By Hans Ebert
Hong Kong racing has a number of USPs, and success stories, but while chatting with some friends at Happy Valley on Wednesday night, the subject came up of being likeable, and how these visitors to the city believe something is being taken for granted: the likability of so many jockeys riding here.
Pressed to name the most likeable jockey was a difficult one as there are some terrific blokes- open, caring, good family men with ethics, and which translate into their careers and the way they conduct themselves on and off the track.
Right now, as far as local racing fans are concerned, the most popular jockeys are Joao Moreira and female apprentice Kei Chiong. Everything that can be said about the Magic Man has been written- his absolute brilliance as a rider, his rags to riches story starting in São Paulo, that incredible partnership with Able Friend, every record he has broken, his will to win etc etc.
Kei Chiong, on the other hand, is a work-in-progress- a young girl competing in a male-dominated sport, improving as a rider all the time, and always there with a winning smile. Her baptism of fire into the ranks of Hong Kong’s world class lineup of riders could not have been easy, but she’s very quickly made the doubters and critics eat handfuls of humble pie.
At least in these books, being popular and being likeable are two different things. And here, Zac Purton is leading in The Likability Stakes. His decision to stay loyal to the connections of Aerovelocity, and ride the galloper in Japan as opposed to giving in to the lure of much bigger money on offer riding Gun Pit at Meydan, a horse he has been associated since Day One, ishowed something rare on all sides of the fence in racing today: Loyality. And that’s likeable.
Warming to Zac took a good few years. Perhaps confidence and tongue-in-cheek humour gave the false impression of a brash, cocky rider?There was then that brief period where the Australian racing media wanted to play up the Zac Purton-Douglas Whyte rivalry to the chants of “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!”. It didn’t go down too well with some. Then again, here was the Australian to break a 22-year-old stranglehold of the Hong Kong Jockey Premiership by South African riders led by Whyte, Basil Marcus, and one odd year, Robbie Fradd.
Perhaps patriotic pride was warranted, and Zac Purton winning the Doncaster in Sydney that same year on Sacred Falls, added even more meat to the barbie- and that playground known as Twitter.
Of course, then, just as quickly, Joao Moreira rode into town, a massive paradigm shift occurred, and the new kid in town became the fastest drawcard Hong Kong racing fans had seen. Ever. A mega star of the turf was born, and Hong Kong racing had bragging rights to the Brazilian Magic Man.
Though hugely popular, how well does anyone really know Joao Moreira? Extremely media friendly, the brilliant rider ticks all the boxes. He’s the closest thing in racing to being an extremely commercial global brand. The world is his oyster with Japan most likely to be his next port of call. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s simply looking after número uno, amigos.
As for Zac Purton, he might appear to be happy playing second fiddle to Moreira, but he has transformed himself- and not in any fake way- into being a very good ambassador for Hong Kong racing. He’s here for the long run with his young family.
Douglas Whyte remains the consummate professional, who has probably never been given his rightful dues for his record-breaking thirteen-year reign as Hong Kong’s Champion Jockey. Times change, people either have selective memory recall or short memories, and incredible achievements become yesterday’s news very quickly.
Perhaps being the Sorcerer’s apprentice for so many years has been the best on-the-job training ground for Zac Purton. It’s made him see how quickly things can change. It’s made him understand how it all works- on and off the track- in one of the most competitive racing jurisdictions in the world, where nothing can ever be taken for granted.
His comebacks from injuries and illnesses have seen him return stronger, and with that will to win very much intact. His kryptonite being the cold weather is well-known- and something he’s conquered by even bringing some fashion to the picture in the process.
Suspensions can demotivate the most positive jockey. He might not have agreed with some of the punishments meted out by the Stipes, but he’s copped them on the chin and got on with the business of riding winners. There’s a difference between being outspoken and standing one’s ground. Zac Purton knows this. One also doesn’t get far moping around. You get back on that horse.
Today, Zac Purton is a combination of brilliant rider, a great supporter of the HKJC, always willing to give up his time, and show just what a fan of Hong Kong racing he is. He continues to be the biggest supporter of the Happy Wednesday brand, and never tires of talking it up.
In a sport where too often those who talk about their great love and passion for horse racing are often revealed to be vindictive, two-faced individuals bringing nothing to the table other than politics and their own insecurities, in Zac Purton, the HKJC has a great brand ambassador.
Hopefully, the Club realises this, and utilises this strength and USP wisely. They don’t come along too often.