Joao Moreira lit up a cloud-blanketed Sha Tin on Sunday with a dazzling treble that owed plenty to the fruits of a hitherto infrequent alliance with Richard Gibson.
Not to be outdone, trainer Paul O’Sullivan enjoyed his best start to a campaign in many a season as he bagged a three-timer of his own, taking his running tally to five wins.
It’s not too often that the names of Moreira and Gibson have appeared alongside each other in the race card. It’s rarer still for them to connect for a win: Colorado High’s success in the Class 4 Kennedy Town Handicap (1200m) was only the second ever, My Winner’s score one race later was the third.
Before today, Moreira had ridden just 40 times for the Englishman and their only previous victory together was way back in February 2015, when Sugar City won a Sha Tin Class 4 at odds of 1.9.
“I haven’t ridden a winner for Richard for a very long time and getting two for him today, I’m very pleased with that,” Moreira said after the mid-card brace.
“Richard’s a very professional guy and he knows what he’s doing. Unfortunately, I haven't had many opportunities to ride for him in the past, but lately he’s been giving me some rides and they’ve been good ones.”
Gibson pointed out that it’s not easy to book the three-time champion.
“It’s rare that we can get our hands on Joao but it often pays dividends when we do,” he said.
Colorado High’s first career win in the Class 4 Kennedy Town Handicap (1200m) hinted at a decent future, given that it was the four-year-old’s fourth start.
“He won quite impressively and I wouldn't be surprised if Richard stepped him up a bit further, he’s one of those up-and-coming horses,” Moreira said after nailing a length and a half win.
Moreira delivered a sweet ride on My Winner in the Class 4 Lung Fu Shan Handicap (1400m). The five-year-old, first-up for the term following a stable transfer, was dropped-in second last on the fence as the field of 14 rounded the top turn.
“From an awkward draw (13), to get in that winning position was an excellent effort from Joao,” Gibson acknowledged. “My gut feeling was that the horse had improved since we got him, more relaxed, and I think there’s more to come from the horse.”
My Winner responded to Moreira’s urgings and, as the gaps opened, the gelding kept on finding to run down the Zac Purton-ridden Sprint Forward for a half-length success.
“Amazing job by Richard,” the ‘Magic Man’ said. “He’s definitely improved this horse, whatever he’s done it’s paid off.”
Moreira completed the trio with a sweet ride on the Danny Shum-trained Good Runners Way in the Class 4 Mount Davis Handicap (1650m, all-weather).
“I’m lucky Joao rode the horse otherwise he wouldn’t have won. He’s always been an outstanding jockey, he and Zac Purton, they’re both outstanding,” Shum said.
Joao Moreira and Richard Gibson, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club
O’Sullivan’s treble Dance
Chicken Dance impressed with a length and a quarter victory under Karis Teetan in the Class 3 Shek Tong Tsui Handicap (1200m) to complete a good day for O’Sullivan.
The Hinchinbrook gelding took his record to two wins from four starts as he followed stablemates Band Of Brothers and Hidden Spirit to the winner’s arch.
“It’s a good day, we looked at the programme and thought 6 October would be the first day we’d have some reasonably good horses stepping out. It’s very pleasing because if you walk home not training a winner after stepping some of your better horses out, it’s a long walk, even though it’s only 100 yards,” O’Sullivan said.
“Chicken Dance is quite a promising horse, especially when he starts to go a little bit further. I think he’s pretty progressive.”
Band Of Brothers rallied to land his fourth win from his sixth start and ensure that champion jockey Purton left the track with a double.
“Zac seemed to think he idled in front. When you look at his last two runs, he’s going to get picked up both times and when they get to him, Zac says it’s there. He got to the front a long way off, waited for them to come and then fought them,” O’Sullivan said.
Runner-up War Room, under Blake Shinn, looked set to overhaul the leader deep in the run but Band Of Brothers reasserted close home to land the Class 3 Sai Ying Pun Handicap (1400m) by a neck.
“It gets tougher and he’ll have to keep improving. In time he'll be a good hard-hitting Class 2 horse, I imagine,” the trainer added.
O’Sullivan’s first win of the day came in race three when Hidden Spirit prevailed under Teetan.
The heavens darkened and dumped a torrent of rain through the running of the Class 5 High West Handicap (1650m, all-weather), but that didn’t hamper Teetan, nor did it faze race caller Brett Davis.
“As they come toward the corner, I can't even pick it up to be honest!” Davis said, but his commentary didn't falter as Sunny Major led the field out of the obscuring gloom on the home turn.
Teetan was at that point making a wide, closing move on Hidden Spirit (121lb). The galloper seemed to relish the conditions, ploughing centre track to a length and a quarter win.
Ever the wag, O’Sullivan was in impish form when asked whether or not he was worried when the rain came on so heavily.
“I think it worried Teetan a bit – he couldn't see where he was going,” he said, adding with a mischievous twinkle, “but he rides very well when he can’t see where he’s going!”
O’Sullivan is not noted for producing first-up winners but Hidden Spirit has been based mostly at Conghua since January and the handler acknowledged the Mainland facility’s role in preparing the two-time winner.
“He’s been up at Conghua, so he’s had a couple of trials there and it’s a big help to get them up there. It definitely helps them because mine don't usually do a lot first-up,” he said.
“He’s well-adapted to the dirt and there’s an 1800-metre race at the end of the month and depending on what the handicapper does he’ll be competitive again. If or when he gets to Class 4, time will tell, but he’s just a dirt 1650-metre horse.”
Purton’s earlier success was achieved when the Dennis Yip-trained Crown Avenue made it two wins on the bounce with a front-running effort in the Class 4 Central Handicap (1800m).
Moreira missed out on a four-timer when the Douglas Whyte-trained Uncle Steve, with Alberto Sanna in the plate, took advantage of a low weight to hold Heztheoneforus in the finale, the Class 2 Sheung Wan Handicap (1400m).
Jockey Dylan Mo and trainer Me Tsui took the opener, the Class 5 Belcher Bay Handicap (1800m), with Curling Luxury.
The afternoon’s trophy contest, the Class 3 JCI Hong Kong Senate Cup Handicap (1650m), went to the Tony Millard stable. Matthew Poon (123lb) lifted the handler’s Rickfield through a strong stretch run to see off runner-up Warm The Voice (129lb) by a neck.
Hong Kong racing continues at Happy Valley on Wednesday, 9 October.
Paul O'Sullivan, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club