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Support from friends, fans, owners – but especially his wife Nicole – have Zac Purton second-guessing his retirement plans and the Australian might yet press on in search of the all-time record for most wins in Hong Kong.
When Zac Purton would return home from the races after another frustrating day during the early part of his Hong Kong career and would openly question his future in the city, his then-girlfriend Nicole Cassidy would answer back “But why? We are having such a great time!”
“Even when he wanted to leave, he’d come home after a day where his best finish was a fifth and I would be looking at the positives,” she said.
On Wednesday night Zac and Nicole Purton stood in the Happy Valley parade ring 15 years after those struggles and watched a career highlight reel being played on the infield big screen in honour of the jockey’s 1500 Hong Kong winners, a milestone passed at the previous Saturday’s Sha Tin meeting.
It was another chance for them to reflect on his journey to becoming five-time champion. Inside Purton there was the growing feeling that his long-heralded ‘imminent’ retirement might not be so imminent after all.
Last night at Happy Valley, @zpurton was honoured in front of an adoring crowd with a presentation for reaching 1,500 Hong Kong wins…
— HKJC Racing (@HKJC_Racing) December 29, 2022
“I am more confused now,” Purton told Asian Racing Report of his long stated retirement plan. “I was pretty clear on what I wanted to do but I have had people willing me to go on.”
Purton, whose 39-year-old body has paid the price for his success in the form of numerous bone fractures, kidney stones and back problems, told us in a sit-down interview in September that he “will not be riding in two years” but his recent dominance and outpouring of support, plus the push from his ever-positive wife, has triggered a reassessment.
“Nicole put a good case forward to continue for a bit longer,” he said.
When Purton spoke to us on Friday, he was on a family outing with Nicole and children Roxy and Cash. He handed the phone to Nicole and she made the case herself.
“I think he has an amazing opportunity that any jockey anywhere in the world would be grateful for,” she said. “I know he is the one putting in the hard work, but the support shows how much people love him. At the end of the day it is his decision. But I think he is riding so well, and it is so enjoyable to watch. It is nice to see after all those years of grafting and hard work. It is the icing on the cake.”
Of course it is easier for the couple to see the bright side of Hong Kong racing in 2022 than it was in 2007. Purton is a five-time champion, he has won 26 Group 1s at Sha Tin, a Hong Kong Derby and seven more offshore during his time based there.
Now, after the departure of his long-term rival Joao Moreira, he is making the jockeys’ championship a one-act affair. At the time of writing he has 70 wins from 31 meetings and his nearest rival, Vincent Ho, has 30 wins. Purton’s biggest problem these days is of the quality variety: figuring out which of the dozen or so Hong Kong Derby candidates he has been offered that he will ride in the upcoming Hong Kong Classic Mile.
But in 2007 Purton stepped foot into a jockeys’ room full of hard-headed veterans like Brett Prebble, Shane Dye, Darren Beadman, Gerald Mosse and Felix Coetzee. Dominating them all was Douglas Whyte, not even halfway through his 13-term reign as king of Hong Kong racing.
For the next seven seasons Whyte was Purton’s chief tormentor. It is fitting then that now it is only Whyte that has more career wins (1813) than Purton.
In his speech on Wednesday night Purton reiterated his desire to target Moreira’s single season record of 170, one which at his current rate – injury or suspension aside – he will pass with ease.
But 313 more wins? Maybe. That is what those many supporters are pushing for.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I would have to ride a bit longer, but the way things are going it is tempting. Maybe they would build a bronze statue of me next to the one of Silent Witness?”
Never mind the personal struggles of 2007, for Hong Kong racing’s participants, it is also easier to see the positives than it has been at any time in the last three years. For much of that period strict Covid restrictions and protocols, plus mass departures of expats from the rapidly changing city, has had many questioning their future in Hong Kong, and for some it has contributed to their exits.
The past few months have brought some hope though, and recent race meetings with cheering spectators have made the future seem brighter.
“We have come out of that really hard couple of years,” Nicole said. “Everybody who was here in racing tried to make it a success. Credit to anybody who made those sacrifices, so everybody could get to the races. When things aren’t great, and everyone is feeling it, life is hard.
“But the vibe is great right now, like the cherry on top. At Happy Valley on IJC night, it felt like we were back, it felt like a happy place again. It felt like we were out the other side.”
Trainer Paul O’Sullivan, who teamed up with Purton to win four Group 1s with Aerovelocity, used to call it “going for a walk out on the grass” – when you win a big Group 1 at Sha Tin and the red carpet gets rolled out onto the track and a presentation takes place on a podium.
The Purtons were back there again on Hong Kong International Day after California Spangle’s famous win in the Hong Kong Mile.
“The Queen, Nicole loves getting up there where she belongs on the podium,” Zac teased. “She loves it up there.”
Moreira once said of Purton that “he fits into Hong Kong like a hand in a glove”. He was referring to the jockey and Hong Kong racing’s style and culture, but Nicole has embraced the city itself. She has carved out a media presence of her own. She has made polished appearances on racing media like Hutchi’s Honkers, has appeared in lifestyle magzines and is something of an unpaid brand ambassador for the HKJC.
“The recognition and reflection around Zac’s 1500 wins has made me see how lucky we are,” she said. “We are so blessed to have been brought into the community here. I love Hong Kong, and I appreciate everything the city and the Jockey Club has given us.”
Nicole is the daughter of Hall of Fame jockey Jim Cassidy – who rode until he was 52 before retiring in 2015 – so she understands the risks involved in race riding, and the single-minded commitment it takes to get to, and stay, at the top.
“It never stops though,” she said. “I remember when we first arrived and I saw Felix Coetzee at Beas River one day. He had just won the Derby and I said to him “you’ve made it, it must feel great” and he laughed and said, ‘you never stop the grind’. I know what he means now, but that being said I feel like this is one moment at time that is enjoyable.
“I always laugh that 2007 feels like yesterday when he had that first winner, it doesn’t seem like 15 years, time has gone quickly and so much has happened.”
It is clear that Wednesday’s milestone moment has given Purton some serious pause for thought.
“It means a lot, at the time, when I rode that 1500th winner, I thought it was just another number, but the reception and my reaction to it has surprised me,” he said. “The club CEO said some kind words, and watching the video they put together, looking at the great horses I have ridden and races I have won. It was a moment of reflection, and it did make me feel proud. It is hard enough to ride a single winner in HK, let alone 1500.
“I have had some great support from owners and trainers, it is very satisfying.
“But now we look forward to the future.”
The bad news for his rivals is that the future Purton is clearly thinking about, for now, is riding winners, not retirement.
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