Zac Purton, Hong Kong Trainer? Nicole ‘Pushing’ For New Chapter

Hong Kong’s champion jockey Zac Purton opens up to Idol Horse about where he’s at, and what the future might hold should wife Nicole get her way…

Zac Purton, Hong Kong Trainer? Nicole ‘Pushing’ For New Chapter

Hong Kong’s champion jockey Zac Purton opens up to Idol Horse about where he’s at, and what the future might hold should wife Nicole get her way…

ZAC PURTON’S FUTURE has been a point of conversation for a couple of years now. He’s 41 and he’s made no secret of the rigours his body has endured to become the dominant figure in the Hong Kong jockeys’ room; not only that, there’s also the fact that he went on the record in the autumn of 2022 as saying that he ‘definitely’ wouldn’t still be riding ‘in two years’ time.’

That was then and this is now. The dark days of Covid passed, his great rival Joao Moreira moved on, he committed to continue riding the 2023-24 season, and he has no intention of stopping just yet. But, when it comes to his future, he’s not thinking too much beyond this summer’s approaching downtime and a family holiday with wife Nicole and children Roxy and Cash that will take in Greece, Barcelona, a bit of the Balearics, a couple of days breather in Qatar, and an epic Kenyan safari.

The Purtons know how to holiday, and you can bet the force behind the planning has blonde hair and a penchant for designer clothes. Mrs Purton’s influence behind the scenes of Team Purton should not be underestimated. If not for her, the riding boots might have been hung up for good already, and if she has her way, the family won’t be leaving the environs of Sha Tin Racecourse when he does decide to call time on being a jockey.   

“Nicole wants me to be a trainer,” Purton says. “She’s right on my shoulder, on my case, trying to push me into training here in Hong Kong.”

Nicole Purton and jockey Zac Purton
NICOLE PURTON, ZAC PURTON / Flemington Racecourse // 2023 /// Photo by Vince Caligiuri

There are generally two ways to become a trainer in Hong Kong: either you’re a successful overseas trainer head-hunted to join the roster or you’re a Hong Kong local who has worked through the assistant trainer route. Only Tony Cruz and Douglas Whyte have leapt straight from Hong Kong jockey to Hong Kong trainer: both were great champion jockeys and Purton fits that bill.

“Nicole’s on it, she’s telling the owners and the Club that she wants me to be a trainer here, so if she has her way,” he pauses and laughs before adding, “She can be quite convincing sometimes!”

He continues in a more serious tone, “If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be riding now. She’s the one that convinced me to keep going on, so she can be very persuasive if she wants to be and if she has her way then we’ll stay here and I’ll start out as a trainer, but if that doesn’t happen we’ll go back to Sydney and start our life there.”

It was a little more than a year ago, as he moved towards the conclusion of another sapping Hong Kong campaign, that Purton confirmed publicly that he would ride the 2023-24 season. But it had been touch and go: the family had even booked a post-Christmas holiday to Lapland and Switzerland, at a time when the racing season would be in full flow and no jockey would be thinking of a big getaway.

In an unprecedented move, the Hong Kong Jockey Club, relieved to have one of the all-time greats still on the roster, allowed Purton to leave to take that break. He believes the mid-season down time last winter was crucial.

“The Jockey Club allowed me to take those weeks off mid-season and that was important for my body, because it allowed my body to have a break. It was only after that that I was able to get on top of how my body felt,” he explains.

“The wear and tear of riding so many horses and so many races starts to wear the body down. I really struggled through the early part of this season, physically, I was in a lot of pain and things were difficult.”

He has catalogued his injuries so often that he backs away from going into details this time.

“It’s taken me a long time to start to sort those issues out and it’s only been the last two and a half to three months that I’ve felt a bit more comfortable and the pain is not at the level that it was. Because I’m not in pain, I can enjoy it a little bit more.”

Hong Kong champion jockey Zac Purton
ZAC PURTON / Sha Tin // 2023 /// Photo by HKJC

The ‘it’ he can enjoy is another campaign of superiority over his rivals. He is almost 40 wins clear of Karis Teetan, his closest pursuer for the champion’s title and will collect his seventh Hong Kong champion jockey award at the HKJC’s glitzy Champion Awards dinner before the season ends.

Purton will have claimed the championship for three years on the bounce, making it six titles in the last seven seasons. He has said previously that an element of boredom had crept in after Moreira left, and that came in the final months of the demoralising Covid-19 restrictions that Hong Kong as a whole, and Hong Kong’s horse racing participants more restrictively, had had to endure.

Despite his dominant haul of wins, this season’s tally of 121 with four meetings to go is more than 50 less than the titanic figure of 179 he reached in 2022-23. That was a Hong Kong record. His winning strike rate is also down to 18.7 percent compared with 25 percent last season.

“People think it’s easy for me, but it’s not as simple as that, it’s just not,” he says, acknowledging that he knows that he is the champion and therefore does get more opportunities than most jockeys on the list, but also pointing out some perspective.

“In some respects, it was better for me when Moreira was here because back then the majority of the owners would offer either of us the ride and if they couldn’t get us then they’d go to someone else. Now they’re spreading their rides around a lot more jockeys, so I’m not getting offered those rides to the same scale as I was before.

“I’m just not getting offered the quality rides I used to get, and this season, by comparison, I have struggled to get real quality rides consistently. I know people will find that hard to believe, but that’s the reality of it from where I’m sitting.”

He has bagged another championship and another Hong Kong Derby victory, a Champions Mile and a Hong Kong Sprint, but by his own standards, it’s the week-to-week quality that he feels is not coming his way as it once did.

Massive Sovereign and Zac Purton win Hong Kong Derby
ZAC PURTON, MASSIVE SOVEREIGN / Hong Kong Derby // Sha Tin /// 2024 //// Photo by HKJC

“It’s very hard to keep everyone happy,” he says. “For example, because the horses I ride start shorter than they should, the owners can’t get the price they want to have a bet; I hear trainers saying they don’t offer me rides because I’m always full, so then I don’t get offered as many rides as maybe I should; then Hugh (Bowman) has come to town and he’s the flavour of the month, Karis (Teetan) has always got good support. The horses are getting spread around a lot more these days than what they were.”

He points to a recent scenario leading into a weekend Sha Tin fixture.

“I only had four rides before entries came out,” he says. “I picked up another couple for John Size because he generally asks me if I’m free in any races, and on the day I ended up with only five rides on an 11-race card. I spent half the time sitting in the jockeys’ room watching the iPad. That’s just where I’m at.

“It’s just reflective of me not getting offered the rides like I was. I’m probably under more scrutiny as a rider than the other guys because everyone expects so much.”

Purton aims to be in peak condition, refreshed from his travels, when the season starts again in September. He’s been through that routine 17 times before.

“Every season is a new challenge and I’ve got to come back and work hard and hope I get the support and get the right opportunities and we’ll see how we go,” he says.

Zac and Nicole Purton
NICOLE PURTON, ZAC PURTON / G1 Hong Kong Mile // Sha Tin /// 2023 //// Photo by Lo Chun Kit

As for talk of retirement and concrete long-term plans?

“I don’t have any, I’m just taking it as it comes now,” he says. “I’ll just see how much more I can squeeze out of myself. If the physios and the medical team here can keep me going, I’ll keep going. But if it gets to a point where it’s just too hard, well then whenever that happens that’ll be it.”

And when it does, there might be a stable at Sha Tin with Purton’s name over the door.  

David Morgan is Chief Journalist at Idol Horse. As a sports mad young lad in County Durham, England, horse racing hooked him at age 10. He has a keen knowledge of Hong Kong and Japanese racing after nine years as senior racing writer and racing editor at the Hong Kong Jockey Club. David has also worked in Dubai and spent several years at the Racenews agency in London. His credits include among others Racing Post, ANZ Bloodstock News, International Thoroughbred, TDN, and Asian Racing Report.

View all articles by David Morgan.

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