Entering the Dragon’s den
Purton gets one chance to impress Millard camp
Zac Purton, come on down! You’re the next contestant on Who Wants to be a Group One Jockey? The host and your quizmaster today is Tony Millard and the aim of the game is securing the ride on the mighty Ambitious Dragon. You’ll be subject to scrutiny from a ruthless panel of owners, cynical media experts and highly suspicious race fans – but first prize could be worth it: a ride on the two-time reigning Horse of the Year on Longines International Day.
Previous contestants on this high-pressure reality show have been Douglas Whyte, Maxime Guyon, Umberto Rispoli, Weichong Marwing and, wait for it, the answer to a tricky trivia question – Who was Ambitious Dragon’s first jockey? Jacky Tong Chi-kit.
Whyte has ruled himself out of the running after a bitter – but highly entertaining – public spat with Millard after the Champions Mile. Guyon ruined his chances in last season’s Jockey Club Mile when he took Ambitious Dragon so wide he had to pay the toll at the Lion Rock Tunnel; Marwing hasn’t ridden the horse since Class Three and hasn’t teamed up with Millard since the start of 2011; and as far as we know Tong, who rode the horse in his first three starts for former trainer Francis Lui Kin-wai, won’t be considered, given Millard’s comments that “the most important thing is we get an in-form jockey”.
Tong has won twice this season, though, and at least is going better than Terry Wong Chi-wai, who is the only senior jockey who hasn’t won. In fact, Wong’s career win total is moving slower than wind erosion. He has won 27 times in his last 1,000 rides, striking at an astonishingly underwhelming 3 per cent.
He should get some more opportunities just by riding straight and hanging in there on the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s other great reality show “Survivor”, where jockeys simply have to avoid being suspended for careless riding. Everyone will get a chance at Happy Valley on Wednesday week with the roster down to a bare-bones 15 riders and maybe Wong can break his duck there.
Meanwhile, Rispoli is trying to establish himself in Europe and couldn’t commit to Ambitious Dragon’s first-up assignment, but is yet to be eliminated from the contest after riding to instructions in the Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup last season. The Italian will be back and if things don’t work out in three weeks for Purton, it seems a safe bet Rispoli will be back on board.
Although after a breakthrough Group One win in the last race on Arc day – giving him top-level wins in four different countries – Rispoli sounded as if he was ruling himself out, if we are to take his post-race comments literally. "It has been an amazing afternoon," he told Racing Post. "It is the first time I have been to Arc day and I've loved it. I will stay in France for the rest of my life."
I'm sure the overly excitable Umberto will reconsider this drastic plan to never leave France once winter hits and the flat season winds down, making late arrivals for the Hong Kong season for years to come, a la Gerald Mosse, who also won a Group One on Arc day.
Both Millard and Purton claim the "one-off" arrangement is a case of seeing if horse and jockey are suited together – but this is racing, and cold hard results will decide who rides the champ on international day and in his other lead-up race.
If Ambitious Dragon wins the Oriental Watch Sha Tin Trophy on October 28, can you imagine Purton saying to Millard post-race – “Yeah, but it just didn’t feel right, I don’t think the chemistry works”? Let’s face it, if Purton can win, he is more than likely to stay on.
Riding to instructions and not making a mistake could also keep the mount, but one false move and it opens the door for Rispoli or one of the many other suitors. The queue of jockeys pining for the ride on Ambitious Dragon is so long that at one stage you had to take a ticket from a machine at the Sha Tin trainer’s stand just to go and talk to Millard.
Purton’s success and his second-place finish in the jockeys’ championship is remarkable given his lack of support from the three biggest stables – John Size, John Moore and Tony Cruz – and, partly because of this, his lack of ammunition in the big races. Riding more than 60 winners in a season when one of your biggest contributors is Dennis Yip Chor-hong is like averaging 50 in test cricket while batting at number eight for Bangladesh.
Attaching his name to an iconic horse like Ambitious Dragon seems the natural progression of Purton’s blazing career arc, but first he has to stand up to the pressure and make his chance count.