Kenneth Cheng aiming to show he belongs with world's best show jumpers
One giant leapHong Kong's Kenneth Cheng, who attracted rock star attention last year, is aiming to show he can mix it again with the world's best next month
Kenneth Cheng Man-kit enjoys finding himself in the limelight, and one of the most-recognisable show jumpers in this city will get his chance for more when he takes part in the Longines Hong Kong Masters at AsiaWorld-Expo next month.
"I felt like a rock star," waxed Cheng when asked of his experience of taking part in the inaugural edition 12 months ago. "The reception I got from the crowd was unbelievable, even Ludger Beerbaum [Germany's famous Olympic and world champion] didn't get the reception I got. I'm famous here in Hong Kong."
The sport is still favoured by the few locally, although ever since the city hosted the Beijing Olympics equestrian events, it has gained a higher profile. And this has become even more prominent with organisers of Asia's first five-star international show jumping event deciding that Hong Kong was the perfect complement to Paris.
The world's top 25 riders and their horses will take part in the three-day competition from February 21-23 at the indoor venue at AsiaWorld-Expo, which will be transformed into a luxurious setting where more than 500 VIP guests will sip flutes of Veuve Clicquot and dine on oysters and meats flown from Brussels and cooked by a two-star Michelin chef. And Cheng will be rubbing shoulders with the best.
"This is an opportunity not to be missed. Just to be among the world's top 25 or 30 riders, talking to them, watching them, I can pick up tips. For sure I will learn how to be a better rider and how to be more competitive," says Cheng.
The 25-year-old Cheng is based in Europe. Last year he and Raena Leung Hou-ling were the two local riders selected to represent Hong Kong when the Masters made its grand entry. This time Cheng is carrying the ball on his own and is eagerly looking forward to another tilt at jumping the Olympic-sized obstacles (1.60 metres) with his two horses, Hong Kong Jockey Club Caballo and Balou.
Cheng is part of a five-member senior equestrian team sponsored by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which last year pumped in an additional HK$17 million until December 2016. The Jockey Club sponsorship began soon after the Beijing Olympics with a massive transfusion of HK$50 million.
Among the main targets in this newest period of sponsorship will be September's Asian Games in Incheon as well as trying to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The Hong Kong Masters is an extra spur.
"My main goal is the Asian Games, and if the opportunity arises, the World Equestrian Games. Luckily the Asian Games are at the end of September, so I have a little bit of time allowing me to focus on the Hong Kong Masters, which will give me another great opportunity to experience riding at the highest level," said Cheng, who will be making his fifth appearance at this level.
Apart from last year's inaugural Hong Kong edition, he has also taken part three times in the Gucci Paris Masters.
Cheng began riding at the age of eight. By the time he was 14 he had begun training intensely and was soon making everyone sit up and take notice. He represented Hong Kong at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha where he was placed in the top 20. One of his proudest moments came two years later when just 20, he was the youngest member of Hong Kong's first Olympic equestrian team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Together with Jockey Club Can Do he performed admirably, knocking down just one fence in the first competition.
His rise to prominence also saw him being selected to be a torchbearer for Hong Kong and it was a memorable moment when he carried the Olympic torch on horseback and lit the cauldron in Sha Tin.
In 2009, he came under the supervision of German legend Beerbaum, a four-time Olympic gold medallist, and the dividends were immediately seen when he picked up an individual and team bronze at the China National Games in Jinan.
The following year he made the decision to move to Belgium and began regularly taking part on the European Grand Prix circuit.
At the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games, Cheng and teammates Patrick Lam, Samantha Lam and Jacqueline Lai Jing-man won Hong Kong its first medal in equestrian sports with the bronze. The hope is that the team - still undecided - can go better in Incheon this September.
"We have the support from the Jockey Club. The HK$17 million will be used to source some horses for the team. I don't know yet as to who will get the horses, but we know the Club is definitely on the lookout for new horses," Cheng revealed.
"Winning a medal at the Asian Games is a target."
He has had his two mounts, Jockey Club Caballo and Balou, for just over a year and is beginning to strike a comfortable partnership with them both. He rode the pair last October at the Paris Masters and put up a creditable performance finishing 22 from 26 of the best riders in the world. He will be hoping for a breakthrough performance at AsiaWorld-Expo next month.
"I'm in good shape and the horses are in good form. I hope this will be a landmark year for me," says Cheng.
A solid outing in Hong Kong will only enhance his reputation and his rock star qualities.