Via David Morgan, Hong Kong Jockey Club
Zac Purton ended last season as the dominant force in the Hong Kong jockeys’ rank, the senior rider in terms of both years on the roster (12) and wins accrued (1,023). But with the new campaign set to kick off on Sunday (1 September), the champion jockey is not alone in his expectation that this year’s premiership will dish up a tough and riveting battle for supremacy.
“It’s always a goal for any reigning champion to defend their title, so that’s high on the list of priorities, but the competition is a bit different this time around and whether or not I can achieve that will be reflective of the support that I get,” he said.
With a new trainer on the block, an old foe unfettered, a couple of highly-touted new riders in town and any number of unforeseen twists and turns in the months ahead, the three-time Hong Kong champ is unsure about how the season’s challenges might take shape: “It’s hard to say,” he said.
But, at the same time, there are no prizes for guessing who Purton nominates as his likely chief rival: “Joao (Moreira) is the one that stands out, he’s clearly going to be my main competitor.”
Moreira hit the jockeys’ room like a T10 category typhoon in October 2013, storming in across the South China Sea from Singapore to subsequently set benchmarks never before seen: an all-time season high of 145 wins to depose Purton as champion in 2015, followed by 168 and 170 wins to bag three consecutive titles.
The Brazilian’s whirlwind arrival stands in contrast to Purton’s long, grinding rise to the top in Hong Kong. The Australian landed for the start of the 2007/08 season, at the end of which he had 29 wins. He deposed the great Douglas Whyte to bag his first premiership in 2013, having spent six seasons doing the hard yards, riding primarily for lower-tiered local trainers and without consistent backing from the powerhouse yards.
Purton saw off Moreira in an enthralling tussle to take the 2017/18 premiership. The Brazilian left for an ultimately aborted sojourn in Japan and the circumstances of his three months late arrival to last season’s fray and his retainer with the John Size stable undoubtedly helped Purton’s cause. The reigning champ stormed to 168 wins, just two shy of Moreira’s all-time record, with his rival 78 wins adrift in second.
Moreira reaped Group 1 wins for Size last term on Beat The Clock, and no doubt strengthened ties with the champion trainer and his ownership base, but the arrangement also limited his options: if Size had a horse entered in a race, Moreira had to ride it or sit it out. That leash is now removed: Moreira is free to pick and choose.
“It’s unfortunate for me that Joao can ride a lot lighter than I can, which stacks the chips heavily in his favour,” Purton said.
With Karis Teetan and Vincent Ho backing up off personal best campaigns and big-name arrivals in the former Sydney champion Blake Shinn and the precocious two-time South African champion Lyle Hewitson, the field has plenty of talent.
“We’ve got two new riders who are coming with reputations and are in good form,” Purton observed. “We’ve got guys who have done well last season, Karis and Vincent, there’s no doubt that they’re going to get support again, so it’s probably a bit of a sliding doors moment. Jockeys are going to get their opportunities; I just hope I’ve built up enough of a support base over my time here and that I continue to get that support and crack on and do what I’ve been doing.”
Purton has eight rides on Sunday’s 10-race card. Moreira is the only jockey with a full book of 10.
“The start of every season is always a little bit wishy-washy,” Purton said. “Some trainers don’t prepare their horses to get going early, some trainers do and I don’t ride too much for the trainers that really get cracking early. I’ve been a notoriously slow starter in the past and that’s been frustrating but it’s just a reflection of the stables that I ride for.”
Purton has one ride – Easy Go Easy Win – on the weekend for a past rival and Hong Kong’s newest trainer, Whyte.
“It looks like Douglas has a number of horses that are well-rated and he’s got a lot of horses that have come in and are yet to race, and they’re probably a little while off,” he said.
“I’m not quite sure who are going to be his go-to jockeys, he seems to have every jockey on the roster there riding work for him, so I don’t think he knows himself at the moment, I suppose he’ll just play it as it comes along and whoever gels with him and seems to have the luck with him, I’m sure he’ll just roll with them, whether that’s me or someone else, we’ll just have to wait to see.
“I’ve got a number of stables that I ride for,” he continued, “so I’m not relying on one yard. I think that as we get into the season, that should help me.”
Purton last term set a new record for Group 1 wins in Hong Kong, thanks largely to the incredible exploits of his most famous partner, Horse of the Year Beauty Generation.
“The big races and the horses at the top end of town are the ones that I enjoy riding,” he said. “I had a great year last year in the Group 1 races, I’ve had a good run in all the Group 1 races for a long time now, so I’m just hoping that continues and we can continue to break records and set new benchmarks.”