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Macau Derby win just the latest triumph over life’s stumbles for Eric Cheung

The Hong Kong-born rider speaks to the Report about Cheers Brothers’ incredible recovery at Taipa and his own stop-start career.

Cheers Brothers stumbled badly rounding the final turn in the Macau Derby.

Cheers Brothers was building eye-catching momentum as the field rounded the crown of the turn in the Macau Derby. Eric Cheung Chi-lap had perched patiently in the irons at the field’s tail for the first 1400 metres around the Taipa turf course, then switched to a three-deep line, confident in the knowledge that his mount would be closing more strongly than the rest when they hit the straight.

But trouble was only a step away.

“I felt my horse’s front legs were between the other horse’s hind legs, so at that moment, I thought, ‘Oh, no. I’m going down,’” Cheung tells the Report.

At that moment I thought, ‘Oh no. I’m going down.’

“I tensed my muscles to be ready for the stumble and I was just thinking ‘no, no, no,’ but I was ready for it to happen.”

As traffic shunted suddenly into his path, Cheers Brothers clipped the heels of Breeze ‘N’ Luna, dipped his nose towards the ground, pitched Cheung forward and swerved several horse widths wider at a point when his rivals were already quickening.

“If I’d been pushing, or been on a loose rein, I would have probably fallen off,” he continues. “I thought the race was gone; I pulled his head up and I know 99 per cent of horses would not be able to pick it up again after something like that.

“But he started to run again and he gave me a feeling that he was striding out really strongly, so I gave him two flicks with the whip and he responded; I kept riding and he kept giving. He was storming.”

It was Cheung’s first feature win. He dismounted and embraced trainer Joe Lau.

Outside of Macau, the Derby at Taipa has receded in recent years to being a minor concern worth barely a brief snippet in the wider world’s racing media. But the dramatic stumble and improbable recovery of Cheers Brothers and Cheung was made for the social media age, where a quick bite of the sensational is demanded by the insatiable platforms and their thumb-swiping audiences.

Video of Cheers Brothers stumbling to a virtual standstill received its few thousand views and then the world moved on.

But for Cheung, 31, it was ‘the best feeling I’ve ever had’: a defining moment in a career that has seen its share of derailing stumbles.

Having failed to make the grade at the Hong Kong Jockey Club’s (HKJC) apprentice school and then required to leave Australia just as his career there was beginning to get off the ground, Cheung’s Macau Derby win looks a lot like a metaphor for his own never-give-up journey from being just another kid in a Sha Tin housing complex to establishing himself as a professional jockey.

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Eric Cheung celebrates another winner. (Photo supplied)

Long road to Taipa

“I was the master of apprentices for 17 years here in Macau and Eric was a brilliant student,” says Harry Troy, the former jockey, race caller and racing writer.

“He was one of the very few Chinese guys here that I taught that actually watched overseas races. He’d come and say, ‘what did you think about that race in Australia…?’ He had a real passion for it and wanted to talk about it.”

By the time Cheung came under Troy’s wing in Macau, though, he had taken a winding career path that began more than a decade earlier when, in 2007, he was recruited to the HKJC’s apprentice school in his New Territories hometown – he lived in Sha Tin from age three – at the other side of the wide Pearl River mouth from Macau.

“I wasn’t interested in school, so at age 15, my father suggested I be a jockey – he loved horse racing – and I felt some interest because I liked running and soccer more than reading a book,” Cheung says.

He went for an interview at the apprentice school, accompanied by his father, Cheung Siu-ming, a security guard, and his mother, Chung Ho-mui, and was told to sit on a wooden horse. He impressed the assessor with his body position and was taken to see the headmistress, Amy Chan.

“The second interview, they talked with my mother and father to see how tall they are and to see if I really wanted to sign something of a contract, so that’s how it began,” he adds.

Eric Cheung (third from right) and his fellow apprentice school boys, at the airport ahead of a three month work experience to trip to Australia. (Photo supplied)

Vincent Ho was in the same intake and he also got to know the likes of Matthew Chadwick, Derek Leung and Alvin Ng, all of whom went on to careers as jockeys in Hong Kong. But, after spells as a trainee apprentice with Tony Cruz, Sean Woods, Francis Lui, Ricky Yiu and Tony Millard, he was unable to accrue the 20 rides in barrier trials needed to qualify for HKJC-backed overseas experience as an apprentice jockey in New Zealand or Australia.

Instead, he became a work rider for trainer Manfred Man at home in Sha Tin and stuck at the trackwork gig for a few years.

“But he had this burning desire to ride in races, so he went to Australia himself,” says Troy.

Cheung headed to the Gold Coast in 2015 and worked for Toby Edmonds. He moved to Warwick Farm in Sydney after someone told him it might be easier to get his jockey career moving there: it wasn’t. Then, one day, he had a conversation with trainer Gordon Yorke and things began to happen.

“He gave me some barrier trial rides and then he gave me a lot of opportunities. I had my first winner on my first ride, Radiologist at Coffs Harbour in 2016, and I had 17 winners from nearly 150 rides,” says Cheung, recalling a period that lasted only from June 24 until November 22 of that year, as another stumble tripped his career.

Visa problems meant his return to Hong Kong and a period in the wilderness until ‘someone asked me if I still wanted to be a jockey’ and he met with former jockey turned Macau trainer Stanley Chin.

In January 2018, more than a decade after he was accepted to the HKJC apprentice school, Cheung became an apprentice in Macau.

A Derby promise

After two seasons as leading apprentice at Taipa, Cheung graduated ahead of the 2020-21 season and is currently second in the Macau premiership – for the second season in a row – behind the Panamanian multiple champion Luis Corrales. His 49 wins give him a career record of 151 wins in Macau and 168 all told.

Cheung boots home Brilliant Debbie at Macau. (Photo by Macau Jockey Club)

He retains links with Chin but Lau has become an increasingly important ally in the past two seasons: his Macau Derby win on Cheers Brothers goes back to a promise the rider made to the handler before the 2021 Derby.

“Snow Storm was fourth in the Derby last year for Joe and I had won on him a lot of times but I had already guaranteed Stanley Chin that I would ride Beauty Bolt in that Derby. That’s why I didn’t ride Snow Storm last year, so I promised Joe I would ride for him this year and he gave me a good ride.”

In fact, Lau paired off Cheung with Cheers Brothers when the Eric Tsang-owned Australian import arrived at Taipa.  

“Joe said to me, when the horse first came to Macau, ‘this horse will be your Derby horse’. So, to have that accident, to stumble like that in the race and then win, that was an added bonus to the feeling and I had to give Joe a really big hug when I got off the horse,” Cheung says.

“I was first to ride him, in trackwork. He’s by Deep Field and normally they’re 1200 or 1400 metre horses, so when I first jumped out on him, I was a little bit worried because he did not feel like a sprinter, so I thought he was a bad horse, honestly.

“His head is always up, he has a very big stride, with that head up and his action, it makes it hard to get your body down low when you’re riding him. He’s a very different kind of horse: he’s not easy to ride but he knows what he’s doing.

“He’s just sleeping behind out of the gate, then, at the 800 metres, you’ll be on the bit and he’ll start to stride out. He gets stronger the longer he goes, he wants to get to the line and he doesn’t give up.”

The same might be said about Cheung, whose willingness to overcome his career’s stumbles speaks to a rare determination that is now at last being rewarded.

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