After putting everything into an exhausting and ultimately unsuccessful challenge to Douglas Whyte’s supremacy in 2009-10, legend has it that Brett Prebble simply said “never again.” Meaning, never again would he subject himself to the mental, emotional and physical rigours of entering into hand-to-hand combat with the Durban Demon.
As the latest challenger to Whyte’s crown, Zac Purton, lay at home this week, in excruciating pain as he recovered from a bout of kidney stones, you wonder if at some stage he reflected upon similar sentiments.
Now, racing isn’t a contact sport in the classic mano-a-mano sense and we are not suggesting Whyte put Purton in hospital – he is not that ruthless. But it’s not a stretch to surmise Purton’s recent ailments have at least been exacerbated by pushing himself to his limits in his pursuit of a rider that at times seems more relentless machine than he is man.
In his own quiet and determined way, Whyte is an incomparably single-minded and savage competitor – and if you didn’t know that already, yesterday’s revelations of his strategy surrounding the ride on Triumphant Jewel were telling.
Triumphant Jewel’s win in the first race of the day was essentially worth double points in the jockeys’ championship – as it was a ride meant for Purton. One more win for Whyte and one less for his rival. It carried some psychological bonus points, too, – it was Whyte’s first ride since he was catapulted through the air in the horror five-horse fall at Happy Valley last Wednesday and knocked senseless. Talk about making a statement. Whyte finished the day 11 wins clear with five meetings remaining.
Whyte’s preferred ride, Danny Shum Chap-shing’s Gorgeous Debut was not entered for race one, and Purton was booked for stablemate Triumphant Jewel. But instead of taking a lesser ride in the race, Whyte gambled on Purton not being able to fulfill commitments – even going to the trouble of making sure Shum declared two pounds over the allocated 117 pounds for the two-year-old.
Like Prebble three seasons ago, Purton has put absolutely everything on the line in his roller-coaster challenge of Whyte. Physically he has pushed himself to the brink, finding his body’s limits. Emotionally he has celebrated wins wildly and admonished himself in defeat. And mentally, he has played a game with Whyte that few have dared – that of verbally challenging and sending pointed messages through the media. Of course, we can’t forget the finger-pointing taunts either.
Yesterday the entertaining verbal jousting continued. Being interviewed live on Trackside, Purton suggested “anyone" could have won on Triumphant Jewel. Word got back to Whyte and he responded by gleefully expressing how much better it was to have won on a ride meant for Purton. “It was worth not taking another ride, taking a risk of being on standby just to get one off Zac,” he said.
A great racing rivalry can live on for years in legend – whether it be one that is between jockeys, trainers or, of course, horses, and hopefully this is one that continues.
One of the great features of Hong Kong racing and something that could be adopted elsewhere, is a lengthy off-season. It gives everyone a chance to recharge and reflect and ensures a day-in and day-out intensity to the racing that is unmatched anywhere else.
When Purton sits back in the break and reflects on his season, he will realise that he hasn’t fallen short – that he has in fact exceeded his personal goals for the season. He has added the tag “big-race jockey” to his name and matured as a person. And maybe he will find it himself to mount another challenge and keep this great rivalry going next season.