Take the mysteries of Stonehenge, the Bermuda Triangle, the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot combined and you don’t come close to the head-scratcher that is leading jockey Zac Purton essentially not riding for the three major stables in town.
Although everyone saw it coming, Purton’s unceremonious dumping from reigning Horse of the Year Military Attack by trainer John Moore was the second biggest bombshell this season and it came as a result of the biggest bombshell.
Only the sudden arrival of the man who will replace Purton on Military Attack – Joao Moreira – has made bigger waves and this high-profile riding change is just another piece of flotsam left in the path of the Magic Man typhoon that has hit Hong Kong racing.
But Moore’s decision to give Purton the boot is not only symbolic of the seismic shift in the jockeys’ pecking order – how do you lead by 30 in the premiership and be considered an outsider to win it within half a season? – but also of the Australian’s lack of favour with the “big three” stables. The big three consist of perennial trainers’ championship contenders John Size and Tony Cruz, the two trainers with the numbers, and Moore’s "big money, big race" yard.
In Purton’s previous six seasons in Hong Kong, he had ridden sporadically for Size – just eight wins from 67 rides. But at the start of this term there was reportedly a tacit understanding that Purton would in fact ride for his compatriot this season – or at least be part of the post-Douglas Whyte, Dream Team 2.0 sub-committee of which Moreira is now chairman. Teaming with Size hasn’t happened.
Purton has ridden for Cruz just 24 times since arriving in 2009 and four of those rides were when randomly drawn on his horses in the International Jockeys’ Championship at Happy Valley.
Still, after Purton won on Majestic Anthem in the IJC last year, Cruz made this pledge – admittedly it was in the Happy Valley Champagne Bar in the midst of wild post-race festivities: “Yeah, I wouldn't hesitate putting Zac on if the right opportunities come up," Cruz said.
"He is a top jockey and he rode a perfect race then. I've got my guys though and I'll keep using them. Let's see.”
Let’s see indeed – in the weeks since, pardon the Purton pun, there "hasn't been a zac” for Zac from Cruz. He hasn’t had a single ride for the trainer. Obviously the “right opportunities” haven’t come up. Quite frankly, when Purton is on song the right opportunity is on a live horse, in a horse race. But winning on a rocking horse isn’t beyond him either.
Moore was the one of the trio that Purton had built a viable working relationship with over the last few years. He had notched seven wins for the expat Australian in the last season-and-a-half, including three on Military Attack and two gems on Dominant – one of them in the Group One Hong Kong Vase, which featured as our best ride of the first half of this season.
Purton was instrumental in a career-turnaround for Military Attack in the back half of 2012-13, using the horse’s tactical speed to push into prominent positions, firstly in last year’s Group One Citibank Hong Kong Gold Cup – the race he has been given the flick for this time around.
Moore dished out the ultimate praise after that ride, comparing Purton to his own late father George Moore, perhaps Australia’s greatest ever jockey. "Zac did a George Moore there - he took the bull by the horns, set his own speed and made them do things his way," he said.
After that it was three straight Group victories to end the season (one with Tommy Berry aboard as Purton stuck with Ambitious Dragon), with Purton climbing back on board for a clutch ride in the Singapore Airlines International Cup.
First-up this season Moore admitted Military Attack wasn’t at peak fitness and that 1,600m was too short when he finished sixth behind Gold-Fun before again sending the horse out not fully "screwed down" in the Group Two Jockey Club Cup, in which Purton had to deal with barrier 10.
Military Attack was again beaten by his barrier, this time gate nine, when fourth on International Day in the Group One Hong Kong Cup. A Stewards’ Cup fourth was apparently the final straw and Moore finally announced what “everybody knew anyway” – that Moreira would ride the horse on Sunday week.
Saying Moreira is now his “stable elect” is fair enough – he is everybody else’s too – but Moore also used the very Chinese reasoning that Purton was out of luck. That's a strange one considering Purton is a darling of the superstitious local set. Except for Me Tsui Yu-sak that is, with whom Purton is on the outer, which is a bit like getting banned from a McDonald’s restaurant – you might miss it in the short term, but it’s probably good for you in the end.
But reading between the lines, it seems as though there was a bit of a tug-of-war between Moore wanting Moreira and owner Steven Lo Kit-sing pulling for Purton – and the trainer won out. “The owner left it up to the trainer to decide the jockey," was the official line – but what sort of discussions went on beforehand?
A suggestion from one of Moore’s rivals last night was that the big race trainer may have played the “sure win” card with Lo to get his way. That is, he told the owner that if Moreira rides, the horse will win.
If that were true, it was certainly an “all in” move in a high stakes game.