Zac Purton will be without a rival in the new Hong Kong season - but it's good to be the king
The standout contest of the season has been the jockeys’ title that, barring a last-day miracle, will present Zac Purton with a second, and perhaps more meaningful, championship on Sunday.
Given that Purton’s first championship was the one that ended Douglas Whyte’s 13-year reign, it was rather a significant event, historically, but it will always be a what-if kind of win because of the arrival of runner-up, Joao Moreira.
The Brazilian didn’t arrive in Hong Kong until well into October of 2013, so he had already missed a month and a half of the term, he subsequently missed another 15 meetings with suspensions and the Magic Man returned a better strike rate than the championship winner that couldn’t get him home as he had 161 rides fewer.
Despite a margin of 15 wins, there were plenty ready to say that Purton had won the title as the second-best rider.
Whether that was a fair reading or not – after all, staying out of trouble and in the saddle is part of the job of winning titles - that view was reinforced in the following 3 seasons as Moreira thrashed his major opponent and the consensus was that he was the superior rider.
In 2017-18, Moreira has again spent far too much time sidelined. He missed 15 days through careless riding bans picked up in Hong Kong, another couple from a ban in Melbourne and even more as the fallout from a fall on Melbourne Cup day.
Purton, meanwhile, has missed only 4 days riding through careless riding suspensions this season and those differences have allowed him to get his ride tally (624) much closer to Moreira’s (650), after the Brazilian had over 100 rides more than Purton each season since 2013-14.
So, one could argue, that Moreira’s ride tally dropping this season to almost 50 fewer than 2016-17 has been the difference. At his 20 per cent strike rate, that’s 10 winners and enough to swing the title. (It has been rumoured that his difficulties in the stewards’ room in Hong Kong have been a contributing factor to Moreira’s decision to leave and his $180,000 fine at Happy Valley on Wednesday night for careless riding – coming in third to Moreira’s end of season fines of $245,000 and $255,000 to wind up the last two seasons – won’t have gone down well.)
Yet, the difference in this season is that most observers began to remark, from even before Christmas, that Purton was riding at least as well as his rival this time around and many thought he was performing better. Even Purton’s biggest fans expected that Moreira’s light body weight would ultimately tell the story as it meant more choices, more opportunities and the mathematics would take over.
That hasn’t been the case, though, for two reasons – trainers, and horses.
Factor one we have already dealt with in an earlier blog – the shift in allegiances from Moreira to Purton of trainers Caspar Fownes (left),
Danny Shum and Dennis Yip (right).
Those three will finish in the top 10 trainers this season, so losing their support was crucial to Moreira, but the second big factor in Purton’s victory was the overall quality of his rides improving.
In 2016-17, Purton’s rides averaged odds of 9.38 and he won 48 of his 134 rides on outright favourites. Moreira meanwhile, had more rides, they averaged odds of 4.7 and he rode winners on 112 of his 377 favourites.Contrast that with this season.
Purton’s rides have averaged odds of 6.6, he has ridden 221 public favourites, with one more day still to come, and won on 80 of them. Even the quality of his favourites has improved marginally from average odds of 2.996 to 2.875.
Moreira’s stocks have gone the other way. In 2017-18, his mounts have averaged 5.85 and he has ridden “just” 251 outright favourites for 82 wins.
Perhaps those factors are intertwined – when 3 of the top 10 trainers switch from one rider to another, it’s a reasonable expectation that the quality of the rides improves for the second jockey – but they have certainly underpinned the swing in the title.
But then it becomes a chicken-egg situation. Did they switch their support because they saw that Purton was now at least matching Moreira in the saddle, or did Purton’s performance improve because they switched?
It’s hard to pin down, because a horse ridden by Zac Purton in July, 2018 is automatically shorter than the same horse in July, 2017 as the public has gone with the flow and momentum that the Australian has generated.
The bottom line though is that Purton has looked the better jockey this campaign and has looked the best he has ever been himself.
Is the danger now that Purton becomes Rome without Carthage next season, sans Moreira?
The end of the Punic Wars, fought by Rome and the Carthaginians (and their great general Hannibal) between 264 and 146 BC, marked the ascent of Rome to an unassailable place at the top of the known world.
The Romans had needed to keep getting better, smarter and stronger to eventually head off the most worthy rival civilization it ever met – the Carthaginians from what we now call Tunisia and who controlled North Africa, southern Spain and the Mediterranean Sea.
But, when it was done - and the Romans had burned Carthage to the ground and, reputedly, salted the ground to ensure nothing would grow there again - there were no rivals left.
Some voices through history have opined that the beginning of the end for Rome, the starting point of the hubris and social cancers that later ate Rome from the insides and brought it down, was the destruction of its one serious rival.
Purton has always been a very good jockey but has gone to new heights through to his rivalry with Moreira in the last four years and there looks no rival now who will push him to his best to win the championship in 2018-19.
Still, Purton will take some comfort from knowing that Rome held and controlled its empire for another 600 years after destroying Carthage.
It wasn’t all bad.