Jul 18

Melbourne Cup 2014: Jockey Zac Purton believes Admire Rakti can win

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The barrier draw for this year’s Melbourne Cup was held in the Phar Lap marquee halfway down the Flemington straight an hour after the last race on Saturday. At the back of the darkened room after the draw, the Japanese connections of favourite Admire Rakti stood near the bar and chatted in almost complete anonymity.

The horse’s jockey, Zac Purton, is well known among the racing fraternity but shares similar obscurity, even if he is arguably the best in the world. The reason is his seven years based in Hong Kong, which has seen the 31-year-old land rides – and victories – all over the world but meant he has stayed out of sight in his home country.

In Hong Kong, horse racing is the biggest show in town. Jockeys are feted like rock stars. Having won the jockeys’ championship this year, knocking off South African rival Douglas Whyte, who has won the past 13, Purton is bigger than Bono.

“Rock star might be too strong,” Purton laughs when you suggest this to him. “I don’t see myself as a rock star. I’m a sportsman in a place where racing is everything. Everyone in town knows exactly what’s going on. Wherever you go, the taxi drivers have the form guide sitting next to them. All the bellboys and concierges and drivers have their fingers on the pulse. It creates a lot of excitement.

“It’s good to be involved in a sport that’s so loved. It’s nice. Everywhere you go, people know who you are. The owners look after us. The club is one of the wealthiest in the world. They do things very professionally and properly.”

It is not the man on the street asking for a photo, autograph or information that reminds Purton of racing’s popularity in Hong Kong, but the numbers. “You only have to look at betting turnover,” he said. “We have eight races on a Wednesday night at Happy Valley and 10 on a Sunday at Sha Tin. At the moment, they’re turning over $2.5 billion a week. When you think there’s only a population of 7 million people, that is incredible. That’s when you realise how big racing is here.

“Because I’m in other parts of the world, I don’t get much of a mention in Australia. I’m not concerned about that. I made the choice to come to Hong Kong and it’s a decision I’m very happy I made.”

Purton’s decision to relocate there in 2007 is the reason he has yet to ride a live chance in the Melbourne Cup – and why he is on the back of a Japanese stayer most people want to back heading into Tuesday’s race. His only previous ride in the Cup has been the English stayer Munsef in 2009 – a 50 to 1 prospect that ran an average race to finish 12th.

Before that, he had been offered rides on similar long shots but he would have needed to work hard to make their lowly weights. “I didn’t want to kill myself to do that,” he said.

Purton can make up for missed opportunities with Admire Rakti, whose stirring win in the Caulfield Cup is fresh in the minds of many.

The journey to the ride started two years ago when Purton competed in – and won – the World Super Jockeys Series in Japan. He could forecast then that Japanese owners and trainers were again eyeing the Melbourne Cup, just as they had in 2006 with Delta Blues and Pop Rock.

“If I wanted to put myself in the picture, I had to start showing my face there,” he said. “While I was there, that’s when I was approached and asked if I would like to ride this horse in the Melbourne Cup. Once I looked at his form, and seen he’d finished fourth in the Japan Cup and had won over 3400 metres before, I thought he was worth rolling the dice with. It’s worked to some extent. The fairytale’s not over, hopefully.”

When Purton won the Caulfield Cup, he seemed to be the least surprised by the result.

“I’ve raced against the Japanese horses in Hong Kong and Dubai,” he said. “I’ve travelled to the [Prix de l’] Arc de Triomphe [in France]. I’ve seen the Japanese horses a lot, and I know how good their horses are. Their horses are as good as anyone’s in the world. When they travel, they travel for a reason: it’s because they think they can win. They go very close to winning. Their horses have to be respected.”

He also said the horse’s form had been misinterpreted here. “When people look at his resume and see that he’s only won a group 3 in Japan, when you dissect the rest of his form and see that he’s racing against the likes of [Japanese horse of the year] Gentildonna and [gun colt] Gold Ship … they’re absolute superstars those horses. I just have a better understanding through my travels around the world of the calibre of their horses. Maybe people in Australia have overlooked it. I’m not saying it gives me an edge … it just give me the belief in the horse that he can do it.”

Carrying 58.5 kilograms, the horse will need that class if he is to win the Cup.

Purton flew into Melbourne late on Monday and will leave at the end of the week. Victory would almost tick every box there is for the jockey, but that does not mean he will be returning to Australian any time soon.

Purton and his wife, Nicole, the daughter of legendary jockey Jim Cassidy, celebrated the birth of their first child last month.

“But I don’t see myself coming back to Australia in the short term,” he said. “We only race twice a week. I live on the track at Sha Tin. I walk to work. I play golf every week. Here, I call myself a part-time jockey. You’ve got a much better quality of life here, but I am away from my friends and family. I miss the lifestyle in Australia. You can’t have the best of both worlds.”

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