Australian-born jockey Zac Purton moved to Hong Kong in 2007, making history in 2014 when he ended the championship reign of Douglas Whyte, who’d held the title for the previous 13 years. His winning streak continues: Purton won the Hong Kong Derby in 2015 and his Hong Kong Cup win on Time Warp in 2017 made him only the third jockey (after Gerald Mosse and Moreira) to win all four of the city’s December international races.
When we collared Purton for a chat, he was prepping for another race. The adrenaline rush, the competition and the risk — the champion jockey loves it all. His record-breaking wins have proved to be defining points in his career, yet he tells us that aside from the extra publicity that comes with the job, life hasn’t changed too drastically.
“Hong Kong is a great city. You know, I’ve been very lucky here and been given great opportunities. Both of my kids were born here. It’s a very vibrant city and always moving — something’s always happening on and off the track.” he says. “I’ve noticed that when I get away in the off season and come back here, I walk back into my apartment and I feel like I’m at home. This is the right place for me.”
Still, as he advances in his career, the pressure to maintain the status-quo is constant. “It’s one thing getting to the top but another staying there,” he says. “With my main competitor leaving, there’s now a lot of opportunities for new jockeys who are here to step up to the plate and challenge me for the position I’m in. My job is to try and keep them at bay.”
Like any other athlete, he has to maintain core strength and physique: success in this business starts from the inside, and jockeys face constant pressure to stay lean and fit. Purton tells us he’s shifted towards a plant-based diet, which has made all the difference. “No more burgers, beer, all the good stuff, but you have to make sacrifices.” Aside from spending seven days a week on the track, he combines racing with lots of physical training. Boxing, swimming and golf are among his favourites.
He’s always fighting fit as competition is always around the corner, quite literally: Purton is in close proximity to all 23 of his other competitors, since they all live in the same building in Kowloon. “Living with your biggest rivals comes with its own set of challenges as well, making it hard for emotions not to get in the way of budding friendships with other jockeys,” he says. “You need to try and put emotion to the side and think about doing [what’s right] for you.”
Things become cut-throat when the race begins, however. “We’re friends, but we’re also enemies as well. I think people understand that once we’re in a race and the gates open it’s every man for himself. Law of the jungle.”
“It’s one thing getting to the top but another staying there ... I think people understand that once we’re in a race and the gates open it’s every man for himself”