They call him the Magic Man, but his portfolio extends way beyond the stage gimmickry of plucking a coin from behind someone’s ear.
No, Joao Moreira provides his edge-of-the-seat audience with far greater riches than that, yet with just as light a touch.
The little Brazilian jockey has cast his beguiling spell over the racing scene in Hong Kong ever since he arrived in the former British colony seven years ago.
The local punters are arguably the hardest to please in the world – they are certainly the most vociferous and voracious – and if a jockey or a trainer fails to please the faithful they make their feelings well known.
On the other side of the coin, if they take someone to their hearts, the bond can be superglue-strong, and the locals adore Moreira.
There was consternation when the Magic Man – every Brazilian sportsman seems to have some kind of snappy nickname – left town to ride in Japan in 2018, but his departure was short-lived (foreign jockeys hoping to be based in Japan have to pass a written test in English, and Moreira fell at that hurdle) and his return was greeted with delirium.
It’s easy to see why. Moreira makes them money. He is to Hong Kong what Lester Piggott was to 1960s and 1970s Britain, what Bill Shoemaker was to the USA in the same period.
The punters put their faith in him and their dollars on him and he doesn’t let them down. He delivers – no jockey in Hong Kong has ever ridden more winners in a single campaign than Moreira’s 170 in 2016-17 – and they love him for it.
Moreira was runner-up in the jockeys’ championship in his first season in Hong Kong, was champion in each of the following three seasons, then runner-up again to his fierce rival Zac Purton after an epic battle in 2018. Last season his opportunities were hamstrung by that abortive Japanese sojourn, but he is once again heading the standings in this season’s contest as he takes dead aim on a fourth title.
And now, given the paralysing effects of the ongoing global pandemic, Moreira is gaining a new audience in Britain.
British racing fans have had nothing to watch and precious little to bet on for the last three weeks, with the sport shut down in practically every jurisdiction worldwide except Australia, the US and Hong Kong, staged behind closed doors to empty grandstands.
Now the twice-weekly meetings at Sha Tin and Happy Valley – televised at thoroughbrednews.com.au – are gratefully received by hungry racefans used to a lavish daily diet of four or five meetings, and Moreira is the touchstone for all those feeling their way into the unfamiliar landscape.
Last Sunday he rode five winners on a ten-race card at Sha Tin, and just in case the casual reader might be overawed by that statistic, it was mere minor stuff for Moreira.
The 36-year-old has a habit of riding eight winners in an afternoon, something he has achieved in his native Brazil and in Singapore – where the standard is less exacting – and also in Hong Kong, where the standard is high. As we have seen, Moreira delivers.
What makes him so good? Natural, innate talent, of course, allied to an almost otherworldly affinity for the two very different racecourses in Hong Kong. Happy Valley, set down among the skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island, is a tight little oasis of green with sharp bends that naturally favour horses drawn near the rails.
Unless Moreira is on board, that is, in which case the disadvantage of being drawn wide is rendered no disadvantage at all.
Sha Tin, built on reclaimed land in the New Territories, is a more traditional track with wide, sweeping bends and long straights.
It demands very different skills from a jockey, yet Moreira is master here too. His judgement of pace is as precise as any Swiss watch, his tactical awareness immaculate. He is also lighter than Purton – all jockeys are light, but some are lighter than others – giving him a wider pool of horses from which to take his pick.
It all conspires to make magic. Statistically, Moreira is already a phenomenon. That recent Sha Tin five-timer lifted him past 900 winners in Hong Kong, only the fourth rider to reach that milestone (given average luck, he could hoist himself into third spot all-time by the end of the campaign in mid-July).
Visually, too, he is remarkable. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time, unhurried, unworried, and his strength in a finish is considerable for one of his diminutive stature. If one were to design the ideal jockey, he or she might look a lot like Moreira.
There is in every sporting arena heated debate about who is the best at the moment, the best of all time, questions that are unanswerable at an objective level. Racing is no different. Who is the world’s best Flat jockey?
Ryan Moore? Hugh Bowman? Christophe Soumillon? Frankie Dettori? Irad Ortiz? Ask 20 people and you’ll get 15 different answers.
But ask the Hong Kong racegoers, the toughest crowd on the globe, and they’ll tell you that Moreira is the man. The Magic Man, who can conjure winners seemingly out of nowhere, whose sleight of hand puts money in their pockets, puts a smile on their faces.