Top Hong Kong jockey Zac Purton is sipping green tea. He hasn’t drunk a cup of coffee for two years, ever since suffering a severe case of kidney stones. This painful condition was a side effect of him restricting his food and fluid intake in order to keep his weight at 120 pounds. “I had to change my diet completely after that,” he says. Not that his new “diet” allows him to eat much at all.
I mention the word “sacrifice” and Purton turns his level, blue gaze on me, sizing me up the way he might an impertinent racehorse. “If I don’t remain disciplined, I don’t win.” he says, kindly. Discipline has paid off for him: this season Purton has clocked up over 100 wins, his second time to make that milestone and a very respectable return on his hard work.
The 34-year-old Australian has collected some impressive silverware in the 10 years since he moved to Hong Kong, including major trophies in Japan, Singapore and Australia. He is also famous for ending the 13-year reign of Douglas Whyte as Hong Kong’s Champion Jockey, in 2013/14. Purton held the title for only one year before being replaced by Joao Moreira, but he remains philosophical: “When you are on the floor you have to work harder,” he says.
Purton takes a systematic approach towards his work and believes this to be the right attitude for anyone who wants a fulfilling career. His advice is to follow three simple steps: choose something you are interested in, identify someone in that field you admire and imitate their successful habits, then set achievable goals until you attain the position you want.
For a domain as fabulous as that of an international sportsman, this sensible advice seems rather dour. But what works best for Purton is dialing down the emotion, adrenaline and glamour associated with his job. He has a serious demeanor, which persists until he breaks into a naughty grin when asked about the pressures of winning and losing. “You have to be very strong-minded because, in our game, if you don’t win? You basically get your arse kicked. We lose more than we win, so you have to minimize mistakes.”
Purton endures punishing physical training to keep at peak fitness, but he also ensures his mind is well-prepared before a race meeting. The limited number of horses racing in Hong Kong (around 1,200) makes it possible to know every horse well. “You need to understand the horse you are riding and the other horses racing against you,” he says.
Leading up to a race, Purton will ride his horse during early morning exercise on the track at Sha Tin, so he has a good understanding of how the horse is feeling and moving. He also watches video replays of all the horses competing, before creating a speed map of where he believes the runners will be during the race. This helps him decide the position he wants to take at the start, and when to make his move for the finish. He does this preparation for every race he rides.
“You have to go out there with a clear idea of what you are going to do – then you have to execute it,” says Purton. When he actually rides the race, though, he doesn’t give a thought to strategy: for the few minutes he pounds down the track, his mind stills. “It is like you are in a tunnel and you only have eyes for that moment,” he says, looking into the distance. “You are there, but you aren’t there in a sense. You have to remember to breathe.”
Such is his focus that the race result, whether a win or a loss, only affects him briefly. “There is this rush, this adrenaline – but I gather myself quickly with a regular reminder that ‘you are only as good as your last race’. So I need to concentrate on the next,” says Purton.
There was one race that really tested his resilience: the Melbourne Cup on November 4, 2014, when the horse he was riding (and the favorite to win), Admire Rakti, began to act strangely. “You go into the day hoping for so much,” says Purton. “I was very happy with the way the race was unfolding. Then Admire Rakti started to wobble.” Purton pulled the horse up, walked him back to the stables, but on returning to the jockeys’ room, learned that Admire Rakti had died of a heart attack.
“It is really sad,” he says, firmly. “It doesn’t matter if it is a good horse or a slow horse; the death of a horse still leaves an empty feeling within you. I felt pretty down for a couple of days after, but then you are focusing on the next race, so you can’t dwell on that sad feeling. You have to move on.”
Purton’s instincts may have saved his life that day. “I knew something was wrong, so I pulled the horse up. If I had kept pushing him, he could have collapsed on the track and I had 22 horses behind me, I could have died.” Purton is quiet for a second before putting the event into perspective – or rather, the perspective of his wife, Nicole: “My wife always says to me: ‘Win, lose, or draw, as long as you come home safe.’’’
“It is a tough place, Hong Kong. People only want to do business with people who are doing well, and if you aren’t doing well, no one wants to help you. You need someone to lean on”
Now a father of two, Purton finds family life a great comfort and believes that a strong support network is essential for a jockey, especially when working far from his home country. He credits his wife for her support. “It is a tough place, Hong Kong. People only want to do business with people who are doing well, and if you aren’t doing well, no one wants to help you. You need someone to lean on. If you have a happy home life, you can focus on doing your job properly.”
In the 17 years that Purton has been race riding, he does not begrudge a moment of hard work. “Everything I do goes into making me the sportsman who can get on that horse,” he says. “Yes, it gives a great feeling of accomplishment, but it is more satisfying than exhilarating – a job well done.”
This is what makes Purton so impressive: his steely reserve, his refusal to get carried away with his success, and his unwavering work ethic. He doesn’t feel overwhelming elation when winning, but equally does not complain when he has a setback. In a sport where owners, trainers and fans can be hypercritical, Purton holds himself accountable for wins and losses – the cheers or jeers of the crowd barely affect him.
And then, he answers my initial question: “We all have a lot of pressure, we all have to face adversity. Nothing is always as easy as it seems –success does involve sacrifice.”