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Hong Kong Derby decisions: The money or the bag?

When it comes to selecting a Derby mount, thinking several moves ahead is just the beginning for Hong Kong's 'Chessmaster' Zac Purton.

For the leading jockeys in Hong Kong, decisions are rarely as simple as who is the best horse in an upcoming race.

Zac Purton finds himself in an unprecedented position of power but it almost makes his decisions surrounding the Hong Kong Derby, and its four-year-old series lead-up events, even more difficult.

For all of the hype around the recent Hong Kong International Races, the most significant event in the city is the Derby.

In many ways, the Derby is the race that defines each season; it drives bloodstock purchases, provides a glimpse to the future and places unique pressure on trainers and jockeys.

For four-year-olds and around the midpoint of the season in mid-to-late March, held on Sha Tin’s tricky 2000m course, the Derby is a difficult race to win.

Douglas Whyte started his run of 13-straight championships in 2000-01 but didn’t win the Derby until 2010 (Super Satin), before going back-to-back in 2012 and ‘13 (Fay Fay and Akeed Mofeed).

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Douglas Whyte and Fay Fay win a dramatic Derby. (Photo by Kenneth Chan/Getty Images)

Purton, a five-time champion, whose dominance right now is arguably greater than any jockey in the professional era, knows just how hard it is to win “the race of the lifetime” and he admits it has become a point of frustration.

“I’ve won once, but I have been on plenty of placegetters,” Purton told Asian Racing Report this week. Indeed, California Spangle’s narrow defeat to Romantic Warrior last year is one of five minor placings for Purton, plus a couple of fourths, from 12 rides in the race.

And it isn’t as if Purton hasn’t found himself good rides either – he rode Beauty Generation in 2017, only to bump into freakish four-year-olds Rapper Dragon and Pakistan Star, and then was aboard race favourite Exultant when third the following year.

Both Beauty Generation and Exultant went on to have the most successful overall careers of their respective ‘Derby class’, but were unable to deliver on the big day.

“I have been on the best horse, but on Derby day, they haven’t been ready yet,” Purton said. “What you need is the horse that is best on the day.”

How Purton had his one-and-only Derby winner fall into his lap highlights the predicament he finds himself in this year.

Whyte had ridden Luger in his eight previous starts – including an impressive Class 2 victory one month before the Derby – but with the champion jockey’s relationship with master trainer John Size waning, he was left with a difficult decision.

Whyte and Luger combined to win a 1600m Class 2 over at Sha Tin before Purton took the reins in the Derby. (Photo by Kenneth Chan/Getty Images)

Giant Treasure loomed as the other option for Whyte – a horse that had comparable form on paper, but ended up finishing unplaced. Purton rode Luger to a dominant Derby victory and it opened a door with Size that had previously been closed (further back in the field Joao Moreira had chosen the race favourite Redkirk Warrior … he was unplaced but was subsequently reborn as a sprinter in Australia, winning back-to-back Newmarket Handicaps).

Will Purton face his own ‘money or the bag’ decisions for the Derby and the upcoming four-year-old lead-ups, the Classic Mile and Classic Cup?

As of this week, he was tossing up around ten candidates. One of them, David Hayes’ Straight Arron, was a plain ninth on Sunday and is out of contention for now, while Size’s winner of four-from-five, Sweet Encounter, can put forward his candidature on Sunday in a 1600m extended ratings band Class 3.

Purton has won five times on the nominal Classic Mile favourite Packing Treadmill, but then there is Beautyverse, owned by the Kwok family and trained by Tony Cruz, with whom Purton has shared plenty of success.

Zac Purton and Tony Cruz after Beautyverse's win at Sha Tin in November. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)

Zac Purton scores on Sweet Encounter in December. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)

Just as Whyte had to weigh up factors that had more to do with racecourse politics and relationships than ratings, Purton now has his own loyalties to measure against ‘win now’ instincts.

Given Purton has achieved what he has without the consistent support of a single powerhouse stable, he may give the impression of a gun-for-hire and his demeanour can give off a mercenary vibe. Dig deeper though and much of his success has come from forging relationships and loyalty to trainers and owners.

In 2017-18, Moreira was dominating midway through the season but secretly eyeing an end–of-season exit to Japan, and it became apparent that one of the ways Purton was able to make inroads was because his rival was reneging on too many commitments. Moreira rode for everybody, but nowhere is the saying “you can’t please all of the people all of the time” more true than Hong Kong racing.

As trainer Tony Cruz said of Purton in a recent interview with Asian Racing Report, “He will promise you what date he will ride a horse and he will ride it, he is very reliable like that,” before adding, unprompted. “Moreira, not so much. He might have just put you on hold. He might just check when the entries come up, at his peak he has seven or eight rides he could pick, but Zac wasn’t like that.”

Zac Purton and California Spangle win the Hong Kong Mile. (Photo by Kenneth Chan)

With such a plethora of Derby options, Purton faces a stern test of the political balancing act that helped him to last season’s championship.

“I have been so successful for so many owners, I would love to ride for all of them,” Purton told us. “I can only ride one, anything can happen, but to lock myself into one this far out is a difficult decision to make.”

The first leg of the four-year-old series, the Hong Kong Classic Mile on January 29, looms large. Does he take the best miler, and forgo the better Derby horse? What about the Kwok family and its Beauty horses, which also includes fellow four-year-olds Beauty Inspire and Beauty Eternal?

When California Spangle won the Hong Kong Mile and racecaller Mark McNamara called Purton “the Chessmaster”, he was referring to on-track tactical acumen, but it is just as appropriate a description for the way he handles his off-track business.

When it comes to Derby decisions, and for the four-year-old series, if there is one rider who can have his cake and eat it too – win now, and still be on the best horse later – it is Purton.

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