BRINGING ASIAN RACING TO THE WORLD

Selangor’s apprentice champion signals bright possibilities

The Selangor Turf Club’s apprentice school takes pride of place in the midst of its current resurgence and Clyde Leck is the star pupil.

Clyde Leck wins on the Simon Dunderdale-trained Awesome Storm. (Photo by Victor Chee/Selangor Turf Club)

David Morgan

Chief Journalist

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Clyde Leck is the fresh face of changing times around the Kuala Lumpur horse racing scene. At 25, he is the Selangor Turf Club’s champion jockey just as the ink is still drying on simulcast deals that are ensuring the sport is being beamed from that pocket of South-East Asia into Australia, North America and several other points distant from Malaysia’s capital.

Leck is also a ringing endorsement for Selangor’s blossoming apprentice school, which has taken some of its cues from successful programmes run by the Japan Racing Association (JRA) and the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) and incorporated them into its own blend of training.

When the young Singaporean secured the champion jockey title at the end of last year, he did so as an apprentice. And that accomplished show by a claimer was no one-off either: four months into this season, the Selangor premiership leader is yet another apprentice, Nuqman Faris Rozi, one of 16 among the 36 jockeys that have ridden there this year.

Leck won his titles last year with 71 wins, 15 more than his nearest pursuer in the overall title race and 26 ahead of the year-older Nuqman in the apprentice standings, the latter having led that division in 2021. But while Nuqman leads the current premiership with 22 wins, Leck is down in 26th position with just four wins on the board.

Three of those came on the first day of the new year, and the rider, so prolific throughout 2022, to the point that he rode three six-timers, is not concerned about being so far off the pace, after all, he has had only 17 rides this season (Nuqman has had 145). There has been no injury, and no falling foul of the stewards for a young man described as ‘very correct’ by those who know him.

“I decided to take a break,” he tells Asian Racing Report. “I headed back to Singapore for a holiday and now I’m back and starting to get back into racing. I just took a short break to cool down and celebrate.”

 

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Leck recieves his champion apprentice trophy from Selangor Turf Club Chairman Tan Sri Datuk Richard Cham Hak Lim. (Photo by Selangor Turf Club)

Leck’s holiday after the January 1 races meant he did not return to riding barrier trials at Selangor until February 21, and he was back race-riding on March 18. It is the sort of time-out many jockeys no doubt would love to take, and would benefit from greatly, but few could afford such a luxury. Selangor’s champion, though, is in the fortunate position of being apprenticed to his father, Charles Leck, a trainer who made his name with big-race wins in Singapore and is a regular top-five trainer in KL.

“My dad of course is my main supporter, and another trainer, Simon Dunderdale, has given me great support as well,” Leck says, recalling that he first rode a horse, “just trotting up, being led,” when he was nine or 10 years old.

Despite this, he was a relatively late starter to the apprentice ranks, having completed compulsory National Service in Singapore: his first season, 2021, brought seven wins at Selangor from 71 rides; last season he was dominant with a near-23 percent win strike rate.

“My father is the one that taught me how to ride a horse,” he says. “He’s been guiding me from the start; we do gallops together and he rides as well, so he’s teaching me about the pace; he’s telling me this is what it means when a horse feels good, how to be more aggressive on a horse; after each race he will give me feedback and tell me I need to be stronger in this way, or be proficient in shortening my reins, keeping the horse in rhythm.”

But Leck acknowledges without prompt that he is also a proud product of the Selangor apprentice school, which is blossoming as a symbol of Selangor’s emergence as a race club on the up: last year it revived its Triple Crown Series, race days increased to 50 after the opening of a second, inner, turf circuit, the horse population is at an expanding level again and prize money has gone up.

Clyde Leck with his father Charles Leck after riding the fifth of six winners in a day at Selangor. (Photo by Victor Chee/Selangor Turf Club)

Selangor Turf Club back in 1989. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

Selangor – one of three turf clubs in Malaysia, along with Penang and Perak – appears to be emerging from old perceptions of Malaysian racing being the grubby little brother to the more polished Singapore. Given its growing number of simulcast arrangements – Turkey was added in December – it seems to be rising as a potential star of Asia’s lesser lights.

The apprentice training programme is a measure of that emergence, having gained a new lease of life in recent years thanks to the foresight and investment of the Selangor committee under chairman Tan Sri Datuk Richard Cham Hak Lim and vice-chairman Clement Chew, and the club’s management team under chief executive Michael Fong Chee Poong. Providing oversight and knowledge is head of regulatory, Fin Powrie, a broadly-respected stipendiary steward and administrator with a wealth of international experience.

“Without the apprentice school I would not have been able to improve as quickly as I did because I did improve in a short amount of time,” Leck says, adding, “Fin and (the head of the school) L L Tai (a former jockey), have done a really good job with the school and how we are taught.

“Our races are usually Saturday and Sunday in KL so every Monday there is a race review lecture in the morning, and we will go through all of the apprentices’ rides, based on the stipes’ reports, so if there is any discrepancy or any issue with any jockey’s ride we will go through it together and we will discuss how to improve or how to ride in a situation like that.”

The syllabus is comprehensive with 45-minute lectures on topics ranging from nutrition to accounting, horse digestion to inquiry procedures and much else besides; apprentices are given English language tutoring, as well as the expected riding tuition on horseback and on the mechanical horse simulator; and the fitness programme features yoga, gym training, even tumbling and biomechanics, bringing in professional instructors, a physiologist and elite gymnasts. Importantly, the school also provides a sports dietician and a sports psychologist.

“The lectures and the training have been great and the physical side of the programme keeps us really fit, I would say,” Leck observes. “It goes from horse knowledge in general, from the veterinary side through to timing and pacing of races, everything is covered. We have fitness lessons at least two or three times a week and all the apprentices are required to come, so attendance is taken.”  

The Selangor Turf Club Apprentice School. (Photo by Selangor Turf Club)

Dragon Ryker gives Clyde Leck another six-timer at Selangor. (Photo by Victor Chee/SelangorTurf Club)

The school in its current form launched in January 2020, just as the Covid pandemic was about to turn the world upside down, and, given the resultant departure of most expatriate riders, it was somewhat timely. Leck, being from a proven and successful racing family, is not a typical student, with several of his fellow apprentices being from more humble rural backgrounds.

“The apprentices are really coming through and proving themselves, and now there’s another batch coming through that’s looking really good,” says Dunderdale, the New Zealand expatriate for whom Leck rode the top sprinter Awesome Storm last year.

“What they’ve done at the school is quite incredible. This crop we’ve got, they’re pushing out the older jockeys, the old jocks are struggling to get rides because the apprentices are quite good and they’re getting better and better. I was always a bit wary of them but I’ve got my first apprentice now, he’s been with me two years.”

Dunderdale’s apprentice, S Nurwaki, known as Ammar, rode ponies in local races far off in East Malaysia, and, the story goes, dreamed of riding in KL. He became the first Selangor apprentice to win on his first ride: that too was back on January 1 and was no mean feat considering the new claimers must not use their whip in their first 12 rides, and that he defeated Leck’s mount by a nose.

“There’s long been an apprentice school but it’s really going places now,” Dunderdale adds. “Fin has implemented a lot of things at the club that are beginning to pay off.”

Clyde Leck returns to scale on Naughty Kid. (Photo by Victor Chee/Selangor Turf Club)

Powrie is keen to play down his own influence – he deflects praise to the committee and the trainers’ association for being so good at supporting the school and the apprentices – but both Leck and Dunderdale put forward the view that the Australian’s know-how has been a key factor in the all-round progression of not only the apprentice programme but also the overall racing programme in Selangor leading into the Covid era and into post-Covid times.

“What we’ve tried to do is consolidate integrity principles and pattern ourselves off the global leaders like Hong Kong, with rider licensing and those things; (at the school) we’re patterned on the Japanese style in that we have different coloured caps for the different levels of training,” Powrie says, adding that an important element of the apprentice programme is to provide training to some of Malaysia’s rising generation, and that includes broader training for the 20 or so student apprentices that will serve them well if they do not make it as jockeys.

He is careful to try to ensure all development occurs in the right way, and that includes when apprentices find themselves in the stewards’ room.  

“We do a lot of referrals back, so rather than penalising young boys, they’ll get referred back for dropping the whip or for fumbling the reins or that sort of thing,” he says. “We refer them back for training and we have a very good (barrier) trials system where we trial them every week. They don’t get an easy kick, if they infringe, they get penalised, but we do put them on a retraining programme. We’ve got a good school here.”

Powrie says that the Hong Kong method of sending apprentices overseas for a period of race riding is something they would like to do at Selangor – there have been discussions with clubs in Australia, New Zealand and Turkey – but not yet.

“They’re just not worldly enough, but that will definitely come. The leap would be too difficult at the moment,” he says.

Riding overseas is something Leck has his eyes on down the line, perhaps in Singapore first – the traditional route for riders emerging from Malaysia – and then beyond, provided he maintains his progress.

“Singapore is my home country, so eventually I would love to head back there, but I’m contracted to ride in Malaysia and I’m still early in my career,” Leck says.

“I tried my best and I achieved a lot of records last year, and I’m very happy with that. I have targets I set for myself but I’m not chasing the title, if it happens, it happens. In racing, you can never stop learning, so I always strive to do my best and improve my race riding and my racing knowledge.

“I want to be as good as I can be,” the champion adds.

And that goes for Selangor too.

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