French Jockey Christophe Lemaire Makes Japan His Winner’s CircleCulture
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 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
Racing Fans in the True Sense
INTERVIEWER You’ve raced two seasons since obtaining your all-year license. What is it like now that you live year-round in Japan?
LEMAIRE I live in Kyoto, which is not far from the Rittō training center in Shiga Prefecture. There is also a French school in Kyoto, which is perfect because I have two kids. It’s such a beautiful city and very livable too. The style of Kyoto really suits me. It is more traditional than Tokyo and also has many old buildings and streetscapes. When I first started living in the city I mainly visited all of the famous tourist spots, but now I like to walk along the narrow backstreets and explore the small temples and parks that are less well known.
INTERVIEWER Have your two children [an 11-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter] adjusted to life in Japan?
LEMAIRE At first they complained and told me they wanted to go back to France, but I explained to them that this was our new home. Now they have made friends and gotten used to the cuisine. And unlike France, where I was racing every day, here I am able to spend time with them on weekdays. I can check their homework and see them off to school. So I feel much more relaxed and free here than I did in France. And even when someone recognizes me in the street, there are no worries. Japanese people always approach me with such kindness and respect. My family and I feel that Japan has really accepted us, and we are doing our best to reciprocate that feeling by respecting those around us and trying to assimilate. With this approach, things have been going very well, and we have nothing to complain about.
INTERVIEWER How long do you think you’ll stay in Japan?
LEMAIRE I’d like to stay here as long as I am physically able to work as a jockey and continue to win. More than a few jockeys these days continue racing until they are around 50. As for my plans after that, I’m not really sure. Perhaps I will be able to act as a sort of bridge between the horse racing worlds of Japan and France.
INTERVIEWER What do you think are the charms of Japanese horse racing from a global perspective?
LEMAIRE First of all, there are a lot more fans who go to the racetrack to watch the races. In France, it is more common to watch a race at home or in a nearby café, and there is a deep-rooted negative image of the racetrack as simply a place to gamble. By contrast, the JRA has strived to improve the image of horse racing in Japan to keep attracting new fans. The future of racing in Europe is worrisome since the fan base is so centered on older men. The fans in Japan, who include many younger women, are true supporters of the sport. They view racing as a genuine sport and they cheer on and show respect to the horses, jockeys, and trainers. The way Japanese people enjoy racing is just marvelous. I don’t think there is any other country where people enjoy racing so passionately and cheer us on so much. And for us as jockeys, we find great satisfaction in trying to meet the fans’ high expectations.(Originally published in Japanese on December 23, 2016, based on an interview conducted in French. Photographs by Kodera Kei.)