When I first met Zac Purton a couple years back, I was impressed by his drive, ambition, and matter of fact style of speaking. But what really struck me about this clean-cut young man was that he was all business and as serious as a heart attack. There were times Zac didn’t care for, or even understand my odd sense of New York humor but he’s always been a complete gentleman about it. I recently spoke with Zac to see what he was up to lately and thought a column on my friend would be interesting.
Zac Purton is an Australian jockey who has been riding in Hong Kong since 2007, where horse racing is the number one sport. He made history there, in the 2013-2014 season, becoming the first Australian jockey to win the riding title since 1991 and only the third ever from his country to do so. It was also a pretty big deal, as in winning the title, he ended the 13-year champion reign of Douglas Whyte. Zac has also won the International Jockeys Championship, which is the richest jockey challenge in the world. He’s also won the World Super Jockeys Series in Japan and ridden in 9 different countries and has been first or second in the jockey standings in Hong Kong for the last 7 years. This 35-year-old has some major accomplishments on his resume, and he’s not done yet!
Zac grew up on a farm in New South Wales but was the only person in his family that desired a spot on the racetrack. He was extremely athletic, participating in cricket and rugby as a youth but being of small stature, he got banged up on a regular basis. Zac decided to become a professional jockey and a local horse trainer took him under his wing. The aspiring rider responded with great intent. He dropped out of school to pursue his dream and was obsessive about his quest for knowledge about horses and the racing industry. Zac scored his first winner in 2000, at the age of 17 and went on to the winner’s circle 144 more times in that very first year of racing.
I asked Zac how he would describe himself. He humbly stated: “I’m just a small town country kid who was born with a gift. I’m one of the luckier ones.” I believe there is more skill than luck involved but it hasn’t all been a cakewalk for Zac. When I asked him about injuries and broken bones, he started to rattle off a long list and I ran out of fingers trying to count. It would be easier to list the bones he hasn’t broken. Twenty horse fields, or more, are the norm in Hong Kong and it’s easy to get bruised and battered in the chaos of a crowded race.
Zac also fights a daily battle with his weight. Like most jockeys, Zac often has to lose decent amounts of weight in a hurry but his situation seems to be a bit more extreme than most. If he is even one pound overweight, he won’t be allowed to compete. In the two months a year Zac has off, he gives his body a break, eating well and rehydrating. But it comes with a price. Zac often has to take off 15-20 lbs. while getting back to riding weight. When riding, he allows himself only one glass of water a day and very little food. This leads to dehydration and Zac has had problems with kidney stones and even had to ride during a bad attack, yet still managed to run second in the race. 18 years of severe dehydration have left Zac with osteoporosis and other assorted ailments.
Zac told me: “We, as jockeys, sometimes come into a race in the worst shape possible; dehydrated and half starved. Add on the aches and pains of broken bones and this sport can be quite brutal on the body. It’s the only sport I know of, where an ambulance follows you around the track.”
I asked Zac if he ever had a really great, odd or spiritual moment in racing, that he might want to share with our readers.
He pondered the question a bit but jumped in quickly. “I was riding Admire Rakti, a Japanese horse in the Melbourne Cup, who was favored to win. He was storming home, really strong but started wobbling in the stretch like he was drunk. I eased him down and we walked him back to the stable and he just died. He had a heart attack and if he had gone down in the lane, I was in the second position and had 20 horses behind me and probably would’ve been killed. In a way, that horse saved my life.”
Having gone over a truckload of Zac’s races while researching this article, I noticed something outstanding from Mr. Purton’s rides. He sparingly uses the whip, even in very big races! There are always close finishes where Zac gives a few solid taps but he knows where he is on a racetrack and feels the reaction of the horse. If he is three lengths in front 50 yards out from the wire, he merely shows the horse the stick and vigorously hand rides to the finish. If there is a negative reaction, Zac will immediately notice and put away the whip. Something rather rare and unique, in today’s horse racing world.
Zac is also a devoted family man, living in harmony with his wife, Nicole, two-year-old daughter, Roxy and one-year-old son, Cash. He’s also a pretty smart cookie and a shrewd investor who has a wealth manager to advise him on where to spread his loot and let it reproduce. Although he has no immediate plans to retire, Zac has acquired several properties in Australia and hopes to retire on a farm there with his family.
Zac Purton is all business, on and off the racetrack!