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Ten years ago Zac Purton suffered a painful defeat in the title race but the once vanquished contender is now a season-record holder and six-time Hong Kong champion.
Zac Purton stretched his clenched fists heavenward, looked up to the sky and smiled broadly. It was not the first time he had celebrated an important win: a barrel full of Group 1 scores and six Hong Kong champion jockey titles mean he is well accustomed to saluting victories. But this was different, and the delight beamed out through that smile like a torch uncovered.
Purton had just ridden his 171st winner of a long season that brought with it painful injuries and an extra load of pressure, much of the latter having been self-inflicted. Gone was the awesome 170 benchmark Joao Moreira had established as Hong Kong’s all-time season high; Purton had added another record to his legacy.
“You get a chance to win a Group 1 a few times a season, you get a chance to win a premiership once a season, but the chance to break a record, that doesn’t come around very often and it’s the only chance I’m going to get to do that,” he tells Asian Racing Report two days after marking up another notch in Hong Kong racing history.
“It takes a brave man or a stupid man to publicly come out and say what I said, that I was going to try and break the record,” he laughs knowingly, acknowledging the pressure that came from his statement, but the win at Sha Tin last Sunday aboard Magic Supreme was the release valve.
“If I didn’t get it done this time the opportunity was never going to be there for me to do that again, there was a lot at stake,” he re-emphasises, and tries to find the right words to explain his emotions. “It did feel special … it wasn’t a feeling of satisfaction … I don’t know, it wasn’t overwhelming, it just felt good.”
It was very different to how he felt 10 years earlier, in July 2013. That season he had given all he could in trying circumstances and had been beaten to what would have been his first title: instead, he was left in pain, defeated, as Douglas Whyte stretched his incredible sequence of championships to 13. But out of that experience Purton emerged stronger.
“I felt like I had what it took to win the premiership that year, and he and I were going head-to-head and then I had the kidney stones about a month out from the end of the season,” he recalls.
Anyone who saw Purton riding in the final few weeks of that campaign would remember the sickly, drawn countenance as he went out to ride in races: the usually cool, stylish sit was taut and tense, bracing against the pain and the strain of putting his body through the mill twice a week; he looked stretched and fatigued. Surgery was required but it did not go well.
“I basically developed gangrene and was readmitted to hospital,” he says. “I ended up missing four meetings out of the last eight and Douglas kicked away from me and won that premiership. But what it did, it gave me the belief that he could be beaten and I could do it.”
Purton recovered his health, trained hard during the off-season and returned with an unshakable determination to take Whyte’s crown. He nailed what was then the fastest 50 in Hong Kong and had his rival ‘on the ropes’ from the get-go.
But that season was also the dawn of the Moreira era. The four-time Singapore champion arrived in Hong Kong with the season already six weeks in and notched 99 wins to Purton’s 112, but it would have been much closer had not Moreira lost more than 20 race days through suspensions. The writing was on the wall.
“When Moreira arrived in the October then the battle was between myself and Moreira: Douglas was left in our dust and it stayed that way,” Purton says.
By the time July 2015 rolled around, Moreira was utterly dominant and Purton was usurped as champion after one season. The man from Curitiba had smashed him back into second place with an incredible tally of 145 wins, the Brazilian phenomenon pushing the all-time benchmark to a high figure no one had thought possible and Purton was beaten a distance.
“That was a really difficult period because I felt I had worked so hard to get to the top and then this guy walks in that’s just arrived and the top stable in Hong Kong gives him all the support in the world, in John Size, as well as everyone else,” Purton says.
“He could ride the minimum weight; trainers and owners were waiting until after the entries came out so he could select which ones he wanted to ride, he had so much control of the place. There was just a wave of support for him, it was like Moreira mania had hit town. There was nothing anyone could do about that; he was this storm that had blown in and was raining on everyone’s parade and I just had to accept that.”
Moreira pushed on and registered 168 wins the next season and then to another record, 170, in 2017-18. For a time, through 2015, 2016 and 2017, it looked like Moreira would dominate for a decade, at least; expectations were through the roof as to what he might achieve. But all the while Purton was not idly accepting his lot, and when Moreira’s move to Japan in 2018 failed and he returned to Hong Kong after the season was underway, the Australian ace was equipped to take advantage.
“I had to sit back and watch it all unfold, try and learn from him, study what made him better than everyone else, and then over a period of time I started to implement some of the things he was doing into what I could do,” he says.
“I started finding faults in the way he was riding and using that against him; and slowly just kept chipping away until once again I got into that position where I could be competitive with him again.”
Purton has now won five of the last six premierships for six titles all told, and Moreira’s departure early this season was one of the factors that opened the possibility of him surpassing his old rival’s records: he reclaimed the ‘fastest 50’ record and now he has the all-time full season tally as well.
“The weights being raised two pounds was also important,” he says, noting that the rise to 115 last year helped him, given he rides at a 120 minimum. “It went from ruling me out of 25 percent of the horses in every race to ruling me out of maybe 15 percent of the horses. And, with Moreira and John Size splitting, that gave me the opportunity to ride for him, and that has given me a large support base as well.
“It was a case previously where if I rode a nice griffin having its first start and it won nicely, I’d lose the ride next start because I couldn’t do the weight on it: Moreira would pick a lot of those horses up; if they went and won two, three, four races, I’d miss out on the second, third and fourth wins because I couldn’t make the weight the second time, Joao would get on it and would keep it.
“A lot of those horses this season I’ve been able to get on, so you get the extra winners there and the more winners you ride, the more it snowballs and the more support you get; it ends up just rolling with the momentum.”
Purton’s momentum in the last 10 years has seen him battle determinedly to get to the head of the table, lose that position and doggedly work his way back to not only regain it but also dominate; and he has done it with aplomb, riding champions along the way, like Beauty Generation, Exultant and Aerovelocity.
“When I was deciding whether I was going to stay in Hong Kong this season or return to Australia and either retire or continue to ride, it did give me a period of time to reflect on some of the things I’ve been able to achieve here. It doesn’t really matter what I do from this point on, my legacy is already set,” he says.
His record says he is one of Hong Kong’s all-time greats but he says he will leave that for others to judge.
“The way I’m viewed will be decided by other people,” he says. “I can’t force anyone to recognise what I’ve been able to achieve or not, it’s totally up to them to decide, and it doesn’t really worry me what people think either.
“I do what I do and this is where I wanted to base myself, I wanted to be successful in Hong Kong, I wanted to win the premiership here, I wanted to win the big races here, and over the period of the journey, all that has added up and now I’m able to sit down and reflect on what I’ve been able to achieve and I’m quite comfortable and satisfied with the career I’ve had.”
And it’s not over yet. Purton will take a break this summer and return refreshed. The foot fractures, hip, back and thigh issues, and whatever other niggles his 40-year-old body had problems with this season will have had time to recover and he will go again, with another record ahead of him, the big one: Whyte’s all-time number of Hong Kong wins.
“When my time is said and done,” he adds, “Well, then I’ll be able to reflect on it a little bit more, but it’s been a special season.”
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