Water under bridge as Zac makes royal return
Almost a year to the day separated Zac Purton's highs and lows as a jockey in Hong Kong - his King's Stand Stakes win on Little Bridge at Royal Ascot and a record-equalling HK$300,000 fine.
The fine on June 21 last year came after Purton was approached by a gambler previously jailed for a tips-for-bets arrangement with Chris Munce, himself imprisoned for a similar offence. Purton spurned the advances but stewards said he should have told them sooner - something still stings in the memory, as Purton committed no offence, but he did commit to leaving it behind.
Fast forward to June 19 this year, and Purton, 29, went from toasted in Hong Kong to the toast of Hong Kong, coolly landing Little Bridge's victory before Queen Elizabeth.
With no family background in horses, legend has it Purton fronted up to a racing seminar only because it got him a day off school, but it has been a lengthy and worthwhile truancy. And he has done it the hard way here, rarely used by John Size, John Moore, Tony Cruz and only a little more by Caspar Fownes - the top four trainers most years - and his connection with Dennis Yip Chor-hong is newly-forged.
'But I have had better support in general this year and that's been important for a reason that probably isn't obvious,' he reflected on the best of his five seasons. 'In the past, I tried to stay as light as possible to get more chances, but this season I've let myself ride a little heavier. I'm more comfortable physically, backing my judgment more and it has paid off.'
In 2007, his aspirations were only to see out a six-month contract and return to Australia with experience under his belt.
'I enjoyed it so much I wanted to stay,' Purton says, repeating a familiar expat story. 'I had youth on my side, deep down thought I had the ability and it was just about getting opportunities. But it was much harder and took longer to get to where I am than I expected. That's Hong Kong. You deal with it or leave.'
Along the way came the realisation that championships might be outside his compass, and big races took a backseat to more sober goals.
'I could win a championship - if Douglas Whyte left and I picked up a stable like John Size, but he is here, I don't have Size and the reality is I have to keep doing as well as I can with what I have and enjoying it. And, hopefully, finding a nice horse here and there,' Purton says.
Nice horses win nice races. Fellowship gave Purton his first Hong Kong Group One in the Stewards' Cup, but Little Bridge now looks the second-most important partner of Purton's career, outranked only by his fiancee. 'The trainers I don't ride for win most of the big races, so I have to find a good horse in the smaller yards. I'm lucky that Little Bridge came along,'
The Australian's style in the saddle would please any housekeeper - neat and tidy. A starched tuxedo of orderly, compact, flat-backed navigation that gives no hint of a coming late to horses. That his greatest success arrived thousands of kilometres from where he was born or raised - peripatetically, in six different towns before he was 14 - is no surprise.
'I've always been comfortable away from home - always moving when I was young and then I left home in my teens to become an apprentice at Coffs Harbour with Trevor Hardy. As soon as I could drive, I was travelling many hours a week on my own going to races,' Purton recalls. 'As an apprentice, to ride in Brisbane on a Saturday, I'd be up at 4am for work, drive to Brisbane and get in the sauna before the races, ride Saturday and Sunday and then drive home. I'd get back to Coffs Harbour at 1am Monday. I did that for a year.'
The local whiz-kid's story was reported in the papers - a new car he had owned for just two weeks already had 6,000 kilometres on the clock.
Record-setting in the countryside gave his junior career more traction and Purton moved to a Gold Coast base to win the Brisbane senior championship in a vintage year for apprentices - touching off Michael Rodd despite missing five months of the season with a broken ankle and suspensions.
Sydney's champion, Darren Beadman, made him the topic of his newspaper column - 'the kid that walked into the jockeys' room at Coffs Harbour in the early 1990s and left with one of my whips', although he hinted it was a gift not a burglary solved. Beadman highlighted Purton's Brisbane rebound after a failed Melbourne stint when he took exception to cold mornings. Purton prefers warmer climes but sets about quashing the myth that he was a surfer.
'I don't know where that came from - I did try surfing,' he explained. 'Hopeless. The second time, I fell off, the board went skyward, I went under the waves and next thing the board crashed down on my head. I'm more a pool man.'
Moving to the big time in Sydney, and second to Beadman in his first season, Purton still found travelling too big a part of his week.
'It was one of the first things that made me think about Hong Kong - to get a break,' Purton laughs at the irony. 'I was getting burned out. If I wasn't riding, I was driving, and had been for years. Two meetings a week, with no travel, sounded good.'
It was almost a busman's holiday when Purton arrived with his girlfriend, now fiancee, Nicole - daughter of Australian all-time great jockey, Jim Cassidy - and among the baggage that rolled off the flight was Purton's 'bad attitude' reputation.
'That was blown out of proportion. I always turned up, never overweight and rode a heap of winners - I can't have been too bad. It wasn't like I was out all night getting into trouble, although I did make a few smart-arsed remarks in the stewards' room,' he pleads. Hong Kong has fast-tracked maturity. 'There's no-one to hide behind and you have to learn to work with people here. Having Nicole here has helped me be grounded, and when the chips are down, this is a really tough place. You need someone around to say something positive.'
Every season, Purton has raised his win tally, becoming a fixture in the top three and now engaged with Brett Prebble in a bragging-rights wrestle for second in the championship that remains one of the season's few lingering questions.
'I'm a better jockey than when I arrived. More confidence, yes, and I'm also reading the play better,' he says, acknowledging that stars in any sport are those who see things happening early. 'If you're thinking about it, you're already too late. Reading a race is where I've improved and you have to - in Australia, jockeys jump out, grab a position and sit there until the 400-metre. Here, you're making decisions throughout a race and if you leave the door half open there's always someone there to kick it down.'
For a kid from the northern rivers of New South Wales, it's a long way to the King's Stand presentation, where Purton was quizzed on all things Hong Kong by the Duchess of Cornwall Camilla Parker-Bowles.
'I expected she'd just hand me a trophy, but she wanted to know all about the place, the racing,' he says, and the size of the event blew Purton away. 'I didn't realise how big an achievement it was. Prize-money-wise, it wasn't my biggest race but for media coverage, it was incredible. It took me two hours to get back to the jockeys' room after all the interviews and that kept going in the days after.
'It put my name up for a lot of people in Europe who had never heard of me and maybe it will convince people in Hong Kong that I can get the job done. But even if it is only what it is, it's very satisfying to say I've won a race in front of the queen at Royal Ascot and I have the photo on the wall to prove it.'
Born: Lismore, NSW January 3, 1983
Race wins: 800
HK wins: 233
Group One wins: 5
- Won Brisbane senior jockeys' championship as an apprentice 2002-03
- King's Stand Stakes win on Little Bridge was his first ride in UK
- Became Hong Kong's only winner of the race