the Australian has had to play second fiddle to the Moreira juggernaut, the Brazilian ace smashing records seemingly for fun and streaking to wide margin championship wins.
This term, the tide has shifted, even if it has not yet entirely turned. Moreira believes his own imperfections have led to that shift, particularly with how he has dealt with trainers in his attempt to maintain a significant upper-hand in Hong Kong's ruthlessly competitive environment.
“I picked and chose some wrong horses earlier in the season, halfway through, and that got some trainers upset,” he said. “For picking those wrong horses, trainers are not willing to support me as much as they were. That was my mistake, picking the wrong horses and not being able to keep them (the trainers) happy.
“It's okay, because I'm not going to be the one who is able to keep everyone happy,” he said, with almost penitent modesty. “If I was given good rides, I'd definitely be pushing, but the rides I've been getting lately are not good enough to be competitive.”
And with a two-day suspension looming on 6 and 10 June, Moreira fears Purton may now have the edge he needs to reclaim the crown. The numbers show 111-109 in Moreira's favour, with Purton riding at a 20.8 percent win strike rate to Moreira's 19.7 percent for the season so far.
“I'm suspended and 99 percent of the trainers are willing to support him. It seems like he's going to win.”
Purton, fresh from a brace of big wins in Singapore on Saturday and a Sha Tin five-timer the day after, for his part, acknowledges that he is in a good place, certainly better than he has been in any of the preceding three seasons.
“The last three years I just haven't had a chance. Joao had so much support that it was just impossible to get anywhere near him. This season, things have changed a little bit – there seem to be more opportunities.
“I'd prefer to be two behind than 15 behind, so I'm in a nice position,” he said, adding that Moreira is not without solid support of his own.
“Joao's not going to give up and I'm going to try my hardest, so we'll see,” he said. “He's still got good support as well, and that's why he's still in front. John Size no doubt still has some good horses to release and whilst I'm behind, it's not easy chasing, so he's still in the more favorable position.”
Purton is hungry to reclaim the crown and his momentum is rolling, but he is not willing to accept that the title is already his, not with 121 races still to contest before the curtain drops on 15 July.
“The horses at this stage of the season can be a little tired so I just have to hope the horses I'm on can still have something to offer. My horses are running well and that's all I can ask for – that gives me a chance,” he said.
“I've had to work a little bit harder to put myself in this position this season. When I won the premiership, I always felt like I would win because I had support from the outset. This season, I've had to work harder, I've always been behind, and I still am, so every race counts now and we'll see what happens.”
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