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Hong Kong’s champion has forged an important connection with John Size that has pushed him to within reach of Joao Moreria’s 170 wins in a season, but will his body hold together long enough to chase down Douglas Whyte’s all-time tally?
Zac Purton is two and a half weeks away from the completion of a season that in the years ahead might give extra burnish to his gilded legacy. He had his sixth championship locked up months ago, and the expectation from seemingly every quarter is that he will break Joao Moreira’s record of 170 wins in a season.
He has chalked up 160 wins so far – including Group 1s on Lucky Sweynesse and California Spangle – and has seven meetings to collect the 11 he needs. But the challenge of topping the 170 mark has, he admits, been tougher than he expected, despite the positive of this season’s alliance with Sha Tin’s kingpin trainer John Size, another man chasing down a hard-to-attain Hong Kong record.
Purton’s body is “patched up,” and, even though he has banked a massive haul, the winners have not flowed as readily as he had expected they would once his great rival Moreira departed the scene early last autumn.
“It’s been difficult: I thought I was going to get more support than I’ve ended up getting” he tells Asian Racing Report. “After Joao left, I thought I’d have a lot of offers thrown at me.”
He was “put on the bench” by his long-time supporter Danny Shum, and the successful Frankie Lor and Francis Lui stables have not come up with the numbers of winners he had hoped for, choosing instead to place more of their faith in the competency and skill of homegrown jockeys, Vincent Ho and Derek Leung, as is their prerogative.
That being so, the Size relationship has been vital, not in terms of the champion jockey title – he is 74 wins clear of Ho in second place and Size has provided 35 wins – but certainly the record.
For most of the years since Purton arrived in the city back in 2007 the two Australians operated at Sha Tin independently of each other; there was the odd coming together, now and then, notably Luger’s Derby victory of 2015, but Size was connected to Purton’s rivals, first to the 13-time champion Douglas Whyte and then to the ‘Magic Man’, Moreira.
This time last year, the Size-Moreira axis began to crumble and Purton stepped in. The champion jockey’s relationship with the champion trainer has cemented since Moreira left Hong Kong, the Brazilian’s mental wellbeing at a low and hobbled by a longstanding hip injury that will in time spell the end of his career. Purton’s time to connect with Size had come.
“Maybe the opportunity was never there for us to work together or it just wasn’t the right time before,” Purton says. “But now is the right time and I’ve appreciated his support and hopefully we can do the same thing again next season.
“I’ve found him very easy, straightforward, and good to deal with. He wants to win, he’s like me, he does whatever he can to get the best out of his horses and that includes doing his form for race day as well. He knows how he wants the horses ridden, I know how I would like to ride them, so that makes it fairly easy as well. I’ve just found him to be a no-nonsense, no-fuss trainer. He doesn’t complain, he doesn’t get emotional, it’s just pure business and I think it’s worked out well for both of us.”
Purton has not long returned from a rare but needed freshen up, a few days in Phuket with family and friends – no need to race last week, thanks to World Pool giving Royal Ascot exclusivity in the Hong Kong pools – and he is preparing his battle-weary body for the final push.
The record is his focus. But he has learned to take nothing for granted: in this sport, a jockey is only a misstep away from injury. Then there is the annual late-season puzzle to work out: which horses still have enough in the tank to produce their form?
“Nothing is ever a given, nothing is ever guaranteed,” he says sagely about going past the 170 mark. “It’s hard enough to ride a single winner here in Hong Kong, let alone having to ride multiple winners at the meetings to try to get to that number, so it’s not easy at all.
Those protestations might seem hollow given that he has ridden a four-timer and a five-timer at the last two meetings, but the last two weeks of Hong Kong’s 10-month season really are a tough grind for horses and jockeys. This time last year, he was left empty-handed at the final June meeting and the first fixture in July, then rode three winners total from the next three fixtures before ending with a final day four-timer to see-off Moreira for the title by four wins.
“It’s hard to know which are the right horses to be on at this stage of the season,” he explains. “Horses are very tired by this point, it can get incredibly hot, drawing good gates is important, and the formbook isn’t as easy to read as it might seem because of those factors. It can be a bit of a lottery and I just have to hope things go my way.”
Hong Kong’s two-meetings-a-week programme might seem at a glance like a part-time gig when compared to jockeys in other countries that travel hundreds of miles a day for rides, but it is a demanding lifestyle nonetheless and after 15 years on the grind, Purton’s 40-year-old body continues to feel the toll.
“The track is open for trackwork every day but I only go Monday to Saturday,” he says. “I give myself Sunday morning off because we race on Sunday, then also race on Wednesday night, and we have barrier trials most Tuesdays and Fridays.
“When we race on a Sunday, which is the majority of the weekends, we actually never get a day off in the whole week. We race through the whole season like that; now and then we race Saturday to give us the Sunday off, but the grind is wall to wall; in the environment that we’re in it certainly wears you down a bit.”
This year he was helped by being able to do a couple of quick fly-in-fly-out trips to Australia to race after three years of Hong Kong government and Hong Kong Jockey Club lockdowns and restrictions on travel. He bagged three Group 1 wins and says that just being able to get out of Hong Kong was good for the mind. But the body still pays a price.
“When you’ve got an injury it’s very hard to get through because you can’t give it a break, you’re expected to be out there every day,” he says. “Then as well as what we have going on the track, we have our physio, our personal training, a lot of the guys will ride their bikes, they go for hikes, running, swimming, some of us play golf and tennis, throw in yoga and Pilates as well and we have a lot going on, physically.”
Purton’s injury issues are something he knows he knows he must manage properly. He had toyed with riding “a couple of weekends in Japan,” this summer but has opted to rest his body.
“I just thought for the longer-term view it would be better to use that time to recover the best I can and then come back for next season,” he continues.
“I’ve had a problem with my hip flexor, lower back and my upper thigh, from my knee up to my hip, all season. I just haven’t been able to get it right and that’s just from the constant battle that I have to put it through, so I have to continue with physio and keep patching myself up to get back out there and get through to the end of the season. Hopefully, by giving it the six weeks off this summer, I can come back next season and put it behind me.”
When next season comes around he will be focused again on riding the best horses he can and winning as many races as possible. But in the back of his mind will be the thought that Douglas Whyte’s all-time Hong Kong record is a couple of hundred wins distant (222 as of now).
“It’s certainly starting to become more appealing,” he admits, adding, “it’s not something I’m going to actively try and pursue though.”
After all, everything depends on his physical condition and he knows the clock is ticking on that front. He references a comment he made during a video interview with Asian Racing Report’s editor Michael Cox last year, putting a timeframe on retirement – claiming he would not be riding in two years – and the questions he had to parry for months afterwards.
“At some stage my body is going to tell me it’s had enough and then it’s going to be time to do something else,” he says. “I don’t want to put a time limit on it, it’ll just be a matter of whether my body can continue physically to allow me to ride at the level that I want to ride at.”
A summer of rest will help, the mental reinvigoration of more big-race raids offshore will too, but the wear and tear will catch up. Purton has seen it happen to others, to Moreira, and he knows no one can escape the natural deterioration as middle-age advances.
He has a couple of weeks to nail the 171. But does he have a couple of years to top Whyte’s all-time mark? Time will tell. But Purton isn’t making any predictions.
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