One of the fiercest Champion Jockey battles in recent memory concluded in thrilling fashion at Hong Kong’s Season Finale at Sha Tin today as Zac Purton claimed his second title, sealing the result with victory on Rise High in the Class 1 Sha Tin Mile Trophy Handicap (1600m).
Purton, who was born in Lismore in New South Wales, Australia, ended with a tally of 136 wins for the season, compared to runner-up Joao Moreira’s 134. As a measure of their domination, third-placed Karis Teetan rode 52 winners.
“It’s been a long, damp day,” a visibly-relieved Purton said as he returned to the jockeys’ room in the moments after claiming victory in the Champion Jockey race.
“It’s good to finally put it to bed, it’s a relief. Joao’s a fierce competitor and we both gave it our absolute all. It’s what everyone expected, that it would come down to the last four races, and I feel like I can finally enjoy the rest of the day now that it’s over.”
Purton, who had won his first title in 2013/14, entered the 11-race Season Finale meeting four wins ahead of rival and defending champion Moreira. However, the Brazilian struck the first blow, winning the opener, the Class 5 Medic Kingdom Handicap (1800m), on the David Hall-trained Cash Courier.
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Moreira would later add wins on the Tony Millard-prepared Bold Stitch and Superich for Frankie Lor, but by then, it was too late; Purton, who had relinquished the title to Moreira in 2014/15 and then finished a distant second to the Magic Man as he set new benchmarks in 2015/16 and 2016/17, had finally prevailed.
“I thought I was going to be able to win it quite comfortably, but then Joao seemed to get a second wind,” Purton said. “It’s been a tense last month, he’s often had the better book of rides and I’ve just had to hope that I could hold on – that was the case today. As things turned out, one win was enough to hold on.
“I think this is sweeter than the first one. I always thought I was going to win the first one, it was very comfortable for most of the season, but this one I never really looked likely so it is definitely sweet to come from behind Joao and beat him.”
Moreira will depart for Japan after today’s meeting and received a rapturous reception from fans in the Sha Tin parade ring.
“The relationship I have with the fans here in Hong Kong is something special and I really do love them all,” the Brazilian said. “All of these great times I’ve had over here, including today, it is something that I won’t just remember but it’s something that will always sit in my heart.
“Zac deserved to win the premiership, I think he worked harder than me to be honest and he’s also got the right support and made good use of it. But it’s been an amazing season for me and I can’t be disappointed. Very few jockeys can ride over 130 winners in a season, so I’m very proud of what I’ve been able to achieve in my time here. I leave with my head held high.”
Lofty aims for Rise High after Sha Tin Mile Trophy win
The Caspar Fownes-trained Rise High looks to have some of Hong Kong’s biggest races on his radar after taking the traditional end-of-season feature, the Sha Tin Mile Trophy.
Rise High was coming off two eye-catching wins and only added to his burgeoning reputation with a length and three-quarter success over G1 winner Rivet, who produced his best run since his arrival in Hong Kong. Purton admitted the yielding track was a concern for the Myboycharlie four-year-old heading into the Class 1 contest.
“Obviously, he’s a progressive horse, it was just a matter of whether he was going to handle the track today,” Purton said. “Caspar had given him a little bit of an easy time since his last run so, with the ground the way it is, he might have just been a little soft as well. But he showed his class today and every start he’s having, his race brain is getting better – he’s relaxing better, he’s helping himself out now instead of working against himself.”
Five of the last six winners of the Sha Tin Mile Trophy have gone on to G1 success the following season, and Fownes holds high hopes that Rise High can join that group.
“He’s a very nice horse and I’ve got a lot of time for him,” he said. “We skipped the Derby with him because I thought it would be the making of the horse. I’ve just given him the time he’s needed and he’s come out and shown us that he’s very progressive. This time next year, I think we’ll be seeing a horse rated 120, no problems.
“If he can come out at his first couple of runs next season and show us that he’s a Group 1 horse, that’s what we are looking for. Obviously, Class 1 and Group 1 is totally different, but he’s a horse that keeps improving and I think the summer break will be beneficial to him. We won’t rush him, but we would love to get to December with him and it won’t take much for his rating to get there.”
Fownes is excited for what next season may hold with Kranji Mile winner Southern Legend joining Rise High on the potential path to the LONGINES Hong Kong International Races at the end of the year.
“It’s about time, I love having these sorts of horses and we just haven’t had a lot of luck recently,” the trainer said.
“I’ve got my fingers crossed now, they both look to be progressive and they both look to be versatile. Rise High looks like you can race him anywhere from a mile to 2000m, while Southern Legend showed he can win from on the speed last time out which is gold over here. We tried that with Rise High today too, we took advantage of the good gate and he delivered.”
The second feature of the day, the Class 2 Hong Kong Racehorse Owners Association Trophy Handicap (1400m), produced a thunderous cheer from the crowd as Purton and Moreira went head-to-head in the closing stages. However, coming through along the inside was 13-time champion rider Douglas Whyte aboard the Francis Lui-trained Star Shine, prevailing in a pulsating photo finish with the last three Champion Jockeys separated by a small margin.
Almost 32,000 spectators flocked to Sha Tin for the Season Finale meeting, which brought the Hong Kong term to an end after 88 racedays and 807 races.
Final Champion Awards presented
After racing, Purton was recognised as Champion Jockey in a ceremony in which the final Champion Awards were also presented.
Derek Leung was accorded his second consecutive Tony Cruz Award as the leading homegrown rider. He scored 37 wins this term, just holding off apprentice Matthew Poon, who rode 35 winners.
John Size was awarded his 10th Champion Trainer title in 18 seasons, having won 87 races this campaign.
The result of the publicly-chosen Most Admired Overseas Horse was also revealed, with Australia’s champion mare Winx scoring the title for the second year in a row with over 60% of the vote.
The 2018/19 Hong Kong racing season will begin on Sunday, 2 September.