Zac Purton leaps into equal top spot with Douglas Whyte
Four winners vault Australian into lead in the Jockey Championship alongside title defender
Zac Purton produced an A-plus performance on Happy Valley's notoriously difficult "C+3" course last night, a four-timer vaulting him into equal top spot in the Jockeys Championship and signalling "game-on" in his rivalry with Douglas Whyte.
Purton tore through the early part of the programme with winners in races two to five - clinching the Jockey Challenge early - and will go into Tuesday's New Year's Day meeting locked in a tense head-to-head struggle with the 12-time defending champion Whyte.
Turnover boomed at the rare Friday night meeting, going past HK$1 billion for just the fourth time at the city track, but it was Purton who set the night alight.
It was the Australian's second four-timer in Hong Kong, his first coming at the end of the 2009-10 season, also at Happy Valley - and he was not about talking up his championship chances.
"If I get the support, I can beat Douglas, I am riding well enough - I just need the horses," Purton said, who moved to 32 winners for the term.
"Douglas has the support of John Size, which is a big help, but I'm sticking with him and I think if I can continue to stick with him until the end of February, I'm a chance."
Two of Purton's winners - Young Talent and Windicator Star came for Caspar Fownes, both horses breaking their local maidens and showing some promise.
Windicator Star's inability to settle in the gates and jump on terms has cruelled his chances in previous runs. "He just needed to chill out," Fownes said. "I've got to thank the guys behind the gates and the starters, Tony McGovern and Tony Speechly, for the hard work they've done in helping this horse get into the gates and feeling good."
Young Talent, raced by the Hong Kong Jockey Club's Racing Club syndicate, flopped out of the gates to settle last and still trailed the field at the turn.
Purton negotiated a thrilling passage along the fence in the straight to nail Nobody But You - who had looked the winner - right on the line.
"It was nice to see him come out and do that third-run in and first time here at the Valley, because he is still very raw," Fownes said, indicating a step up to a mile soon for the four-year-old.
Dennis Yip Chor-hong's Travel Guide was given a peach of a ride by Purton, the Australian finding the box seat from barrier eight, before again taking a tight run along the fence.
"Zac had him in a great spot, where he could use his turn of foot. He is still only in Class Four and has the ability to get the win in that grade," Yip said.
Whyte snapped Purton's mid-meeting dominance with victory on Manfred Man Ka-leung's Galaxy Prancer, the trainer breaking his own unwanted streak. Man had gone 96 runners without a winner, a slump stretching back to mid-October.
"Douglas has stuck with this horse all the way through, and his influence has been good with his education," Man said.
"Last start here he got a bit lost and unbalanced on the turn, but the important thing that he learnt from it."
"The main problem with him is that he has got a difficult mouth," Whyte said, explaining that the addition of a lugging bit had made a huge difference.
Fownes had briefly forced a three-way tie at the top of the Trainers' Championship, before Tony Cruz took the outright lead with a win to Beauty Lead - beating Fownes' Perfect Cheers.
"We had all the luck tonight," said Cruz, who has 25 winners. "We drew one, and the runner-up drew wide."