John Moore (left) and Zac Purton (centre) aboard Beauty Generation after winning the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Cup on February 17, 2019. (Supplied: HKJC)
At just 14 years of age, Zac Purton made a decision that would change his life.
He decided to skip school for a day.
“I jumped at the opportunity,” Purton recalls with a cheeky smile.
Instead of walking through the gates of Coffs Harbour High, the schoolboy went to an RSL club for a jockey recruitment seminar.
Not long after, before finishing year nine, Zac walked away from the classroom permanently to join a local stable and become a student of horse racing.
“I studied all the best jockeys around the world; I asked them a lot of questions to try to find out how they think,” he says.
“I just tried to replicate what they do.”
The 37-year-old is now one of the best jockeys on earth, and the reigning champion rider in Hong Kong.
He piloted horses that won a record $43 million ($HK235 million) in prize money last season, and personally pocketed at least $2 million from that haul.
The boy from the bush is a celebrity in a Chinese region where horse racing is the number one spectator sport.
Turning an issue into a career
Zac Purton, Nicole Purton, and their children Roxy and Cash at home in Sha Tin, Hong Kong. (ABC News: Robert Koenig-Luck)
The megabucks of Hong Kong’s racing scene are furlongs away from Purton’s humble beginnings.
“I had terrific parents and a good family, but we never had a lot of money.”
Purton was born in Lismore, New South Wales and lived in New Zealand and South Australia before his parents settled on the NSW mid-north coast. His dad Phil drove taxis while mum Liz took to running a laundromat.
The couple soon became worried about their eldest son’s development and Zac was diagnosed with delayed growth. He was years behind other kids his age.
Even when he started with local horse trainer Trevor Hardy, he weighed just 27 kilograms and was too weak to control a 500-kilogram thoroughbred around a racetrack.
“It definitely hasn’t been smooth sailing all the way through,” he says.
But his raw talent was undeniable.
Within four years of his first race, Purton claimed the 2003 Brisbane jockeys’ premiership — while still an apprentice.
Before long, he was 24 years old and gambling his own future on the glitzy Asian racing hub of Hong Kong.
“I thought, ‘If I want to take my skills to the next level, I have to go and test myself in the toughest environment in the world.'”
Best in the world?
After more than a decade, Purton has certainly passed that test.
In 2014, he became just the third Australian to win Hong Kong’s jockeys’ championship, and has twice reclaimed that crown.
For every hour the Australian has raced at Happy Valley or Sha Tin racecourses this season, his horses have claimed about $2 million ($HK10.5 million) in prize money.
Jockeys get 10 per cent of the cheque for each win and 5 per cent for a placing.
“Zac Purton could be the best jockey in the world,” says Hong Kong-based Australian journalist Michael Cox.
“He dominated last season.”
Australian jockey Zac Purton appearing on a billboard at Sha Tin racecourse. (ABC News: Robert Koenig-Luck)
Purton appears in ads on billboards and trams around the city — sporting a three-piece suit with bowtie in some and racing silks in others — and cannot go anywhere without being recognised.
“It is nice that people on the street wish me luck and say hello,” he says.
“But I quite like the anonymity that’s involved with going home [to Australia] and just being able to morph back into society.”
While his contract limits the time he can spend racing outside Hong Kong, Purton has also claimed major Group One races on Australian tracks, including the Caulfield Cup in Melbourne and Doncaster Handicap in Sydney.
Escaping the unrest
Around $250 million ($HK1.35 billion) in bets are placed on every race meeting in the territory, which is home to about 7 million people.
“Hong Kong racing features the highest per race prize money in the world, and huge betting pools,” Mr Cox says.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club is the largest single taxpayer in the semi-autonomous region. And luckily for its battered government, racing escaped 2019’s pro-democracy unrest mostly unscathed.
Gambling revenue during the first three months of this season — an estimated $6.5 billion ($HK35 billion) — was roughly the same as last year.
That’s despite crowds plunging by an estimated 40 per cent and several meetings being cancelled as a precaution.
“I think they’ve done very well to avoid the type of trouble that other organisations in Hong Kong have suffered,” Mr Cox says.
“[But] the Hong Kong Jockey Club would be very nervous.”
How nervous? The territory’s unloved leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, stayed away from the opening race day of the season where the feature event was the Chief Executive’s Cup.
Relationships the key
The jockey club is one of the city’s most elite institutions, boasting a membership list stacked with the rich and influential.
Building relationships with two of the wealthiest horse owning families, the Kwoks and the Sius, has powered Purton’s career.
Zac Purton (left), John Moore (second from left) and three members of the Kwok family after winning the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Cup on February 25 2018. (Supplied: HKJC)
The Kwoks started an Asian cosmetics empire now worth about $1 billion and their aptly-named Beauty Generation is rated the fourth-best thoroughbred in the world. Purton has ridden it exclusively over the past two seasons.
“He really does handle his off-track business in a very professional manner and his relationships with the trainers and the owners,” Mr Cox says.
The straight-talking Aussie was previously out of favour with leading trainers but now he’s regularly aboard the best horses owned by the most powerful racing families.
“That business side of racing here … can be the difference between jockeys of equal ability making it and not making it.”
Purton will meet owners morning, afternoon or night for coffee or a meal, talking with them about their horses while in turn collecting nuggets of business and financial advice.
“I’m interested in their story, how they’ve been successful, the way they think, the way that they run their businesses,” he says.
“I try and absorb that and when it comes to making a decision, I can put all that into practice.”
High reward, low risk
Purton now has a growing investment portfolio of property, shares and other assets, as he and wife Nicole work to give their children Roxy and Cash the best start in life.
“If I’m going to do the right thing by my family, [Hong Kong] is the place that is going to set us up,” he says.
“I’ve got a lifespan as a jockey; I’ve got to make the most of it while I can.
“Hopefully I invest wisely and when I do retire, I’ve got enough passive income coming in to continue to enjoy my life.”
Fellow Australians Blake Shinn and Regan Bayliss call the city home, while a handful of other Aussies — including champion Hugh Bowman — regularly jet north for hit-and-run missions.
Journalist Michael Cox says Hong Kong’s lure for horsemen is simple to explain: “Huge prize money, low tax, and racing twice a week only.”
Aussie trainers raking it in
Australian trainer John Size after his horse Ping Hai Star won the Hong Derby at Sha Tin, in 2018. (Supplied: HKJC)
While the club’s riding championship has often proved elusive for Australians, the opposite is true for trainers.
In nearly five decades of professional racing in the jurisdiction, Aussies have claimed the training crown for most wins in a season over 30 times.
Queenslander John Size has notched up 11 premierships since touching down in 2001 and holds the record for most prize money won in a season — $32 million ($HK176 million) in 2017/18.
Size only claimed his latest championship after going neck and neck with fellow Australian John Moore until the final day of last season.
Not that Moore is short of trophies and accolades; he holds the Hong Kong records for all-time career wins and prize money.
“I’ve earned in excess of $HK1.5 billion ($340 million) in the 30 years I’ve been here,” Moore says.
“That’s probably a GDP to some of the countries [around the world]!”
The Moore dynasty
Moore has called Hong Kong home since 1971 after heading to Asia for a “working holiday” as a junior jockey.
His late father George Moore — a legendary rider in Australia during the 1950s and 1960s — soon followed and the pair trained horses together for many years.
George Moore claimed 11 trainers’ premierships with John as his assistant.
“The Moore family was very important to the building of Hong Kong racing in the 70s and early 80s,” John Moore says.
Now, it’s John’s son George and the bloodstock business he runs in Hong Kong — finding and selecting horses from around the world for buyers – that will help continue the family’s connection to racing in the region.
Why? Because this is John Moore’s last season as a trainer in the city.
He’s about to turn 70, hitting a local age limit the jockey club previously extended just for him.
Now to tick some remaining items off his wish list, including back home.
“I still haven’t won a Group One [in Australia],” John Moore says.
“So that’s definitely part of the bucket list.”