“I can’t believe that. That’s not Joao. Joao is not a confrontational person.” Zac Purton was standing up for his friend Joao Moreira regarding another of those racing rumours started by the usual posse of petty ankle biters who supposedly love the sport, but go outta their way to drag it down and look to see what’s wrong with it rather than what’s right with it.
Zac Purton is part of what’s right with horse racing along with Joao Moreira, Hughie Bowman, James McDonald, Douglas Whyte, Gai Waterhouse, Christophe Soumillon, the HKJC, the JRA, Able Friend, Longines, BMW, Mike De Kock, Happy Wednesday, and a handful of other individuals and things.
As with any other sport, as with how one decides, no matter how late it might be, to change their life around, horse racing can’t just talk the talk, anymore. It must walk the walk, and today’s “Zac Purton model” is not the brash, but enormously talented young apprentice from Coff’s Harbour who, like a few before and after him, showed so much natural talent, but which needed to be harnessed.
If he isn’t already, The Zac Attack is fast-becoming a brand- a popular brand as seen by the response he received when winning the BMW HK Derby aboard Luger, and for bouncing back after his spill on Sunday and riding in the very next race.
Through pure dedication- and dedication is often an overused word- Purton has succeeded where other wunderkinds have tripped up and never had their potential realised.
When, after six years in Hong Kong- six years of digging in, never giving up, going through the ups and down and constant scrutiny that’s part of the good, bad and fugly of Hong Kong racing- Purton became The Zac Attack and ended the thirteen-year reign of “Emperor” Douglas Whyte, like Rodney Dangerfield, he still “got no respect.” That incredible achievement with no support from Hong Kong’s two most powerful stables, was, in many ways, underrated.
Did the jockey handle this achievement well? Probably not as well as he could have, but this is where “personal evolution” comes into play. It’s all part of building a brand. Even Brand Beckham wasn’t built in a day.
Whereas a couple of years ago, he relished taking potshots at Whyte- probably, some semi-serious sledging, along with a deep-rooted admiration, but who’s to know?- Purton has no problem showing his admiration and respect for Joao Moreira as a rider and a person.
Of course, he still speaks his mind, which is refreshing as it brings some theatre and even wackiness to the game. But what Zac Purton says these days is more measured. He’s even reined in his tweets. As he recently said, “I still have a lot to say- but it often gets me into trouble.” Of course, it does, Batman.
The new, improved Zac Attack saves most of the talking for the racetrack- racetracks in Hong Kong, Australia, Japan, Singapore and the UK. Though these days, the flavour of the day, especially in Australia, where, as in Hong Kong, the racing media have fallen under his spell, is the mercurial Joao Moreira, it would be foolish not to put Zac Purton in the same league.
Both are exceptional jockeys and, like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, most racing fans- and the racing media- have taken sides as to who’s “better” while others are simply happy to watch these two fine athletes do battle against each other, and let the best man win. “Penny Lane” or “Strawberry Fields Forever”?
Add all the guile, experience and focus of Dougie Whyte into the mix, and a three-way finish between these riders, lights up Hong Kong racing with another USP for the HKJC and a marketing dream.
What one also has in these three exceptional riders is a new business model for those riders coming up the ranks to aspire to- a business model built on expanding their portfolios and ensuring that all the many years of discipline, all those years of wasting to keep their weight down, the injuries and the uncertainties of one of the most dangerous sports in the world, returns an interest on their time and investment in the sport.
We all know some brilliant jockeys who gave the sport their all, who were riding high on and off the track with fast cars, fast women and life in the fast lane- but who, with one wrong U-turn, lost everything through bad investments, false friends, sycophantic enablers and thinking the ride will last forever.
Whyte, Purton, and Moreira are very different personalities with their unique riding styles who have elevated the image of “just a jockey” into that of business savvy individuals who, whatever education they gave up for a career in the saddle and lost their teen years, have made the time to teach themselves the fragility of the sport through their own lessons in the school of hard knocks where you’re only as good as your last winner.
Dougie Whyte, especially, is an exceptional athlete and an astute businessman, who, these days, understands the value of approaching the sport as a business. Those years as an apprentice in South Africa was one thing. But that was decades ago. Times change, the prize money grows, competition becomes stronger as there is always someone nipping at your heels, and success can be a fleeting thing.
One doesn’t have to be an Einstein to work out that being Hong Kong’s champion jockey for thirteen consecutive years has made Douglas Whyte a very rich man with a palatial home in Pattaya, a vineyard in Tuscany, a healthy bank account, and someone always open to looking at investment opportunities. Solid ones.
Joao Moreira and Zac Purton might be “apprentices” to Whyte in the Business Stakes, but they’re charting their own course years earlier than he did.
The pair’s hit-and-run appearances- winning appearances- in some of the richest races in Australia, Dubai, Singapore and the lucrative Japanese market are all part of a growing investment portfolio built around marketability and being global brands.
If one were to look at each of these jockeys’ backgrounds, there are very strong similarities- humble beginnings, tough, not-so wonderful Wonder Years, a brittle family life- at the age of nine, Whyte lost his father in a car accident- and jumping into a sport that has very few winners when finding that winning post becomes difficult.
What’s also interesting to note with all three jockeys is that they have strong marriages with very strong, protective women behind them and where family comes first.
Just as that House Of The Rising Sun has been the ruin of many-a-poor boy, women- wrong women- have been the Achilles heel of some of the greatest jockeys.
Somehow, those minefields are popping up less and less. Gawd knows, they’re there, but, at least, for these three jockeys, wine, women and song are no substitutes for a strong family life. It’s their rock. It also adds to giving the sport racing heroes with untarnished images. It’s good for business.
Whether it realises it or not, horse racing today has some marketable brands- and brands and how effectively they are marketed have a ripple effect.
They help a sport that is often very insular reach the mainstream media which helps attract new sponsors, which, in turn, leads to buying into new customer data bases and new marketing dollars to reach a bigger market.
A bigger market means a new market who might wish to get more involved with horse racing, who can become part of new ownership syndicates and lead to a new generation of horse owners- younger horse owners bringing new ideas into a sport that needs to keep reinventing itself to be relevant in a world offering everyone so many other leisure activities.
Racing clubs can learn much from listening to customers and how, for example, “adverts” are not the way to reach them.
Any head of a racing club who waffles on about what “adverts” have been produced to attract a younger demographic as one such person recently did, just doesn’t get it. It’s more corporate bollocks.
They need to step out of their comfort zone and attend a Happy Wednesday night at Happy Valley and put a plug on the basso verbal diarrhoea.
What people must realise is that for racing clubs to succeed and keep the sport alive and exciting and a magnet, horse racing must be approached as a business with smart new people brought in so it stays ahead of the curve and never lets the tail wag the dog.
It can’t keep going back to the same old well and hauling up the same old executives way past their Use By Dates who are the “models” many Human Resource (HR) people in racing clubs believe are still relevant to the sport. It’s 2015, people, where “experience” is another way of saying, “passed it.” Even the role of HR has a big question mark attached to it in more forward thinking industries.
Turnover is one very big thing which, has many heads- and arms and legs and tentacles. It might be able to survive with the support of the rank and file punter, but for how long, especially in today’s economy and where the competition for a slice of the leisure activities pie keeps getting smaller?
Even the many-headed beast called Turnover needs marketing- and it needs branding from everyone and everything that is a brand.