An early season race at Happy Valley provided a snapshot of how far Derek Leung Ka-chun has come as a rider, but also a glimpse at the competitive fire that burns inside the 27-year-old.

Leung, on General Iron, seemed destined to finish second as Zac Purton swooped in on favourite Blocker Dee. It was the type of two-horse battle where a jockey's tenacity, as much as his technique, can make the difference between winning and losing.

We can compete against the gweilos. At least when we get the same opportunities
Derek Leung

This is the part where the Australian jockey's strength in a finish overwhelms the "weaker" local kid. Except, this time, that's not how the story goes.

Even as he was edged out for the lead and seemed destined to lose, Leung kept pushing, straining to extract every ounce of effort from his tiring mount, prevailing for a narrow against-the-odds victory that seemed to stun everyone, Purton included.

Leung is kind-natured, polite and quick to make a joke, but he is also a young man driven for success. He also wants to smash what he sees are some misconceptions, primarily that, man for man, local jockeys aren't as good as their western counterparts. This Wednesday's International Jockeys' Championship, where he will compete against 11 of the world's best riders, is another opportunity.


"We can compete against the gweilos," Leung says with a cheeky grin, using the commonly used slang term for foreigners. "At least when we get the same opportunities."

Far from complaining, Leung wants a day where owners and trainers see locals and overseas riders as equals, but knows he and his Chinese colleagues will have to knock down some barriers built up over decades.

WATCH: Derek Leung chat about his girlfriend and future

"It's up to us to prove to the owners that we deserve to stay on horses and not be replaced by a foreign rider when the horse looks like winning again," he said. "We want to show that we are at the same level - and that on the same horse, we can compete."

The life of a local rider, or any jockey struggling for support in Hong Kong, can be frustrating. Riding a good race and nearly winning on an outsider can simply mean being replaced at the next ride by a more experienced - read, foreign - jockey.

READ: American Pharoah rider Victor Espinoza to headline IJC 

"That's just Hong Kong-style," said Leung. "It's been that way for a long time, but I'm noticing a change."

Slowly but surely, Leung feels he is keeping rides that once he would have lost.

"But still, most of the time the owners want to put the western riders on, and at the moment they always want to put Joao on."

Joao is, of course, record-breaking jockey Joao Moreira, who Leung has actually turned to for advice, which surprisingly wasn't about fine tuning technique, but his off-track etiquette.

"Here, we don't have agents and you have to develop your social skills to ask the trainer or the owner for a ride," he said. "Anyway, Joao can only ride one horse in the race and we just have to wait for our opportunity and make the most of them."

Despite his boyish looks, Leung carries himself with a calm maturity, which isn't surprising when you dig into what he has endured in the decade since entering the apprentice riding school.

It was Leung's taxi-driver father who introduced he and his brother, Kevin Leung Ka-wai, to riding as 14-year-olds at a pony club, then encouraged both to apply for traineeships with the Jockey Club.

Both were successful, although Leung was a year ahead of his twin at the Apprentice Jockeys School. After moving to the stable of trainer Paul O'Sullivan to begin his apprenticeship, Leung faced the greatest tragedy of his young life when his mother lost her three-year battle with cancer.

The then 17-year-old hadn't even told his new boss.

"Derek just asked me one day, 'Can I have the day off tomorrow, boss? I've got to go to my mother's funeral'," O'Sullivan said, shaking his head.

It's up to us to prove to the owners that we deserve to stay on horses and not be replaced by a foreign rider when the horse looks like winning again
Derek Leung

"He never mentioned it. He came to work every day and just got on with things. How many kids of that age can hold things together like that?"

"There was no need to tell anyone," Leung says when asked why he had kept it secret. "What could they do anyway?

"Life is like that. Sooner or later we need to face things like this. I started looking at life a bit differently, less like a child and grew up a lot."

Soon after, Leung travelled to Cambridge, New Zealand, where he began race riding under the guidance of O'Sullivan's brother Lance, with the long hours, arduous work and cold weather providing another formative experience.

It's impossible to tell Leung's story without talking about his twin's once-promising career. Kevin Leung had ridden 14 winners from 264 rides when he tested positive to ketamine in September 2010, after which he was never relicensed by the Jockey Club.

After a stint riding in Australia, Kevin is now living in Hong Kong and no longer part of racing. Leung understandably tip-toes around the topic, but it is clear his brother's missed opportunities provide even more motivation. "We all make mistakes," Leung says, and leaves it at that.

Early in his career, Leung said he was almost too desperate for success and because of this he quickly ran into trouble with stewards for careless riding suspensions, an area that he has made massive improvement in over the past seven seasons.

It's tighter and more intense here. You don't have any friends in a race and I struggled to adapt
Derek Leung

"It's tighter and more intense here. You don't have any friends in a race and I struggled to adapt," he said. "Still, I like riding against the jockeys here, it can only make you stronger."

Leung's classmates at the jockey school included Matthew Chadwick, who made an astonishing rise through the ranks, Ben So Tik-hung and Keith Yeung Ming-lun. It was Leung's win on Romantic Cash at Happy Valley last week that edged him past Yeung for the coveted spot in the IJC.

Leung's desire to keep improving has taken him overseas in the past two off seasons, firstly to Australia in 2014 and then England earlier this year, getting a taste of race riding, and life, in both locations.

"Anytime I can go overseas for an opportunity like that it can only help my riding," he said. "But what it helped most of all is just attitude. It was pretty humbling, it reminded me not to get arrogant."

Another grounding influence for Leung has been fiancée Kit Li, a racing commentator and television personality whom he will wed in July next year.

"She understands me and what I do. She knows about my job so that makes it easier. She is a smart girl and since we've been together I've improved everything - my lifestyle, how I think."

Next level after changing owners' attitudes, Leung said, was gaining Group One rides.

"That's the hardest part, it's one thing to stay on a Class Four horse, but in the big races it's very difficult to get an opportunity".

As for Wednesday night and the IJC, Leung doesn't want to play the part of a youngster just happy to be there - he wants to win. "Of course, it will require some luck - you need the right horse and the right barrier draw," Leung said.

"In the end, I have ridden against most of these riders before. My goals for this season have changed a little, I want to ride 30 winners, but now I also want to win the IJC."