LONGINES HKIR week gives ambitious Leung a world platform
Derek Leung’s smile is a common sight around Sha Tin. He wears it often – talking to trainers, speaking with press, joking with colleagues. He was wearing it when the final allocation for this year’s LONGINES International Jockeys Championship was confirmed on Monday morning. But even Leung’s grin, with its boyish warmth, could not altogether mask his comedown.
“It looks a tough book of rides,” he said.
Sight Seeing, his mount in leg one went off at 74/1 for a twelfth of 12 finish at Sha Tin last time; Sparkling Talent has not recaptured the form of a Class 5 win four runs back; Excellence was an outsider when down the field last time out; his ride in the fourth leg, High Spirit, has had only one local start but was Group 3-placed at its final outing in Australia pre-import – a flicker of hope, perhaps.
“I’m looking forward to it, I can’t wait until Wednesday,” Leung said – his statement part brave face, part unabashed enthusiasm. “This is my third time representing Hong Kong and it’s an honour.”
The taxi driver’s kid from Kowloon knows that nights like Wednesday are important checkpoints in his career progression, in terms of expanding his experience as well as boosting his profile.
“Being in this position shows me that I’m doing some things right, but I’m still developing and improving my skills all the time,” he said. “A night like Wednesday is always a great challenge for any jockey and I can’t wait - I’ll enjoy it.”
Leung, 29, earned his place among the acclaimed 12 who will contest Wednesday’s (6 December) annual glitz gig at Happy Valley Racecourse by virtue of being the local freelance rider – the Apprentice Jockeys’ School graduate – with the most wins on the board this season.
Leung salutes the crowd after winning atop Pingwu Spark, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club
He has 16 in all and ranks inside the premiership’s top-five; behind his LONGINES International Jockeys Championship rivals Joao Moreira, Zac Purton and Karis Teetan. With Nash Rawiller one place and two wins ahead, he has behind him such achievers as Hong Kong’s 13-time champion Douglas Whyte, Brett Prebble, Neil Callan, Tommy Berry, Olivier Doleuze, Matthew Chadwick, Umberto Rispoli, and the young gun expats, Chad Schofield and Sam Clipperton.
This will be the local lad’s third consecutive appearance in the HK$800,000 IJC, an indication that Leung is establishing a position as the senior rider among his immediate peers - those that have passed through the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s apprentice programme. He ended last term with the Tony Cruz Award, given to the season’s winning-most from that group.
Fifth at his IJC debut in 2015, he is eager to better the dead-heat last place he shared with Gavin Lerena 12 months ago – hence the disappointment at Monday’s allocation. More than that, though, Leung’s unwavering belief in his ability means he is committed to proving he can be every bit as good as the next rider, be that Hugh Bowman, Ryan Moore, Keita Tosaki, Purton or Moreira.
“We all know that every rider I’ll face is a very good jockey with much success, but I’ve ridden against most of them before; some of them I ride against every week, we know each other well and we are very competitive,” he said.
Leung has maintained solid progress through his career so far, without much fanfare. After gaining mandatory overseas experience in New Zealand with Lance O’Sullivan, he was posted back at Sha Tin under the tutelage of that Kiwi former champion jockey’s brother, Paul O’Sullivan. The youngster missed out on the apprentice jockey title in 2009/10, falling five short of Keith Yeung. Before this season, he had only two Group race wins on his resume, the first aboard Inspiration in the 2009 Premier Bowl Handicap, the second more than six years later thanks to Flame Hero in the 2016 January Cup Handicap.
But Leung heads into the business end of LONGINES Hong Kong International Races week with his profile buoyant thanks to his association with the emerging grey hulk, Pingwu Spark, and two recent feature wins on the John Moore-trained Beauty Generation. After the razzmatazz cauldron of Wednesday, Leung will partner the high-class bay in the crucible of Sunday’s HK$23 million G1 LONGINES Hong Kong Mile.
“This season I have been very lucky,” Leung said. “Things have gone very smoothly and I have to thank the trainers and owners for that. If they didn’t support me with rides on good horses I could not have success.”
Moore gave Leung his breakthrough Group race victory on Inspiration and he has stuck by him this term with the ride on the Patrick Kwok-owned Beauty Generation. The jockey made all to win the G3 Celebration Cup Handicap on 1 October from leading Hong Kong Mile candidate Seasons Bloom. He made it two from two on the five-year-old in the G2 Sha Tin Trophy Handicap three weeks later.
Last time out, in the G2 Jockey Club Mile, Leung and Beauty Generation finished a length third behind Seasons Bloom and runner-up Helene Paragon after again attempting to make all. That was a career peak effort by the gelding.
“He’s in good form for Sunday,” Leung said. “Mr. Moore has kept him a bit fresh because he has raced three times already this season. That means his fitness is very good though and he goes in with a good chance.”
Leung has no fears about competing with the best riders in the world. He knows, though, that the high quality of in-vogue expatriate riders in Hong Kong at any given time means that he has to work hard for the breaks.
“I have to keep proving that my skills are good enough to keep getting these nice rides,” he said. “The only thing I can do is just do my best on every horse, ride well and that will give trainers more confidence in me.
“You have to take the first step. We all know I’m good enough to ride against these guys. I just need the opportunities to prove myself,” he said.
By now, his brow was creased, his gaze firm. The smile was gone.