Champion Jockey Zac Purton On Walking The Line Between Sacrifice And Success
He is the "David Beckham of Hong Kong", the taipan of The Hong Kong Jockey Club and the king of Wednesday nights at the Happy Valley racetrack. And while a sporting CV this dazzling presupposes a little "Golden Balls" energy, Gen.T honouree Zac Purton—the Australian jockey on a 10-year winning streak—is delightfully self-effacing.
“Oh, the David Beckham comparison is very flattering,” he says, in his strong New South Wales accent. “But I don’t see too many similarities between us. I mean, he is famous everywhere and I am famous in one city. But yeah, I guess in the pond that is Hong Kong racing, it is pretty fantastic to be me. I get to go to amazing hotels, get tables at busy restaurants, get asked for selfies—you know, all the stuff that makes you feel welcome somewhere. But I would imagine that David Beckham would be recognised a lot more than me in Hong Kong, even on race day.”
When asked how much impact a jockey has on a horse’s race time, he is similarly modest. “I would say the larger part about it is about the horse,” he says. “However good the jockey is, you have no hope if the horse isn’t good enough. Yeah, you make a lot of really important decisions that can be the difference between winning or not, but you’re not going to win the Formula One in a Ford Cortina, are you?”
This Ferrari of a jockey has been making Hong Kong his own since 2008, although he only really hit the front pages in 2013, after he ended the 13-year reign of champion jockey Douglas Whyte. But, as with most brilliant sportsmen, the quest has to get to the top has been a lifelong obsession.
“For as far back in my childhood as I can remember, whenever I went to a friend’s house with horses I was desperate to ride the animal,” he says. “Then as I grew up—well, more specifically, as everyone else grew up and I stayed small—I realised I was the right height and weight to become a jockey. I was the smallest and lightest kid in my year, and by the time I was 14, I was really focused on my career. It just kept building from there.”
Purton had never ridden outside of his home country when he made the move to Hong Kong, although the dream of racing in the Fragrant Harbour had been smouldering for some time. He had tracked the careers of other Australian jockeys who had headed here, and eventually decided to follow suit, moving into jockeys' accommodation in Sha Tin in 2008.
“It was tough at first, for sure,” he says with a smile. “You have no idea what you’re doing, and need to hustle quite a bit. At home in Australia, we’re protected in the sense that you have a manager and ride for one or two owners, and one trainer. In Hong Kong we need to speak to all the trainers, as you need support from as many as you can get. In Australia you rarely interact with the owners; here you need a good relationship with them, too. It was a steep learning curve, teaching myself to book my own rides, and to schedule and plan everything.”
Luckily, Purton had some of the best teachers in the world in the form of the horse owners themselves. Over the years, he has found himself sitting at illustrious restaurants side by side with some of the most successful men and women in the city—and he doesn't let these opportunies pass.
“I see it as such a privilege being able to interact with these people,” he says. “I always ask questions and really feed off what they tell me. I’m starting to understand how successful people think and do things, and I’m learning how to translate that into being an entrepreneurial and successful jockey. I think the biggest lesson I have learned is never to be afraid of failure—to have a ‘never die and never give up’ attitude. They tell me that it was not always the first thing they tried that was successful. Instead of crumpling under failure, they tried to understand why it didn’t work, adapt from that, and make the next venture better.”
You have to get to know how much your body can take
— Zac Purton
Although by the sounds of it, Purton is going to struggle to improve on his current situation. “Oh, I think racing in Hong Kong is the pinnacle of racing in the world, for a number of reasons,” he says. “And Hong Kong is an amazing city—it’s a very vibrant, clean, safe place with great restaurants.”
Not that Purton is able to freely enjoy those restaurants for most of the week. When he describes his weight-loss regime, it's hard not to flinch from some of the almost medieval-sounding techniques jockeys deploy before they step on the scales. Prior a big race, he will eat no more than a couple of pieces of fruit and a few steamed vegetables over the course 24 hours. But what sounds far more unpleasant is the dehydration. He allows himself half a cup of water a day, and in order to purge excess water from his body, he will run in a sweat suit and spend up to six hours in a boiling hot bath.
“When jockeys compete we are physically at our worst. We have 24 hours of highly restricted fluid and food, and then—unlike boxers who can have a drink of water after the weigh-in—we have to maintain that weight all day. You have to get to know how much your body can take, and at what point you’re going to get light-headed. Too much weight off, and you can get really giddy.”
As a result of this need to be professionally dehydrated, Purton has been afflicted with kidney stones over the years, some of which have been debilitating enough for him to miss major races.
“I once had three kidney stones in three years, which really threw me off kilter, he says. “I wasn’t drinking water, and then when I had a day off when I could hydrate, I was with the owners having wine. You see, even when it’s not race day, I can’t do what the doctors suggest and drink two to three litres of water, as I would put on weight. So now I do my best to eat really healthily, stay away from soft drinks and drink some water whenever I can.”
Once you worry about what could happen, you’ll never be able to do this job
— Zac Purton
Purton's professional life comes with an element of danger—both from the races, and the health risks of dehydration. Now married with two children, even his flourishing family life isn’t enough to put him off the sport to which he has dedicated his life.
“I love adrenaline and thrill seeking. And we have to forget how dangerous it is—we put it away in a basket we don’t want to think about. Once you worry about what could happen, you’ll never be able to do this job. You need to run on instinct during a big race. I—and I think I have this in common with other top sportsmen—am actually calmer before a huge race than I am at any other time in my life.”
Now there's that Golden Balls energy we're looking for from the David Beckham of Hong Kong sport.
- Photography Moses Ng
- Interview Lee Williamson