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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

Have absent riders left anything for Purton - or only his rivals?

Zac Purton made an interesting point last week when he said the new landscape on the Hong Kong jockey scene is an opportunity for others as much as, perhaps even more than it is for him.

The champion jockey pointed out just how many rides would not have a name pencilled in for them ahead of time with the absence or departure of not only Joao Moreira but quite a few well-established names.

Purton gave his supporters a taste of the year ahead on Sunday at the first meeting when he was favourite or close to it in almost every race and delivered two wins on two favourites.

Make no mistake, Purton is going dominate the championship, barring injury, and there will be days where he rides five winners - and maybe he will even manage a new personal best and win six sometime - but the market is so conscious of his dominance that it's going to be a bumpy ride for those punters who go chips in on Purton. It will be like the heydays of Douglas Whyte - bet well because the rebate might be your best chance of making a profit.

The popular conclusion is that, with Moreira out of the picture, Purton is going to ride a stack more winners, sucking up some of the winners of departed jockeys to pile onto what he was already doing. But is that even possible?

Last season, Purton won 136 races at a win rate of 21.4 per cent from 635 rides and it is that number of rides that looks an interesting stat.

It is no accident that Purton's highest tally of rides came in the first year he won the title, with 639 mounts in 2013-14, or that his second title occurred in sync with his second-best tally. His third-best was in 2016-17, then it drops away sharply, but those are the three times he has been able to top a century of wins.

Also not coincidental is that Purton has been healthy and also well-behaved in those three seasons, racking up a total of four careless riding bans, including just one each in the last two seasons. For a fairly aggressive jockey tactically, that is quite an amazing record, and one he'll be wanting to hold onto if he is to even match last season's win total.

So how many winners Purton can ride is limited by how many mounts he has in the just over 800 races this season but, unlike Moreira, who averaged 40 more rides a season than Purton, he is also limited by weight.

Basically, you can draw a line for Purton at 120 pounds. In the last 5 years, he has ridden just 3 times at 118 - none since May, 2014 - and 16 times at 119 pounds, six of them last season. (And, in case you're wondering, since I know you are, 7 of those 19 have won but only one in the last 2 years.)

You would expect in a Hong Kong environment that is over 96 per cent handicap races, that weight should be a major factor in the winners as well as the mounts available.

As in most places - but certainly not as bad as some jurisdictions, where winners get almost a free kick for banking a major cheque - Hong Kong handicap races are slightly kinder overall to winners than to the vanquished.

There is a tendency for horses at the top of the weights to win slightly more than their share. This graph shows the win distribution for each handicap weight carried in the 3,945 races over the past 5 seasons. (Probably best to ignore the really light ones under 133 pounds, as you're getting into very small samples.) And there's a nice gentle downward trend from the success rate of the topweights, with 133 pounds, down to the lighter-weighted runners.

Repeat for horses considered winning chances at $11 or less (green line below) though, and you actually get a more even trend line through different weights. This graph actually suggests the handicaps are doing their job of evening things up, until you get to the very small samples under 133 pounds and things go crazy again. (For example, only 5 horses with 103 pounds to carry started $11 or under in those five years and 1 won, so you're looking at a strike rate of 20 per cent that can't be trusted.)

The advantage of the light weight is often overstated. Moreira, for example, won more than three races on horses weighted 120 or higher for every race he won on a horse under 120 pounds.

What does this mean for the jockeys' title or, in this case, for how many more winners Purton will ride as The King?

What stands out immediately is the Rides Unavailable column. Each season, Purton's body weight limitations shut him out of being able to take rides on around a quarter of all runners and , over time, there were generally 150-160 wins from that group of runners and therefore victories that were never available to him.

But was Purton actually missing genuine chances to win those races? Last season, for example, Purton still rode in almost 79 per cent of all races and less than 10 per cent of his rides started longer than 11.0. So, most of the time, whenever his weight cut him out of one ride, he was managing to find a worthwhile substitute that did have his weight. Sure, we can think of a few choice occasions when it certainly cost Purton a win but that was a handful.

So, the question is: if Purton is to win more races than he has been able to do previously, is he able to push his number of mounts closer to 700? And, if he is already riding in as many races as he can ride, can he improve his strike rate beyond last season's personal best?

If the answer to each is no, and that seems the most likely answer, then he might have a ceiling around last season's 136 wins, and that in a season when neither suspensions nor health issues came against him.

Which really does mean that all the rides of Moreira, Rawiller, Prebble, Doleuze and Berry, really are up for grabs for his pursuers - and that makes the quinella spot the most intriguing part of the season's jockey race.

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