“There’s really nothing else left for us to achieve in Hong Kong” – Zac Purton on life in the pressure cooker

Hong Kong’s Australian champion speaks to Asian Racing Report’s chief writer David Morgan about his career achievements, competing with Joao Moreira and change in his adopted city.

Champion hoop Zac Purton opens up about his riding future. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)

David Morgan

Chief Journalist


Zac Purton picks up his phone and answers the WhatsApp call that has interrupted his Tuesday routine. It is 3pm: about 27 hours until he sits in front of the clerk of the scales at the top of a nine-race card at Happy Valley. “Good timing: I just got out of the bath,” he says.

The Australian has been living the same Happy Valley Wednesday, Sha Tin Sunday schedule for almost 15 years; refining a regimen of hard fitness, nutrition-packed morsels and steaming dips in the tub when needed, to ensure his lean frame is weighted for action. It has brought him status, wealth and opportunity beyond that which any working class “rat of a boy” from Coffs Harbour – as he once referred to his younger self – could have imagined.

A four-time leading jockey in his adopted city, the man who dethroned the great Douglas Whyte to become Hong Kong’s first Australian champion in 23 years has spent the past eight seasons running head-to-head in the premiership with his Brazilian counterpart Joao Moreira, another who has reaped the rich rewards of Asia’s once bona fide ‘world city’.

But Purton is now 39, Moreira is approaching the same age, and, set against a backdrop of social upheaval and uneasiness in Hong Kong, there is between them an awareness rooted in realism that their long-running duel is unlikely to continue too far into the future.

“I think we’ve both been able to achieve what we wanted to do,” he says. “There’s really nothing else left for us to achieve in Hong Kong: we’ve ticked every box and done everything. The point comes: Where does a bit of boredom start to creep in? Do you start to look for other things to achieve?”

Hong Kong has long been a prized destination for jockeys thanks to high prize money, low tax and just two meetings a week. Yet rumours and speculation about whether or not Purton and Moreira will remain in Hong Kong or leave to attack new challenges are commonplace around the circuit and have swirled, on and off, ever since the Brazilian stunned the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s (HKJC) bigwigs with his move to Japan – aborted after four months when he failed the JRA licensing test – in July 2018.

I think a lot is going to change in Hong Kong in the next five years and I doubt either of us [Purton or Moreira] will be here five years from now.

Moreira’s Japanese fans would, no doubt, love him to return and complete unfinished business, while Purton’s legion of Aussie supporters, cheering on their bloke overseas, would relish his full-time relocation to home shores. So far, though, neither of Hong Kong’s ‘big two’ riders has seen a need to give a definitive answer to the question of when or indeed if they will leave the city.

“I think a lot is going to change in Hong Kong in the next five years and I doubt either of us will be here five years from now,” Purton observes.

But, he says, he is ‘comfortable’ with his career achievements and continues, “I don’t feel I need to go anywhere else to prove anything or do anything. I’d love to win the Melbourne Cup back home but it’s such a hard race to win when you’re just targeting that one race from here and it comes round once a year; and with it being a handicap as well, finding the right horse in my weight range, the odds are slim.

“If I don’t ever win the Cup, it’s not going to change much: if I could win it, great, but it is what it is. That was the option I had. If I really had that desire and wanted to throw myself at it, well then, I probably need to be back in Australia to do it properly. Do I want to do that? Well, I’m pretty comfortable here so….” He leaves the sentence hanging.


Purton combined with Japanese raider Admire Rakti for perhaps his biggest Australian success in the 2014 Caulfield Cup. (Photo by Getty Images)

Hong Kong has become his home. But it is a changed city, turned on its head inside three tumultuous years. In 2019, pro-democracy protests ignited the streets but that political upheaval had little day-to-day impact on the protagonists within Hong Kong racing, who for the most part were insulated within the Sha Tin racecourse compound.

However, in the past two years, the Hong Kong government’s heavy-handed response to the Covid-19 pandemic has turned the city into a place of lockdowns, quarantine, departures, and overwhelming feelings of fatigue and anxiety among those who have remained: a place that seems, from afar, to be a shadow of the global hub once known for its sense of freedom, vibrant society and bustling race tracks. The HKJC, in its commitment to ensuring turnover has kept on rolling, took an even stricter approach than the government, and those measures in turn have taken a mental and physical toll on racing’s participants.

The twice-a-week racing continues to give an appearance of a version of normality, whatever that might look like in an ever-shifting ‘zero Covid’ environment. But a spike in positives could, at any time, prompt yet another citywide shutdown, a racecourse lockout and perhaps even a return to the strictest version of Sha Tin’s ‘racing bubble’, endured and so disliked by those who were trapped within its confines for several months.

“Hong Kong is resilient, it always bounces back, and it’s a strong racing jurisdiction with high turnover on the tote and lucrative prize money. I think, ultimately, it will stay the same at its core,” Purton opines.

“It’s going to have a different feel to it though. I probably know more people that have left than have stayed, local people as well as expats, and whether they’re going to come back in the next 12 months, I don’t know. It’s going through a new phase at the moment but it survives, it always has and it always will.”

Hong Kong is resilient, it always bounces back… It’s going through a new phase at the moment but it survives, it always has and it always will.

Purton has ridden his way to more than 1,400 wins since he moved to Hong Kong in 2007. He had already made his name in Australia as a talented, at times troublesome, rider whose cocksure precocity carried him to a Brisbane premiership while still an apprentice. That, a couple of Group 1 wins and running second in the Sydney premiership, all by the age of 24, placed him high on the HKJC’s wish list.

As most jockeys do, he at first found it difficult to gain traction in Hong Kong when lined up against established titans like Whyte, Brett Prebble and Gerald Mosse. Many a rider has landed at Chek Lap Kok airport with a notion that talent, hard graft and a positive demeanour will see them good but it takes a deal more than that. Purton figured out how to navigate the minefield of owner relations, trainer relations, the media circus, the management structure, and the ruthless dog-eat-dog culture born of a system in which jockeys are their own booking agents; in fact, he mastered it.

He ended his first season with a solid 29 wins, rising to 43, then 48, with gains each campaign through to his maiden premiership victory in 2014, which he achieved with 112 wins, at the time the second highest tally in Hong Kong history. Then along came Moreira.

Purton versus Moreira, a celebrated rivalry. (Photo by Getty Images)

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.”



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