THERE’S a new man about town for the big occasion in Hong Kong.
Zac Purton has been the rider to follow at HKIR the last few years and this weekend he looks set for another memorable afternoon at Sha Tin.
The 36-year-old famously ended Douglas Whyte’s 13-season spell as champ in 2014 and then broke Magic Man, Joao Moreira’s stranglehold of the title in 2018.
After sealing a hat-trick of his own titles this season and winning five HKIR races since 2016, the Aussie is the latest sensation the locals love to scream home on the big day.
With a stellar book of four rides in the Group 1s, Purton is even aiming to better his big race-double on the card last year.
He said: “I’ve ridden two doubles on this card before so it would be nice to win all four, we’ll see what happens!”
The name mentioned wherever you go is new sprinting sensation Aethero, trained by Hong Kong legend John Moore.
He is the red-hot favourite for the £2 million Group 1 sprint and has already dented some big reputations as a three-year-old this season.
Purton, who has had to shed some serious pounds to ride the youngster, said: “It’s nearly game day and I feel good, I’ve burned all the weight off and am excited for the weekend now.
“This is the first time I can remember since I’ve been in Hong Kong that I’ve had to get down to this weight!
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“But I think he could be a special horse and he should be worth it. I don’t even feel the hunger anymore, I’m that used to it!
“He’s still untapped at the moment, but what he’s been doing is very impressive.
“I can’t remember a horse who has done so much in such a short time since I’ve been here in Hong Kong and get to the level he’s at now and he gets in with a really low weight.
“He’s not the finished product, he has a lot to learn mentally but I’d be surprised if he can’t put his best foot forward on Sunday.”
Purton is also back on board the one-time unbeatable Beauty Generation – another horse with a cult following on these shores.
The seven-year-old is officially the best-miler in the world and has won the last two runnings of the Hong Kong mile, and also holds the track record at Sha Tin for good measure.
However he has lost his way of late and the doubts have started to seep in after back-to-back defeats.
Purton continued: “The alarm bells are certainly ringing, he hasn’t been the horse we know he was on his last couple of runs.
“But I think that first up performance certainly took more out of him than we thought. He went to the race well over his usual racing weight and had to carry a big weight that day and ran a track record.
“He just hasn’t had the same zest since, so we’ve freshened him up and his weight is back to what it should be.
“But we came to this race last year hopeful he would win it and this time around we’re just hoping he can bounce back to his best. If the right horse turns up, he’s better than them and we know that.”
The Europeans look to have the greatest chance of an upset in the Hong Kong Vase, worth a cool £2 million and run over a mile-and-a-half.
But the likes of Anthony Van Dyck, Young Rascal and Aspetar all have Purton and likely favourite Exultant to beat, despite the widest draw of all in 14.
Hong Kong’s champion stayer won this race last year, beating Cox Plate winner Lys Gracieux and Arc winner Waldgeist in the process.
Purton said: “He’s possibly under-appreciated in the scheme of things and doesn’t get the credit he deserves because he’s been living under the shadow of Beauty Generation.
“You look back through his form and he’s done nothing wrong. He’s pretty much won everything he can and he’s never let us down – he’s got a great pair of lungs and a great heart. It’ll take a good one to beat him.
“Trainer Tony Cruz has been very complimentary of him. He thinks the horse is going better this season than he was last season.”
Glorious Forever capped a day to remember for trainer Frankie Lor last year, after his star won the Hong Kong Cup just an hour after Lor landed his first top-level success.
Purton jumped off last year to ride Time Warp, but is hoping it’s second time lucky here.
Purton joked: “Missing him last year is about the only thing I’ve done wrong here the last few years!
“But there’s definitely two of him. One of them is very good and one of them can be fairly ordinary.
“The ordinary one turned up last time so let’s hope it’s the other one this time. The indications are that he should turn up to the races and go well, he’s been going well in the mornings.”
Ordinary is not a word used much when Purton is around. Expect plenty of fireworks come Sunday.