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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

It's all "Fat Zac", the apex predator

We have to go back to the peak Douglas Whyte years for the level of anticipation that hovers around this season Hong Kong jockeys' championship.

There came a point midway through Whyte's 13 successive titles where the "man bites dog" story of him being defeated was the only chance that it wouldn't be a yawn - and that's where "Fat" Zac Purton sits going into day one of 2023-24.

It's a testament to his domination that the most interesting early season about Purton at this stage of term is that he let himself blow out to 63 kg during the summer, or about 8.5 kg over his best fighting weight just over 2 weeks from the opening day. No doubt that will quickly come down with work and racing in the hot, humid Hong Kong weather at this time of year but it does ask the question of whether his opportunities might have some limitations early in September.

He has won more internationals than anyone, possibly more G1 races than anyone too - certainly in this century, though it's not easy to define those for riders like Cruz and Moore from a totally different era.

Purton has won every feature in Hong Kong, many of them more than once, and has had those career-defining associations with a champion (that most jockeys would dream to have once) with Beauty Generation, Aerovelocity, Exultant and now Lucky Sweynesse.

His freshly-minted record for wins in a season, with 179 last campaign, was 21.4 per cent of all races run, just pipping Joao Moreira's 170 and 21 per cent of 808 races in 2017.

At this time last year, it seemed unlikely that Purton would still be riding now and, even by his own admission recently, his plan was to ride the December international meeting then pull the pin. What changed that was the evaporation of Covid19 restrictions and striking up a strong connection, professionally and socially, with new trainer Jamie Richards and his partner Danielle Johnson, which Purton says put some fun back into life at Sha Tin.

So, he's back but for how long? What is there really for Purton to chase now?

The Australian has six Hong Kong championships, so he's a very long way behind Whyte on that score and won't ever equal that achievement. And, although he has levelled up with legendary Tony Cruz on that score, he is still only fourth-best for titles won and that won't sit easily with the Aussie champ.

Still ahead of him with seven titles in Hong Kong are the great South African Basil Marcus (between 1991 and 1999) and compatriot Gary Moore, also with the seven Hong Kong championships he won between 1974 and 1985. (Moore also found time to win a French championship too during that period.)

By the end of this season, barring injury or something unforeseen and very significant, that should be seven titles and a carer win tally somewhere within half a season of toppling Whyte's 1,813 career victories. That is the record one suspects Purton would like as it not only erases one more Whyte benchmark from the record books - there has never been any love lost between the two - but will set a level that will take some getting in the future.

What happens after that is anyone's guess but Purton, who turns 41 in January, admits that even riding another year or two is a case of constant management and monitoring regarding his physical well-being. His swollen shape out of the summer break really underlines that.

The ultimate apex predator now, he has no realistic threats on the track.

Hugh Bowman is good enough to make life more difficult for Purton but would need to be a few pounds lighter himself to make that situation happen and he simply isn't of a mind to put himself under the strain of wasting at the age of 43.

Vincent Ho had a tremendous 2022-23 and, although he starts the season slightly late after injuries from a fall in Japan, he, Karis Teetan and Bowman will be in play for the runner-up position behind Purton.

As expected, the young South African riders Lyle Hewitson and Luke Ferraris made progress last term to finished fifth and equal ninth, respectively. Hewitson landed 50 wins, always a good Hong Kong season, and he has plenty of scope to improve on that again - it wouldn't take a lot to put him into that group contesting the quinella position.

For Ferraris, who still only turns 22 in December, a progressive 35 was an outstanding second season and he was building strongly as the campaign closed.

The other interest is in their fellow South African, Keagan De Melo, at his first sighting and the returning Italian, Andrea Atzeni, who made very little impact at all in a stint that he cut short in 2014.

De Melo, 30 on September 24, has been a fairly slow burn in his career at home, always fairly successful without threatening the top echelons until the past two or three years, and claimed his first South African championship just this year. That coincided with him getting married and starting a family so perhaps there's a link.

Sardinian-born Atzeni, 32 in March, came to Hong Kong nine years ago, already a G1 and classic-winning rider in England. After 3 wins from 77 rides, Atzeni tapped out and ended his contract early and it was easy to see why - only a handful of those rides started under 10-1. He returned to the UK to be one of the elite riders thereafter through links with major owners before battling a little as a freelancer in the past 12 months.

His support from owners and trainers the first time was non-existent - something we have become used to seeing in Hong Kong with many riders based in Great Britain or Ireland - so whether that improves this time around will be critical. Atzeni says he was not ready for Hong Kong when he came the first time but the bigger question is whether Hong Kong is ready for him.

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