The rivalry spurring Purton to greatness
Sport generates classic rivalries. The intense competition between two highly skilled champions or teams brings the best out in both.
Think of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, Ashes cricket, rugby league's State of Origin.
Horse racing breeds plenty, too. Tommy Smith and Bart Cummings, Darren Beadman and Shane Dye, and epic equine clashes such as the famous Bonecrusher and Our Waverley Star slugfest, Octagonal and Saintly, Black Caviar and Hay List, Winx and Hartnell.
In Hong Kong racing, there's an enthralling, annual rivalry between two of the world's best riders for the coveted jockeys' premiership, Australia's Zac Purton and Brazilian Joao Moreira.
With two months of the 2019-20 Hong Kong season remaining, Purton has ridden 116 winners to lead Moreria by two going into Sunday night's Sha Tin meeting. Purton is the defending champion. Both jockeys are striving for their fourth Hong Kong title.
"The rivalry brings out the best in us,'' Purton said. "There is no doubt I've improved as a rider because of Joao and he says the same thing about me.
"It's great competition on the track. Unfortunately only one man can win the premiership. Joao has been riding terrifically well all season and it will come do to who gets the right support.''
Purton, 37, who grew up on the NSW mid-north coast, is a superstar in Hong Kong, where racing is the No.1 sport.
The expatriate's image is used to advertise racing on giant billboards and trams, and he's mobbed wherever he goes around the city. But in Australia, Purton is not as well-known outside of the racing bubble. The jockey once admitted when he is back home he likes the anonymity and being able "to morph back into society".
There are a couple of reasons for this - racing doesn't dominate the sporting landscape here like it does in Hong Kong and Purton has been away from these shores for 13 years.
I had to check if that was correct - 13 years! Purton confirmed it was 2007 when he left Sydney racing for Hong Kong. Back then, he was recognised as a prodigious young talent who was second to Hall of Famer Darren Beadman in successive Sydney jockeys' premierships.
Purton admitted it was a gamble leaving Sydney racing and virtually having to establish himself all over again in Hong Kong.
"But I always had my eye on Hong Kong and I felt it was the right time to make the move,'' Purton said. "It wasn't easy when I first arrived as there were so many world-class jockeys in Hong Kong.
"I didn't get many opportunities to start with, it was very hard but I kept turning up. I wanted to go to that next level and if I wanted to do that I was going to have to dive into the deep end and lucky for me I learned how to swim.''
Murray Bell, a former The Daily Telegraph colleague who has lived and worked in Hong Kong for nearly two decades, said Purton's development into a top-class international jockey didn't happen overnight.
"Zac didn't shoot the lights out on his arrival in Hong Kong in 2007 - in fact, he only had four rides on outsiders at his first meeting here,'' Bell said. "But he's constantly improved, season by season.
"Perhaps Zac's biggest asset is his patience. He switches his mounts right off and saves their energy for when they need it most. Hong Kong racing is a game of inches and he knows better than most how to save those inches, ride after ride.
"He is also acutely aware of what's around him in a race and makes very few mistakes tactically. He's also super powerful in a finish - his win-to-seconds ratio of 114-78 tells you the guy is a winner.
"Zac has the quintessential big-race temperament. He's cool, never fazed. The term 'ice in his veins' might have been coined for a previous generation but it certainly applies to him.''
In 13 years, Purton has made an extraordinary impact in Hong Kong racing. He has become only the second jockey to ride 1000 winners, joining Douglas Whyte in that exclusive club.
Purton has ridden more Hong Kong Group 1 winners than any other jockey in history and is the only rider to win all of Hong Kong's Group 1 races.
He's also ridden Group 1 winners at England's Royal Ascot and Singapore, and returned regularly to his home country to win a number of majors, including on Sacred Falls (2014 Doncaster Mile), Admire Rakti (2014 Caulfield Cup) and It's Somewhat (2017 Doncaster Mile).
Sky Thoroughbred Central's Ron Dufficy is an avid watcher of Hong Kong racing and has studied Purton's development closely over the years.
"The main thing Zac has got is a killer instinct without overstepping the mark,'' Dufficy said.
"Zac is so tough mentally and he has kept improving as a jockey.
"Joao Moreira is a great rider, you could argue he is a 'prettier' rider than Purton, he's rides lighter and gets more opportunities but I think Zac has him beaten in the mental game.''
Purton has nine rides on Sunday night, Moreira has a mount in all 10 races. Rarely a meeting goes by in Hong Kong when the two champion jockeys don't come away with a win or two.
Despite his lofty position in the premiership, Purton is a perfectionist and believes he can still do better.
"It's been a different season for me because I haven't had one stable behind me that have had a huge season,'' Purton said. "So I've been working hard and getting support where I can get.
"At times I think it has been a frustrating season but then I look at my numbers and they are a lot better than I think they are.
"The target at the start of every season is to try and get 100 winners and there have only been three jockeys in the history of Hong Kong racing to do that and that has been Douglas Whyte, Joao Moreira and myself. So that tells you it is an extremely hard thing to do but I always think I should be going better than I am.''
Moreira might have something to do with Purton's mindset.
Their rivalry is spurring both to greatness.
Purton in no rush to head home
Champion jockey Zac Purton concedes he is in no rush to return to Sydney racing.
Purton, his wife Nicole and their two young children, Roxy and Cash, call Hong Kong home these days.
"My family is happy here, I enjoy the racing, I enjoy the culture and the people,'' Purton said.
"The time will come when we want to go home, Australia is home, it is just a matter of when. But we have a great lifestyle here, it's a lifestyle we are used to, and at this stage of my career I don't really see myself going home.''
Purton is prepared to return to Australia for major races during the autumn and spring - but only if it does not impact on his Hong Kong riding commitments.
"I'm in a position in Hong Kong where every meeting is important,'' he said.
"I have a lot of responsibility riding quality horses for the biggest owners and I do owe them my time and respect. But for the right horses and in the right races I do enjoy going home.''
Purton's father-in-law, Hall of Famer Jim Cassidy said he can understand why the jockey is keen to continue riding in Hong Kong.
"Zac, Nicole and the grandchildren are only a plane ride away and the day will come when they do return home,'' Cassidy said. "But 'happy wife, happy life' and they enjoy Hong Kong. Zac is very focused, earning good money and living a great lifestyle so I wouldn't be in a hurry to come home either.''
Originally published as The rivalry spurring Purton to greatness