- French Jockey Christophe Lemaire Makes Japan His Winner’s Circle
- [2017.01.24] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 |
In 2016, French jockey Christophe Lemaire created a sensation in the world of Japanese horse racing. Since making Japan his professional base two years ago, he has become one of the leading riders and won the prestigious Arima Kinen race. Nippon.com sat down with the star jockey to find out more about his life in Japan on and off the track.
Christophe LemaireBorn in France in 1979. After graduating from high school he received his French jockey license in 1999, and made his debut as a jockey. He started racing in Japan in 2002, receiving a short-term license from the Japan Racing Association to participate in Japanese horse races for limited three-month stints every year. In 2015, Lemaire and the Italian jockey Mirco Demuro became the first foreigners to obtain all-year licenses in Japan. In his second year of full-fledged competition, 2016, he won 186 races, ranking second overall among jockeys. And he capped off the season by riding the thoroughbred Satano Diamond to victory at the prestigious Arima Kinen race.
The Year of Lemaire
Christophe Lemaire, a French jockey based in Japan, received his all-year jockey license from the Japan Racing Association in 2015. In his second full season, he ramped up his number of races and victories to the point that it is no exaggeration to say that 2016 was the “year of Lemaire” for horse racing in Japan.
Lemaire set a new JRA record by placing second or higher in 10 consecutive races held on November 5 and 6, and on that second day he rode to eight straight victories, equaling the record set by Take Yutaka in 2002. Our interview with Lemaire took place just before those twin feats on November 4. Even though he had ridden at the Kawasaki Racecourse on the day before, he graciously agreed to the interview and answered our questions with smiles and good humor from start to finish.
INTERVIEWER First, let me congratulate you on your victory at the Kikka-shō on October 23. It was your first victory at a “classic” race(*1) and the first time for a foreign jockey to win the Kikka-shō
LEMAIRE Thank you. Those classic races are special for the three-year-olds involved, because they can only participate in each race one time. There’s a different level of attention paid to the classics from other races, so winning one is a real confidence-booster and earns the trust of fans and people involved with racing. I’m very happy to win this title in Japan, and proud to get my name in the history books.
An Ambassador for Japanese Horse Racing
INTERVIEWER On October 2 you rode in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe race in your home country, France, for the first time since moving to Japan. What was the reaction of the French media?
LEMAIRE It was like a marathon for me—one interview after another. [Laughs] And it wasn’t just the racing reporters; there was a lot of interest among the media in general. It was a good opportunity to raise the level of understanding about horse racing in Japan.
INTERVIEWER How well is Japanese horse racing known around the world?
LEMAIRE Horses bred in Japan have already proved themselves on the world stage, winning attention and widespread respect. Japanese stables are favorably viewed, and it is also known that Japanese owners have made huge investments in racing thoroughbreds. When Japanese horses compete overseas, lots of media from Japan show up to cover the race, generating more excitement at those competitions.
INTERVIEWER The gap between horse racing in Japan and overseas is said to have become clear in 1981, when foreign horses swept the top spots at the first Japan Cup.
LEMAIRE As you know, in any field, you have to build from the ground up. Japan does not have as long a history of horse racing as Europe or North America. The aim of creating the Japan Cup was to hold an international race in Japan and at the same time to expand the global reach of Japanese horse racing. Certainly, at the time, Japanese horse racing had not reached the level of the sport in Europe or North America, but the growth since has been amazing. There have even been years where Japanese horses have secured the top two spots in the global ranking. So I think it would be hard to say that Japanese horseracing is lacking in anything these days.
INTERVIEWER So do you think it won’t be long before a Japanese horse wins Europe’s most prestigious race, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe?
LEMAIRE Yes, that’s right. Japanese horses have already placed second in that race four times. So there is just another step to go. I think that we won’t have to wait too long to see that accomplishment.
In the Saddle at an Early Age
INTERVIEWER How old were you when you first rode a horse? Did you want to become a jockey from a young age?
LEMAIRE I think I was five years old. As my father was a steeplechase jockey, I spent time with horses from a young age. But at first I just rode ponies. [Laughs] I definitely wanted to be a jockey, and start riding real horses as soon as possible and going fast. I used to secretly read the racing journals lying around our house because of my dad’s job. My father had me go to a regular high school, rather than a training school for jockeys. But I was still able to start racing at age 16. France has amateur races, so I was able to gain race experience during the time I attended regular high school.
INTERVIEWER You first arrived in Japan in 2002. What inspired you to come here?
LEMAIRE It seemed like it would be a good idea to do some racing overseas while I was still young and gain all sorts of different experience. I thought it would be a way to deepen my awareness, learn about different training methods and riding styles, and develop the ability to calmly read race situations. So I was eager to go to Japan as soon as I had a chance. At the time, though, Japan had very strict regulation of jockeys and would not issue a license unless you had a certain track record. Once I had built up my résumé as a jockey, I applied to the JRA for a short-term license. From that time, I came over to race in Japan every winter, and this is my fourteenth year in Japan. When I first got here, the streets of the cities in Japan looked to my mind like something right out of a manga. [Laughs]
Winning His First Grade 1 Race
INTERVIEWER In Japan you shot to fame in 2005 when you rode Heart’s Cry to a stunning win over the undefeated Triple Crown winner Deep Impact to capture the Arima Kinen title.
Lemaire (second from left, in yellow and black stripes) riding Heart’s Cry to victory at the 50th Arima Kinen at the Nakayama Racecourse on December 25, 2005; on the far right is the heavily favored horse Deep Impact, ridden by Take Yutaka. (© Jiji)
LEMAIRE Before that race, the media were all obsessed with Deep Impact, but I was confident that Heart’s Cry could win. Just before the start, I decided to go for broke from the outset. Everyone was surprised to see a horse that usually hung out in the back of the pack running third near the start, so some must have been wondering what on earth I was thinking! [Laughs] But it worked out just as planned. In the home stretch, Deep Impact did gain on us, but I managed to hold on for the win. That victory was the great tremor that rocked the Japanese horse racing world at the end of 2005. [Laughs] It was quite a thrill to win my first Grade 1 race in Japan and to do it by beating the undefeated Deep Impact! It’s a race I’ll never forget.
(*1) ^ “Classic” horseraces are tradition-rich Grade 1 races limited to outstanding three-year-olds. Japan’s five classic races are: Satsuki- shō, Ōka- shō, Yūshun Himba (Japanese Oaks), Tokyo Yūshun (Japan Derby), and Kikka- shō