Discussion of Purton’s career without mention of Moreira – and vice versa – would be like biting into Char Siu Bao and finding the pork had been left out. Both riders are exceptional, head and shoulders beyond their peers in terms of winners ridden: Purton, the ice cool tactician with a stylish sit and a stern drive; Moreira, agile in the crouch, flowing with emotional energy from stirrups through to reins.
I don’t know if rivalry is the right term to use for me and Joao. It’s a competition, isn’t it?
Purton’s outwardly spikey, altogether mischievous humour contrasts with Moreira’s apparent polite geniality, making it all too easy to peg each as the other’s nemesis. The truth is that both have warmth, each puts great stock in family and the loyalty of close friends and both are fiercely-driven, hard competitors: if not, they would not be at the pinnacle in what is perhaps racing’s most cutthroat environment. There has been needle at times, mind games and manoeuvres, a bit of sledging behind the scenes, to use a cricket term, yet nothing to compare with the finger-pointing rivalry Purton had with Whyte during the 2012-13 campaign.
“I don’t know if rivalry is the right term to use for me and Joao,” he says. “It’s a competition, isn’t it? We just compete with each other and I think we’ve shown over the years that it just comes down to whoever gets the support during any given season as to who will ultimately be champion jockey. We get along as well as you’d expect any competitors to get along. We’ve never had a falling out, we talk; we were actually in the jockeys’ room last week talking about a few things, so we’re friendly.”
Their current contest has Purton trailing by seven: a margin he says will be hard to overhaul. “At this moment the challenge is trying to win the championship but I think it’s already over,” he says.
Such a statement is not unexpected from a canny operator who knows the game well: downplay chances; play up the opposition; shift the pressure to them; everyone roots for the underdog. But then he outlines his reasoning: Moreira’s backers include John Size and Frankie Lor, both battling to be champion trainer, as well as Caspar Fownes who has his string primed for some late-season joy; his own supporters, he says, have tired horses and time is short for finding fresh alliances so late in the campaign.
“It’s a case of me trying to recharge, rest my body in the off season, try and get myself right and hopefully come back for a fight next season,” he says, alluding to the physical wear and tear his 120lb frame has been subjected to over the years.
As recently as December he was caught up in the brutal Hong Kong Sprint fall that left him with four broken ribs, a fractured right wrist, a busted nose and one month on the sidelines, an eight-meeting stretch during which Moreira rode 19 winners and turned Purton’s championship lead into a double digit deficit. Then there are the damaged discs, the low bone density, the debilitating kidney stones he has had to endure, as well as regular muscle and joint niggles any elite athlete approaching their forties must manage.
Purton is now the jockeys’ room’s senior rider but says, “I don’t ever think about that. I’ve survived, if you look at it that way.” His longevity is matched by a long list of Group 1 wins that includes associations with the outstanding champions Beauty Generation and Ambitious Dragon, as well as elite stars like Aerovelocity, Exultant, Military Attack and his Royal Ascot winner Little Bridge.
“You just come here wanting to ride a few winners and be as successful as you can. But, yeah, I never thought I would have been as successful as I have,” he adds.
Wherever, whenever and however Purton decides to finish his time as a jockey, his career achievements make him worthy of Hall of Fame status back in his homeland. The fact that his peak years have been 4,470 miles from where it all started does not diminish his status among his compatriot peers.
After all, very few jockeys make it to the top in Hong Kong and he has done that – for the best part of a decade – by taking on and defeating not one but two of the world’s great riders in Whyte and Moreira. Should he choose to see out another few years on the Sha Tin-Happy Valley circuit, he could even take Whyte’s all-time record of 1,813 Hong Kong wins. With more than 1,400 to his name already, at his current rate, it would not take longer than three and a half years to surpass the ‘Durban Demon’s’ tally.
But, regardless of that possibility, Purton must already rank as one of the all-time great Australian jockeys: perhaps even the best of his generation.
“I’ve certainly come a long way and I think Hong Kong has been the catalyst for that,” he reflects. “You learn a lot more here than you would elsewhere and you learn it a lot quicker, and I think it has changed me a lot. Ultimately, I’m still the same but I’ve also grown as a person.”
Where are they now? Jockey Andreas Suborics