Twelve. That’s the oft-quoted number of jockeys’ championship Douglas Whyte has won, in a row no less, and a number that is likely to grow to 13 and maybe beyond. Who knows? He is only 41 and seems to have mastered a system that can chew up and spit out others and sometimes it seems like Zac Purton’s whole-hearted challenge to the crown just isn’t fair – it’s a case of man versus machine.
Whyte’s rivalry with Purton has thrown the focus on the two jockeys’ contrasting riding tactics and styles, which reflect their seemingly diametrically opposed personalities. That, and some number-crunching for the 2012-13 so far, gives some insight into the South African’s methodical approach and how he has maintained such an incredible dominance for such a long period. It also debunks a couple of commonly held misconceptions.
It’s fair to say that Purton for certain stages of this season and last has ridden at least as well, if not better, than his rival. Purton in fact has been exceptional and fun to watch as well. He has taken the enormous chip off his shoulder and translated it into inspired race-track performances. It’s a fine line between risk taker and reckless, and he has walked the tightrope mindfully, maturing as a man and a competitor all the while.
Purton is instantly likable but is also undoubtedly brash and brazen – and his riding reflects that with a high degree of risk taking and aggression. Purton pushes the limits everywhere as he looks for an edge – even verbally, daring to play a game very few have previously, that of needling the king with post race taunts and pointed, pressure-building messages in the media. Purton at times plays the part of, or is at least perceived as, the upstart, on the edge – but Whyte is the considered percentage player, making his careful choices, on track and off, with a long view to future success.
That’s not to say Purton isn’t a superb strategist – from Class Five to Group One he has shown himself as a man with a plan, with the necessary nerve and daring to execute under pressure. But it’s as if Purton is applying the equivalent of guerrilla warfare tactics, adopting hand-to-hand combat and kicking in doors on a race-by-race basis. All the while Whyte has been studying the 13 chapters of The Art Of War for the last decade and slowly building an empire. Of course, as Purton often points out, when it comes to warfare or winning, the weaponry matters – and Whyte has the right ammunition.
The horses that win championships for Whyte, and his supplier John Size, are new horses, particularly unraced stock from the southern hemisphere. In any system new horses are the ones most likely to string multiple wins together as they storm through the grades. But in the no-favours handicap system of Hong Kong, getting on a 52-rater with 80-plus points of ability is especially important.
Of the 50 wins from “P” brand horses this season, that is the newest arrivals, Whyte has been on board for 15. It’s three times as many as anyone else and five times as many as Purton’s three. Getting on a talented first-starter in Hong Kong isn’t worth one win, it’s a gift that keeps on giving as the horse climbs to it’s proper mark, often quickly with successive successes. Last weekend, Whyte went against the betting market when he chose to ride Kynam for John Moore in the first griffin race of the season, over One More Knight for Size. It was a decision vindicated when Kynam won what looks like the first of many races and the spurned Size galloper finished tailed-off last.
Wasting to get down to a low weight to ride a chance is another choice Whyte clearly makes with careful consideration. Top-class jockeys are often already at the limits, putting themselves through a painful process that would be considered inhumane if subjected on another person – they often starve to a point where mental focus and physical strength are compromised.
Whyte is comfortable at around 123 pounds, but when he rides at 118 pounds or less as he has done 28 times this season, he makes the effort count – striking at 32 per cent, up from his current mark for all rides this season of 19 per cent. But when Whyte makes the maximum effort and gets down to his bare minimum riding weight of 116 pounds – something that must exact a massive toll – he is deadly, winning six of seven so far this term.
But what about the myth we mentioned we would debunk? Well, when we started we were fishing for statistics that supported the often-heard theory that Whyte wins by as small a margin as possible, protecting his horses from hefty ratings increases. The man on the street will tell you that at the same time he avoids big winning margins that take a horse too quickly through the grades. It certainly is an advantage from a future perspective to win by half a length, as the handicappers only look at the raw data when assessing a penalty, ignoring the fact the horse did it under a headlock in a hand canter. At least that’s how it works in theory.
Last night’s results at Happy Valley would seem to back that up, Purton scooted away on Snitzel Kid to score by 2-¾ lengths, as Whyte was slowly away on Victorius and the edged home to win by a half-a-length. But the numbers say that a higher proportion of Purton’s victories are by less than half a length. or less of his wins by two lengths or more . Nearly 35 per cent of Whyte’s 72 victories so far this season have been by half a length or less, but for Purton that measure is sitting 10 per cent higher – with more than 45 per cent of his wins by the relatively narrow margin. Of course, this could simply be a function of the fact that Purton isn’t on as dominant runners. Whyte has been on 49 more favourites than his rival – 134 to 85. That would help explain the more dominant winning margins too.
So while numbers can be misleading, as they saying goes, they don’t lie – and there’s one number that is firmly entrenched in history. Twelve.