Picture: GETTY IMAGES/IAN FORSYTH
Picture: GETTY IMAGES/IAN FORSYTH

At the age of 14, he skipped school lessons to go riding horses on an Australian beach. Now — 23 years later — he is in the category of the “rich and famous” in the sport of horse racing.

Jockey Zac Purton might not be a household name like Frankie Dettori, but he certainly is in Hong Kong. While there is little to set the pulses racing for racing fans during lockdown, the battle for the riders’ title between Purton and Brazilian-born Joao Moreira has many on the edge of their lounge seats.

A five-timer at Happy Valley on Wednesday night gave Purton the lead in the title race with his tally this term being 114 against Moreira’s 110.

In his youth in Australia, the beach-loving Purton’s mentor was Trevor Hardy. “You could tell he was always going to be good.”

They proved prophetic words. Purton won the Brisbane Premiership as an apprentice in 2003, but it was his move to Hong Kong for the 2007/08 season which saw his career take off.

Though that first season yielded just 23 winners, Purton persevered and he was rewarded with his first Hong Kong championship in the 2017/18 season, when he rode 136 winners including five grade 1 successes.

Hardy says in Australia Purton could at times be cheeky. “If he didn't think the horse was any good he'd say: 'this thing is bloody no good'.”

That part of his character has not changed in Hong Kong and one wonders what Moreira thought about a recent interview in the South China Morning Post.

Discussing his rival Moreira, Purton said: “I try not to let people down. Once I give a commitment I try to stick with it. That’s the difference between myself and Moreira.

“He would promise six owners and six trainers that he was going to ride their horse, but you can only ride one. This upsets some people and you can only get away with that for so long.”

Moreira, two years younger than Purton, has demonstrated his riding ability in a number of countries including at home in Brazil, Singapore and Japan. The highlight to date came at Kranji racecourse in Singapore on September 6 2013. With eight booked rides on the nine-race card, Moreira won on all eight mounts to set what is believed to be a world record.

The Brazilian will not be impressed that he has lost the championship lead to Purton and — once again on Wednesday — he found riding winners a lot more difficult at Happy Valley than Sha-Tin.

At Sha-Tin, Moreira can boast 28 winners from 107 mounts, yet at the city track of Happy Valley the last four meetings have yielded just one success from 31 rides.

This was pointed out to him by a South China Morning Post reporter and the jockey's response was: “I’m aware of it, but I’m on top of it, don’t worry about that.”

At the recent Sha-Tin meeting which included a number of grade 1 events, there was disappointment for Purton with the defeat of champion miler Beauty Generation. However, he soon got over that setback when winning the QE11 Cup on Exultant.

There are still 19 race meetings left this term and trainer John Moore — in his last season in the former British colony as you are not allowed to train there when you are over 70 — will be consulting with the horse’s owners whether to run Beauty Generation again and set a record of being the first horse in Hong Kong to win 19 races.

So who will emerge victorious in the title race?

Top trainer Casper Fownes goes for Moreira. “I believe his ability to ride the light weights could be crucial.”