John Size had a two-win lead over John Moore going into Hong Kong’s 2018/19 season finale at Sha Tin on Sunday afternoon. When the last horse crossed the line 11 races later, that advantage had extended to three and an 11th premiership was his.
The Australian ended the day with 78 wins to Moore’s 75, outpointing his rival two to one on the day. His double started with Monkey Jewellery in race four and the championship was wrapped up with Aerohappiness’s victory in the seventh.
“It’s a big relief when you win,” Size said after he had matched Moore’s father George Moore’s record of 11 championships. “It’s difficult, it’s not that easy, so you just have to put your head down and keep going – do your best for every individual in the stable and you might come up with a championship.”
The handler, who turned 65 on Wednesday, acknowledged the effort and commitment of his stable staff.
“You can’t put a price on morale, so when you’re winning it helps everybody, it helps the whole stable. My team has been with me for many years so they know what’s involved, they know that if they keep going it will probably work out well,” he said.
Moore had predicted in the lead-up to today that the battle would “go to the wire”. Size had pointed to the fact that a couple of Moore wins early on the card would “make it difficult”.
Aerohappiness and Joao Moreira, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club
Moore struck in the opener. Size’s advantage was cut to one when Above landed the Class 5 Medic Kingdom Handicap (1800m). The fight was on, it seemed.
“Come on, John!” jockey Zac Purton shouted, with an accompanying fist-pump, as he returned to unsaddle.
“That’s the start we wanted!” Moore said. “That was another gun ride from Zac – he’s riding with such confidence. That steadies the nerves – but just a little.”
Moore needed that score if he was to have a chance in the championship race: the champion jockey needed it in his quest to beat Joao Moreira’s Hong Kong single season record of 170 wins.
Purton’s attempt failed. Needing four wins today to match Moreira’s mark, he fell two short, a double being his return, thanks to a win on Defining Moment in race six.
But there was no failure about his season as a whole: that was a resounding success. Purton’s 168 tally is the second-highest in Hong Kong history; it featured an unprecedented seven Group 1 wins at Sha Tin; his 1000th Hong Kong victory; record prize money of HK$234 .9 million; and a third champion jockey title.
“It’s amazing what I’ve been able to achieve this season – just getting to that number of winners, I don't think anyone thought it was possible,” he said.
“It’s been an incredible season when you reflect back on the milestones, the records and the successes I’ve had – it’s quite astonishing and season it’s going to be very hard to equal and extremely hard to top. I owe everything to the owners and trainers that give me the support. It’s one season that I think I’ll always remember for many different reasons – I wouldn’t have minded if this season had kept rolling on forever!”
The Moore nerves must have resurfaced before the afternoon reached half-way. Joao Moreira galvanized Monkey Jewellery through a late drive to take the Class 4 Victory Marvel Handicap (1200m) and Size’s two-win cushion was back.
“He’s a very young and immature horse, he didn't do things perfectly today,” Moreira said. “We expected him to have a bit more speed but unfortunately he didn't – but it paid off anyway because that was a fast-run race and it suited him.”
When Aerohappiness (126lb) overhauled the Moore-trained and Purton-ridden Hello Beauty (133lb) to win the Class 3 Entrapment Handicap (1200m), the championship trophy was all but sitting on Size’s mantelpiece.
“Aerohappiness can run around a little bit, he hangs in and out but today he was straightforward,” Moreira said. “He did nothing wrong, which wasn’t the case in the past. He has ability, he just hasn't been able to produce it and today he nearly reached what he’s capable of.”
Moreira has been an important cog in the Size team since he returned to Hong Kong in December as the stable’s retained rider. The Brazilian could have relinquished that role but opted to stay on until the end of the season.
“It’s no more than just doing my job,” Moreira said. “I have to get it done the best I can and fortunately it’s paid off (for Size). Whoever won, they both had done enough to deserve it, so I wished them both luck, but as I said before, I was backing Size.”
Any faint hope Moore still held dissolved when the Danny Shum-trained Harmony Victory landed race eight, the Class 1 Sha Tin Mile Trophy Handicap (1600m), taking the championship out of his reach altogether. But the seven-time champion still looked to the positives.
“It’s the most winners I’ve ever had in a season and to fight it out with John Size was really something, we’ve given him a run for his money and that’s not easy,” Moore said.
“We went to a strike rate that was a serious strike rate, just to put John in our sights. It would have been good to go right to the last race but congratulations to John.
“I’m really pleased with how the season worked out,” he added, “Beauty Generation was brilliant, we have Aethero and Thanks Forever coming through too, so I’m happy. It’s been a brilliant season and it’s been down to great teamwork.”
Van Niekerk’s Harmony
Harmony Victory charged late down centre-track to win the day’s feature, the Class 1 Sha Tin Mile Trophy Handicap (1600m).
The win rewarded jockey Grant van Niekerk’s decision not to defer a suspension, which left him free for today’s final meeting.
“I knew I had better rides today and he was one of them. I’m just glad I could end the season off well,” he said.
“If I took my suspension immediately I’d have missed out on my good rides today. I was also hoping to end the season well, to be fresh in the trainers’ minds for next season.”
The Brazilian G1 winner ran with credit in the Four-Year-Old Classic Series for trainer Dany Shum earlier this year and Van Niekerk expects the bay to mature into a Group race performer next term.
“Yes, for sure, he should reach that level,” he said. “He’s a nice horse and he’ll be better next season.
Harmony Victory and Grant van Niekerk, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club