Sixteen years ago, a 24 year old Australian jockey jockey named Zac Purton arrived in Hong Kong with wife Nicole.
It was one giant leap into the whatever was there for the relatively unknown rider.
After all, at the time, Hong Kong was known as a city that had made many rich very quickly and which also seduced many before eventually spitting them out towards the direction of the old Kai Tak airport.
This would usually happen when the Independent Commission Against Corruption would start to close in on the efforts of certain jockeys and their enablers to try and get too rich too quickly by allowing that sweet bird of greed to fly up their noses.
That’s a story of snippets and observations all about this Hong Kong and today’s Hong Kong in my upcoming autobiography...
Horse racing as always took its lead from the mood of the city. It still does.
In early 2000, taking its lead from the nineties, Hong Kong was continuing as a fat cat city with super exclusive escort clubs like Club BBoss, China City, Tonnochy Ballroom, karaoke lounges, fabulous looking young women from all over Eastern Europe doing the maths and looking for financial security, wannabe celebrity chefs, and with famous actors and actresses and Rock stars making the scene along with crooks, triads and loveable rogues.
The once barren rock was a surreal Disneyland and Playboy Mansion and meeting point for those with the necessary connections.
As always, and going back to the Sixties and Seventies, everything going on in the city somehow dovetailed into the world of horse racing.
Thinking about it, all this glamorous and highly addictive lifestyle is what made horse racing sexy and exciting off course and which in turn enhanced the on course experience.
Those who wanted to make their mark in Hong Kong horse racing knew that if they were able to pass the various “auditions” held along the way, the rewards behind the velvet rope would be plentiful.
For Zac Purton- and wife Nicole- he didn’t hit the ground running and wasn’t exactly given the keys to the city.
He was just another Aussie jockey amongst the chasing pack and no one to get excited about. He was yet to find his mojo.
One Trainer back then mentioned how he would like to use him more but that Zac was “unlucky”.
A couple of others mentioned how some owners and their wives or mistresses “didn’t like his face”.
Still, Zac Purton hung in there with his face and took it all in at a time when South African Jockey Douglas Whyte was dominating racing in the city.
Ten years older than the Australian jockey, Whyte had done his due diligence.
He was king of the mountain and part of a formidable team with Trainer John Size before that partnership suddenly went up in flames.
Size also mattered to Joao Moreira. That partnership probably went longer than it should have much like a marriage on borrowed time.
What’s telling is how it was only quite recently that the champion Trainer started to use the services of the rider known these days as the Zac Attack.
All the time, the Australian was learning about the lay of the land, and, very possibly, how quickly things could change- including the brand personality of the city.
The education process came from owners and their friends and family, Trainers and their friends and family, those other riders who came and went, bloodstock agents, the modus operandi of the Hong Kong Jockey Club, and all those others on the periphery who somehow had something to do with horse racing.
He didn’t let his mistakes hold him back. He learned from them and fine-tuned his business and career strategies and moved forward.
For example, like many in horse racing at the time, and after he had become champion Hong Kong jockey for the first time in 2013, Zac Purton found the need to become part of the horse racing Twitteratti.
This went on until either he got tired of the online platform or others got tired of his twittering.
He had more important things to do...
These days, after seeing off the thirteen year reign of Douglas Whyte, then Joao Moreira and becoming his own brand, ZP has elevated himself to Instagram Influencer status and where he displays the six star lifestyle he enjoys with wife Nicole and their two kids Cash and Roxie.
When you’ve got it, flaunt it, right?
Where many in the world are today is somewhere no one really knows.
Everything has become an upside down fruitcake that some refer to as post pandemic malaise.
It’s becoming more and more difficult to see how to make things work as there’s less and less out there to make this current generation actually happy.
There’s also a King Midas in reverse movement happening and which is probably one very key reason that many with something to offer this world are far more selective about where and what and with who they wish to be associated.
Those involved in the marketing of gambling-driven horse racing, especially in Hong Kong where it remains the city’s “favourite pastime” largely because of a lack of choices, and wondering why many of those “right” customers belonging to the savvy, financially independent, risk averse and female-led 32-45 age group are not attracted to the racing party, need to wake up and smell the dim sum.
These days, and let’s face it, when Hong Kong stalled for 4-5 years it became an old person’s Facebook city with very little to offer except memories and constant reminiscing.
Entertainers are the usual suspects who mainly perform at various functions and are now in their forties and fifties.
Twenty years ago is a long time gone.
There’s also a very marked difference these days between going out at night and going out in the afternoon...and deciding to go out at all.
Time management to many is more important than ever before and time- and technology, like 'live' streaming services- have changed everything and keep many indoors.
Meanwhile, one has learned to look towards Zac Purton when trying to gauge where horse racing in Hong Kong is at on the Richter scale of relevance.
He’s promised to give an answer about his future in the game by the end of April and one hopes there’s no vacillating.
What might be described as “the business model” of the Hong Kong Jockey Club is more than likely going to be forced to undergo change as, well, nothing lasts forever.
It has to in order to be part of the whole new Hong Kong dim sum basket and how and where the Club fits into China’s plans known as the Greater Bay Area project.
These could be exciting times for the future of the city if willing to embrace change and with the Chief Executive of Hong Kong John KS Lee very much a favourite of the leaders in the Central Government in Beijing.
Even the powerful need to feel loved by the more powerful.
As for Zac, with his recent taste of riding two Group One winners back home at Randwick, these have no doubt shown him what a lift he still gets riding elite equine athletes- and how being back in Sydney with his family helps his headspace.
All this, plus being forty, thinking of everything he’s gone through over the past 3-4 years like nursing injuries while locked down in Hong Kong racing’s notorious bubble of discontent, are definitely not lost on Zac.
It probably narrows things down as to which way he will be heading.
He has all the money he needs. Anything else is extra gravy without having to extend himself.
Zac and I come from very different and also very similar backgrounds.
We weren’t born with silver spoons in our mouths, we very probably still carry massive chips on our shoulders, and could be ruthlessly ambitious and arrogantly difficult.
We’re also no fools, and see through the games and never forgive nor forget.
I remember how he and Neil Callan were the only people in horse racing along with Nick Columb to attend the funeral of my great friend, confidante and all-knowing barrister Kevin Egan.
Big Kev knew much about Hong Kong racing and helped those in the game whom he trusted.
He was a good man and deserved a more respectful farewell.
Zac has achieved much and transcends the one trick ponies in horse racing along with those who only know how to speak from both sides of their mouths.
He’s different gravy in a dish needing some extra relish and more exciting new recipes to ensure that it continues to enjoy the long run.
The Hounds of the Baskerville are barking
The garden gnomes are laughing
One-time glories are quickly fading
And Sinatra is singing “My Way” again
Copyright © Hans Ebert