By Hans Ebert

Douglas Whyte was the first person to bring him to my attention. It was about eight years ago. “This kid is very good,” said the champion South African rider. “He’s got great hands and certainly has potential. My only concern is that he’s already a tall boy. This might work against him.” It hasn’t.

During the off season, the HKJC sent now 30 year old Derek Leung to France to gain more experience by working for the great trainer Andre Fabre. One understands that Fabre, too, commented on the Hong Kong born rider’s hands. He also mentioned the rider’s attitude. Positive and always willing to learn.

The winner last season of The Tony Cruz Award given to the most successful local rider, he’s afforded more opportunities. Such as joining Douglas Whyte at the HKJC training centre in Conghua and being asked his opinion- it got two thumbs up- is good to see. Derek Leung is liked by everyone who knows him. We’re somehow part of his successes. We ride with him in races. Being part of the Conghua Training Facility from the ground up? As very much another local boy despite not being Chinese, brilliant.

As an aside, word is spreading extremely quickly that especially the air up there in Conghua is out of the ordinary. It’s said to be the home for happy and healthier horses. It’s good to see Derek Leung being part of this evolution of Hong Kong racing. It bodes well for his future in horse racing. It’s good for the image of Hong Kong horse racing. It’s something positive for Hong Kong as a city.

Last season was a watershed year for Derek Leung- three successive wins including Group 1 success in the Longines International Champion’s Mile aboard Hong Kong’s Horse Of Year- the John Moore trained Beauty Generation.

Was Derek Leung short-changed somewhere along the way? Everyone has their opinion. In a perfect world, should the rider have lost the ride? Owners however pay the bills and when the big races come along, the past is back there and it’s about future successes which invariably means getting a truly world class rider aboard their horses. But wait: Didn’t Derek Leung win the Group 1 Longines International Champions Mile against world class riders like Joao Moreira, Ryan Moore, Zac Purton, Gerald Mosse etc? Didn’t this factor into consideration as to whether he should keep the ride or not?

Its tough work for local riders to be given opportunities on horses with winning chances. But to win on them- and in Derek Leung’s case, win on Beauty Generation three consecutive times only to have connections decide that Zac Purton could do a better job, speaks volumes for loyalty. Loyalty in horse racing? Is there such a thing? But this is a subject for another day. Let’s just focus on Hong Kong’s local jockeys…and where they’re heading.

Once upon a time, trainer Tony Cruz was Hong Kong’s champion jockey. Tony was a local jockey. He won every major race in Hong Kong and rode and won against the best in Europe.

How many champion local jockeys have there been since the time Tony Cruz reigned supreme? Yes, Hong Kong has had a number of young riders who showed and show potential, especially when apprentices claiming valuable ten pound allowances. And after losing that weight advantage?

Popular female apprentice Kei Chiong didn’t hang about waiting for the answer. After a meteoric rise to fame, she cited injury problems and retired from racing. Smart.

Perhaps she knew that in Hong Kong where no one is born to ride- it’s just not part of their DNA- the career of a local jockey is limited. Especially a female jockey. They became a gimmick. Would Kei Chiong have matured into a serious senior rider? What do you think?

Think about Matthew Chadwick. He returned to Hong Kong after receiving considerable experience overseas and took Hong Kong racing by the scruff of the neck and banged home winner after winner.

Indentured to the Tony Cruz yard, who has always made a point of supporting local talent whenever possible, he became the regular rider of the great California Memory. Rider and horse clicked and they had some memorable Group 1 successes together. The support from Cruz as the galloper’s trainer was immeasurable. He went to bat for Matthew Chadwick.

After a lull in his career through a particularly horrifying injury, everything looked to be back on an upward spiral when he partnered an exciting new galloper named Pakistan Star in his first few runs.

Matthew Chadwick was back. But not for long. When the Tony Cruz trained Pakistan Star went through his difficult period, a new rider was called in. And another. And when they couldn’t understand what was bothering the enigmatic galloper, others were brought in. Waiting on the sidelines was Pakistan Star’s old pal Matthew Chadwick.

It was only when William Buick was flown in as a last minute replacement for Kerrin McEvoy from Sydney did everything click into place. Buick let Pakistan Star run his own race. He never resorted to the whip. When Buick returned to the UK and his full time job, one hoped the ride would go back to Matthew Chadwick. It didn’t. It went to Tommy Berry and the Australian rider delivered.

As for Matthew Chadwick, he faded into the background. Good rides didn’t come his way. It was only until John Size gave him rides with winning chances was the local rider able to prove his worth. He remains an extremely capable rider. But as we all know, it’s helluva competitive out there. People have short memories. Loyalty and friendships are often just words. But that’s racing. People forget that, too. Plus all the phoniness and hypocrisy.

Last season, saw two new local jockeys make their debuts in Hong Kong- Matthew Poon and Victor Wong. Both had tasted success riding in Queensland. Matthew Poon, especially had been a huge hit down there where he was known as the Poon Train.

Much was expected of the Poon Train. Perhaps the Poon Train himself thought he would hit the ground running and steam into being a runaway success. But there’s a huge difference between winning races in Morphetville and trying to win races in Hong Kong.

It took a little while longer than expected, but under the tutelage of the great South African rider Felix Coetzee and his years of experience in knowing what it takes for anyone riding here to find their rhythm, both physically and mentally, Matthew Poon ended last season on a high note. He found his mojo. His strike rate helped the two other apprentices riding here- Victor Wong and Jack Wong- raise their game. Especially Jack Wong.

After a few seasons playing second fiddle to all the publicity and opportunities offered to Kei Chiong, the young rider stepped out of the shadows of self doubt and showed that he could mix it with the best.

Apprentices aside, there are two other under-utilised local riders. Keith Yeung, below with Douglas Whyte during his days as an apprentice, and Vincent Ho.

During the off season, Vincent Ho rode in the UK. His first ride there was a winner. It was in a six horse field at Haydock. No big deal to many. But to Vincent Ho, who was afforded every opportunity when indentured to the stable of Caspar Fownes? What a confidence booster. He’s a great kid. Dedicated. Hardworking. A very good rider. Just ask Caspar. Ask anyone in Hong Kong horse racing who’s not going to blow smoke up your arse.

These local boys might not be amongst the upper echelons of the riding ranks. But they’re not also rans hanging about to make up the numbers. To go around no hopers. They should never be an afterthought. They’re hard working jockeys who have decided to tackle a profession that’s alien to many in Hong Kong.

As has been mentioned, these local riders didn’t come from racing families and horse farms. They were not born to ride. They’ve made it their profession to learn to ride. And now that they can, they should be rewarded for their hard work. Those who don’t make the grade? Well, we know the answer to that one. Don’t we?

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