French Jockey Christophe Lemaire Triumphs in Japanese Derby


A Cool Decision Maker

French jockey Christophe Lemaire won the eighty-fourth Japanese Derby (Tokyo Yūshun) on May 28, 2017, capturing the nation’s top horse-racing prize on the thoroughbred Rey de Oro.

The 2.4-kilometer turf race pitted 18 three-year-olds against each other at Tokyo Racecourse. The victorious second-favorite pairing matched Lemaire—who is now based in Japan—with Rey de Oro, from the stable of Fujisawa Kazuo. Rey de Oro was sired by 2004 Derby winner King Kamehameha, and was named “Golden King” in Spanish in the hope that his lineage would shine through.

The 18 starters that won through to selection from 7,015 thoroughbreds born in 2014 set off together, fiercely battling for positioning as they turned the first corner toward the main straight. Lemaire chased the leading pack, unfazed by his position of fifth to last or by the excitement building in the stands. Too much effort early on in this lengthy 2.4-kilometer contest can cause a horse to run out of steam on the long home straight, which stretches for more than 500 meters.

After around 300 meters, seeing that the race had settled into a gentle pace, Lemaire took Rey de Oro around the outside of the pack and into second. He had decided that his usual strategy of waiting at the back before putting on a final burst of speed would come too late. As the second favorite in Japan’s top race, a poor finish would surely make him a target for criticism.

Having secured a favorable position, Lemaire dropped the pace a little, saving some energy for the final stretch. He has ridden Rey de Oro many times since the colt began training; his hard work in practice, paired perhaps with imagined scenes of how this day would unfold, paid off in the end.

With the finish line in sight, 400 meters down the final straight, Lemaire let Rey de Oro loose. Shaking off the chasing Suave Richard and Admirable, the pair crossed the finish line in an unbroken dash. Two years after receiving his all-year jockey license from the Japan Racing Association, Lemaire achieved his long-cherished desire of winning the Japanese Derby.

This year’s victory extinguished memories of the 2016 Derb,y in which Lemaire’s mount lost a shoe and the pair finished second.

Christophe Lemaire shows his joy at winning the Japanese Derby at Tokyo Racecourse on May 28, 2017. (© Jiji)

Lesson From an Early Disappointment

Christophe Lemaire visited the office last November, where he was interviewed in French. He always talks to the local media in Japanese after races, but the rich nuances of his mother tongue conveyed his determination in choosing East Asia as his new base. He said that he left France—home of the prestigious Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, among other celebrated races—because of the great progress made by Japanese trainers in thoroughbred competition.

Parts of the interview foreshadowed his Derby triumph. When Lemaire came to Japan with a short-term license in 2005, he rode Heart’s Cry in the Japan Cup, but lost by a nose to Alkaased. In the relatively slow pace of the race, he was never able to perform his usual trick of a late dash to secure victory.

“I was disappointed because I’d come so close to winning my first Grade 1 race. It took me two weeks to get over my regret after that race.”

Next, he set his sights on the Arima Kinen race, held one month later. Rather than hanging back like usual, he rode Heart’s Cry into third place from the off. He then held off the challenge of the hard-chasing Deep Impact as he raced to victory. Lemaire’s skillful reading of this year’s Derby has its roots in his disappointment 12 years earlier.

After the race, Lemaire—surrounded by domestic media—displayed his fluent Japanese skills, honed during a hospital stay after a fall.

“The pace was really slow today, so I advanced my position during the backstretch. The horse was very relaxed, and in the last 100 meters I was certain that I’d won it. It felt good.”

Through his riding, Lemaire has helped to show that Japanese thoroughbreds have reached a world-class level. His confidence makes it clear that he would like to put this on display in France next.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 29, 2017. Banner photo: Christophe Lemaire, at left, poses with Rey de Oro after winning the Japanese Derby at Tokyo Racecourse on May 28, 2017. © Jiji.)

Horse racing Christophe Lemaire