21 April 2019
Derek Leung, who has had his share of tough times during his career as a jockey, is always looking for ways to strengthen his body and know the horses better. Photo: The Hong Kong Jockey Club
Derek Leung, who has had his share of tough times during his career as a jockey, is always looking for ways to strengthen his body and know the horses better. Photo: The Hong Kong Jockey Club

For a jockey, the race starts outside the turf

It’s no easy feat for someone weighing around 100 pounds to ride a 1,000-pound horse at top speed around a racetrack jammed with rival horses.

No wonder that even for those with the talent to become a jockey, it takes years of training, a lot of determination, discipline and hard work.

That is exactly what Derek Leung went through.

Leung started learning all about horses after he joined The Hong Kong Jockey Club as a trainee at the age of 16.

He was then sent to New Zealand for further training.

It wasn’t easy at the beginning to convince trainers and horse owners of his ability.

Leung trained himself harder to build up his physical strength.

During the summer, he flew to Britain, Australia and France to polish his skills and gain more experience with different horses and tracks.

Steadily, Leung built up his track record — a total of 70 winners by June 2011 — as well as his confidence.

He officially became a jockey that year.

Wednesday will be Leung’s big day.

He will be competing with top players like Ryan Moore and Victor Espinoza for the Longines International Jockeys’ Championship.

Horse assignment is based on a draw, so Leung does not know yet what his ride will be.

There are about 1,200 horses at the club. Each year, a few hundred newcomers arrive, and a similar number will leave.

It’s therefore quite common for jockeys to meet their ride for the first time at the race.

As part of his routine, Leung will do an intensive review of the horse as soon as he learns about the draw result, primarily through watching videos of previous races.

“You can tell a lot, for example, by paying attention to a horse’s racing pattern, or how it reacts to the jockey’s maneuvers,” Leung said.

A race lasts for just a minute or so.

A jockey needs to make spilt-second decisions about how to break out from other horses, to go for the inside rail or outside or which opponent to steer clear of.

At the same time, he needs to quickly formulate an overall game plan contingent on the live situation and his ride’s racing habits.

A good jockey knows his horse.

“Some are relatively nervous — you have to ease their tension,” Leung said.

“Some could be lazy — you need to know when to give them a push.” 

Knowing when to speed up and when to slow down is also crucial if a jockey wants to avoid getting the horse exhausted before reaching the finish line.

There are only about two dozen jockeys in Hong Kong, so they all know each other’s strengths, weaknesses and tricks fairly well.

That is why a thorough preparation is essential to maximize the odds of winning.

“You need to have plans A, B and C and change tactics flexibly,” Leung said.

To stay at the top of the game also requires a disciplined lifestyle.

Leung meets his physical trainer twice a week.

He also plays tennis regularly and eats a controlled diet of white meat, a bit of rice and some vegetables to stay in shape and keep his weight down.

Working hard is not enough, as horse racing is, in fact, not just about dealing with horses.

A jockey needs to acquaint himself with the trainers and horse owners, because it is they who decide which jockey gets to ride which horses.

Leung gets together with trainers or lunches with horse owners from time to time, so when they look for jockeys, he will come to mind.

Although many people believe in racing tips, Leung as an insider says there is no such thing.

All Leung can do in a race is give it all he has, to bring out his best as well as release the full potential of his horse.

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EJ Insight writer

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