No room for error in Zac's farewell quest
A career-best day with 7 wins at Sha Tin on Sunday, left Zac Purton one finger short of the eight victories he needed to equal Joao Moreira's record but it was the spur to him targeting another of the Brazilian's Hong Kong records in what may be the Australian champion's last season as a jockey.
Ongoing injuries have taken a toll on Purton both physically and mentally in the past few years and he is clearly nearing the end of a glittering career.
He admits himself that, prior to Sunday's haul, he was operating well below his best and only then with 12 hours a week of physiotherapy. Even after that monster day, Purton says he is just at 90 per cent as injuries don't allow him to train the way he would like.
At one time, his peak ambition was to eclipse Douglas Whyte's record of 1,813 career wins in Hong Kong but, with that number still some two and a half seasons away at his current rate, Purton's eye has turned to toppling Moreira's season record of 170 successes.
Heavier than many of his rivals in Hong Kong, Purton's 168-win season in 2018-19 probably saw him at his absolute peak as a jockey, coinciding with Moreira being uncompetitive after missing a good slice of the season - as he will again this term, if not all of it.
And it sits there in his record as tantalising proof that he can aim for the record without it appearing over ambitious.
Under prior circumstances, it would still look a tough ask but the Australian champion has found a very good ally in the Hong Kong Jockey Club.
And it's all about weight.
When the Jockey Club raised the spread of handicap weights in June by 2 pounds, from 133 to 113 pounds to 135 to 115 pounds, it was certain to assist heavier riders, like Purton, in a general sense but just how much of a positive effect was unclear.
On the simplest calculation, it meant that he would go from being unable to make the weight for around a quarter of the runners every race to only about a sixth, but the reality has been even better for him.
The change to weights started at the June 25 race meeting.
In the four full seasons prior, plus the 769 races of last season up to June 25, Purton rode in around 82 per cent of all races run. Even in the season when he hit 168 wins, Purton only had rides in 83 per cent of the races and somewhere around that number has been his long term figure. That then limits his winners with his winning strike rate over the same five years at about 22 per cent.
However, since the weight changes, Purton has had a remarkable 143 rides in 149 races, which is 96 per cent.
I say remarkable because even Moreira, who had the full field available to him every race, had a long-term participation in only 90 per cent of races. That might have been higher but for his tendency to get himself suspended but, even allowing for that, 96 per cent is an exceptionally high participation level.
So that weight change is the weapon Purton has in his favour if he is to break Moreira’s 170-win record from 2016-17 (he actually won 171 races but lost one just after the season finished with Nashashuk returning a positive post-race drug test).
With 21 wins right now, Purton needs another 150 and, when he rides seven on a day, it looks a small target in 79 more meetings but the mathematics shows he has little room for error.
If we put Purton down for one 2-day suspension - probably about average - then there are probably 745 races left for him in the season.
At his old participation rate, that would be 611 rides and 134 winners to come if he won at the same rate as his average for the last 5 years, 22 per cent.
Strike rates ebb and flow - in 2018-19, when Purton won those 168 races, his win rate was just under 25 per cent, so that would get him over the line, just, but strike rates like that are incredibly rare in Hong Kong racing over a full season.
More promising is the increase in his participation rate.
If he was to continue having rides in 96 per cent of the races available, using the same 22 per cent win rates, he would have another 157 wins to come and 178 in total for a new record.
The downside for the increased participation rate though is what added toll it takes on Purton’s already brittle body, but if there's ever a time when a rider is going to push through his limits to break a towering record, then the farewell tour is the time.