Hong Kong Profile: Zac Purton, Hong Kong champion jockey

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With a history dating back to 1846 in the territory, horse racing is a key part of local culture in Hong Kong. While horse racing industries in many other countries are having difficulty attracting young fans, horse racing in our city generated $107.9 billion in revenue last season. That money allows the sport to afford some of the highest paid jockeys in the world. Australian Zac Purton is one of them.

The 33-year-old, who won $107 million in stakes last season, needs no introduction to Hong Kong racing aficionados. Purton rose to prominence in 2014 when he ended longtime competitor Douglas Whyte’s 13-year-long reign as Hong Kong’s champion jockey. “It was fantastic,” recalls Purton. “It took me seven seasons to build up to that position where I was about to challenge for the title… to be able to win the championship was a dream come true.”

In fact, the accomplishment was the culmination of a lifetime of hard work. The first in his family to enter the sport, Purton admired horses as a child. “When I was young, I always had an affinity with horses. Every time I went to my friend’s house – they had a horse – I always wanted to give it a paddle.” An opportunity to take part in the sport came when Purton was 14 years old. He attended a jockey seminar not far from his home in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales. The smallest and lightest kid present that day, Purton was asked whether he would be interested in a career in racing. “I said I was, and they placed me with a trainer.” 

However, at that time, Purton weighed just 27kg due to delayed growth. He was too light and too weak to control the near-500kg horses that race. It took three years of gym work and eating a special diet for him to be ready to officially commence his apprenticeship in Brisbane in 2000. 

After impressive results in Australia, Purton relocated to Hong Kong seven years later when the opportunity arose. However, the transition was hard. Unlike Australia, there are no racing managers in Hong Kong to liaise with trainers, and Purton has to chase his own rides and book his own races. “The first six months were really, really difficult. I didn’t know any owners and trainers, I had no connections with anyone, so it was really difficult when everyone already had their [established] relationships – the trainers and the jockeys that they like to use. But I love the racing here in Hong Kong, I love the city. I decided to stick it out.”

With persistence – and an active social life – things started to pick up. Steadily, the Australian gained the support and trust of owners and trainers and was provided better quality horses to ride. After winning a couple of races, Purton began to build his name and reputation. “It was a very testing time,” he remembers. “Very character building. It made me a stronger person.”

Despite the difficulties of establishing oneself in Hong Kong, Purton says being able to race in the city is the dream of every jockey. “It’s the pinnacle of racing in the world, but the Jockey Club only allows a certain number of foreign jockeys to come every season.” Hong Kong racing has been generating the highest racing revenue turnover in the world for many years – last season the turnover was approximately $1.3 billion per race. All 10 of the jurisdiction’s eligible races made the World’s Top 100 Group 1 Races in 2015. 

Yet Purton is adamant jockeys mustn’t come to Hong Kong solely for the money. “It’s the wrong attitude to have. You’ve got to come to Hong Kong for the experience, too, and understand that the jockeys here already have their relationships and support. It can be quite difficult to break in. If you come here thinking to just go get the money, [you] might as well not come, because it’s not going to work for you.”

Having already established himself as a notable champion jockey, for his next career goal Purton has his eyes set on the big races he has yet to win, such as the Melbourne Cup and the upcoming $20 million Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup (QEII Cup), taking place on April 24. The latter is the highest-rated race in Hong Kong, and Purton will be riding the SAR’s horse of the year, the Irish-bred Military Attack*. Editor's note: Purton will be riding Japan's Satono Crown after a change of decision.

It’s sure to be a fiercely contested race, and having ridden in Australia, Dubai, Japan and Singapore, Purton is of the opinion that racing here is the most competitive in the world. “Our racing is fast, it’s hard.” Very often a number of horses gallop over the finishing line together, separated by a razor-thin margin. “You can’t make any mistakes,” Purton tells us. “You gotta make the right decisions all the time.” Emily Chan

Audemars Piguet QEII Cup Sun Apr 24, Sha Tin Racecourse, Sha Tin. Entry $10; hkjc.com/qeii.

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