An hour before dawn's first rays reveal the slopes of Ma On Shan, Sha Tin racecourse is waking up. Mafoos, who muck out the stables and tend the horses, have quietly begun pedalling into the vast complex to start work. After arriving in more luxurious conveyances, the trainers - such as Patrick Biancone, David Hayes, Tony Cruz and Brian Kan Ping-chee, who enjoy celebrity status in the hearts and minds of faithful punters - are considering how hard and far to work their gallopers. And in a brand new bed in a modest flat overlooking the track, Sheri Kong Pik-wing, Hong Kong's first female jockey, is gently elbowing her slumbering husband of four weeks, top French rider Eric Legrix, 31. It is 4.15am. In 45 minutes they will be urging million-dollar thoroughbreds through their paces. 'I have to wake him up, I shake him,' says the 21-year-old, grinning. 'I can be ready very fast,' offers Legrix, a popular figure with trainers and fellow jockeys. Later, seasoned regulars with stopwatches and instant coffee will gather in conspiratorial huddles to compare notes on the times being clocked. A grey flashes past, its rider a picture of balance. 'It worked fast today. It's got to have a great chance of winning first up,' enthuses one of the track-side boosters. Kong and Legrix, out of earshot, continue their way around the track. Theirs is an unconventional racing partnership that began in the stables of their boss, Biancone, blossomed in secret - away from the glare of attention by both the Jockey Club and the racing public, even as the two competed against each other - and became official with their wedding in Chantilly, France, last month. 'We started at 2.30pm at City Hall, moved on for drinks and photos, had a party at a Paris disco and saw a show starring transvestites,' says Legrix. 'Then at 5am we went to a bakery for warm croissants.' If he had obeyed his mother, Legrix would know how to make the pastries himself. 'My mum didn't want me to be a jockey, she said: 'You can be a baker or a cook.' I said: 'Mum, I'll be a jockey or nothing.' ' A cherished snap in one of the Legrix family albums shows him, at 18 months, astride a pony. In the photo he is crying and scared, but by the age of seven he was riding with confidence and poise, demonstrating the feel that relaxes highly-strung racehorses. Determined to follow his father - himself a former jockey - Legrix joined a school for budding riders before becoming apprenticed to the trainer against whom his father used to race, Biancone. After the gregarious Biancone came to Hong Kong and began producing winners, Legrix stayed on in France, cementing his reputation as one of the country's leading jockeys. Local interest in him grew when he came out to ride one of Biancone's Derby hopes in March 1993. He won the race, and then revealed his hopes of riding in Hong Kong full-time. Five months later, after an encounter in Chantilly with a pistol-wielding robber who made off in Legrix' Porsche, the jockey had signed and been delivered to his former mentor. One of Biancone's lowly assistants then was Sheri Kong, who weighed in at barely 40 kilograms, dripping wet, and aspiring to be a jockey. Unlike Legrix, who was virtually born into racing, the New Territories-raised Kong developed an interest in horses by sheer luck. After her businessman father had been advised by his doctor to take up pony riding at Beas River, his 15-year-old daughter asked one day whether she could join him. 'Afterwards I said: 'Daddy, I like this a lot and I want to keep riding.' He said: 'Okay, tomorrow we will buy you all the proper equipment.' 'My instructor said I should try to be a jockey. My dad said maybe and then he spoke to my mum. She said: 'No way, it's too dangerous.' She wanted me to have a full education because she hadn't had one. 'But I didn't like studying and I was very bad at school . . . My grandfather said to my mum: 'Why don't you let her do what she wants?' ' Being indentured to Biancone changed Kong's life dramatically. She shared a spartan room in a Jockey Club hostel and had to abide by a strict set of club rules. 'It's like being in the army,' she says. (Earlier this month racing chiefs striving to 'maintain the integrity of racing and to improve public trust' stiffened their policy and banned apprentices from using mobile phones, owning or driving cars, or leaving the hostel several days a week other than for stable work.) Her first race ride, almost four years ago in front of a Happy Valley crowd of 27,000, ended with her finishing at the tail of the field. 'I felt the flash of so many cameras and all the journalists asked me the same questions - 'How do you feel? Are you nervous? Happy?' - but before the race my boss came to see me and he said: 'Relax, don't be nervous.' Everyone stood up to see me and people were shaking their newspapers. One jockey riding beside me during the race yelled: 'Are you okay?' as he went past. I never found out who he was. My boss saw me later and said: 'Well done.' ' Although the two were barely on speaking terms then, Legrix had double-checked her riding gear to make sure everything was in order for the stable apprentice's debut. 'For the first year we never talked,' she says. 'That's because I only knew two words in English when I came here. Yes and no,' replies Legrix. 'You can say I didn't talk much, but I couldn't understand anything.' She: 'I invited him twice to my birthday parties. He didn't come. He: 'I thought I wouldn't know anyone, and I couldn't meet people because my English was so bad. I thought it would be better to stay at home. But I used to ask her to dinner, lunch and breakfast. She would only say: 'No, cannot.' ' During the 1995 summer break in racing, Biancone sent Kong to work for another trainer in France for about six weeks. 'It was in the countryside and very quiet,' she says. 'There were no taxis. It was nothing like here. If you wanted to go into the small town, you rode a bike. The people don't speak English in the countryside, so every day I was on the phone talking to my family in Hong Kong. But it was a good place to learn.' 'It was very boring,' says Legrix, who was spending part of that summer at his luxury home in Chantilly. 'I gave her my telephone number and I told the trainer: 'If she can have home leave a couple of days early, I can show her Paris.' Legrix turned on his charm and for two days they toured the city. 'The first day he came to pick me up he bought me a rose,' she says. 'When we came back in September we started to go out together, very quietly,' says Legrix. 'Only a few close friends knew. We did not want to advertise it. She was an apprentice and we did not know how the Jockey Club would react.' 'We went to places that were quiet,' says Kong. 'Some people saw us together, but they kept our secret for us. Photographers supposed that we were together, but they couldn't catch us.' Legrix: 'After a while, when people were sure about our relationship, it was too late for it to be news. It was not fresh any more, it didn't make headlines. We were lucky. Of course, I had told Patrick: 'I'm with Sheri.' Because he likes her very much, he warned me: 'You have to be very sure because she's like my daughter. Don't do anything bad.' ' Attraction notwithstanding, Legrix - who has a young daughter from a previous marriage - reckons it makes sense to wed a fellow jockey. 'If your partner knows the job, you can talk about it and understand each other's problems,' he says. 'It also means that you work the same hours together. In our jobs we have to wake up about 4.15am to be at the stables early. We give each other ideas on what different horses like and don't like.' After a race meeting, the couple almost always return to the flat to review videotapes of the day's action. 'We need to see if we made any mistakes, to see why we won or why we lost,' says Legrix. 'If you are beaten by a short head, you're talking about just 10 inches [25 centimetres]. I want to find out where I lost that 10 inches, what caused me to be beaten. And, for Sheri, we can look at her rides to see if she would have been better off moving to the inside or to the outside . . . 'You are responsible to the owner who has bought an expensive animal. The trainer has spent a lot of time preparing it. The stake money is high and the public has spent a lot of money in bets and expects you to do your best. 'You may have 400 rides in a season. If I have 10 bad rides I can accept that - you can't be 100 per cent all the time - but any more than that and I want to know why. I can have a very bad temper, and it's worse if I make a mistake. 'Mistakes can be made so quickly. In less than half a second during a race you have to make a decision, perhaps to go to the inside or to the outside. You don't have time to think, even though you need to know who you are behind and whether the horse in front will hang in or out. If you hesitate, you are finished,' he says, snapping his fingers. A framed picture on the television in their flat is one of Kong's favourites. It shows her winning a race on the 99-1 outsider, Harvard. Legrix, then her fiance, came in second on Truly Delighted, beaten a neck. Their quinella paid $4,560 for a $10 wager. 'All the way he was behind me,' she says. 'We headed into the straight and at the 400-metre mark I started to go. I could see one horse behind me but I didn't know who it was. I kept riding hard and finally we got to the line. 'It happened during Chinese New Year and it meant a lot to me. Many people feel we are weaker than the men when it comes to riding in races. But sometimes I feel stronger than them.' Legrix recalls: 'When I saw her pull the whip I could see her horse was still going well and I thought, 'Oh, no.' I was saying to myself: 'Beat her, go, beat her.' I tried so hard all the way down the straight. But after we passed the winning post I felt happy for her.' Their marriage has brought an end to such encounters. Although spouses are permitted to compete against each other in some countries, Jockey Club chiefs have ruled that Kong and Legrix may not ride in the same races. They have accepted the no-competition ruling, which will cost both of them rides. Since he will get most of the plum mounts, the marriage may exact a heavy toll on Kong's career. Legrix says: 'They talked with us about it before we were married. But when you are told: 'You won't be able to ride in races together if you marry', you can't reply, 'We won't get married, then.' I mean, what is love for?'