KYOTO – Christophe Lemaire started his career as a horse racing jockey in 1999 in France, his home country.
He began competing in Japan Racing Association events in 2002, racing under a short-term license before making a complete transfer in 2015.
The 40-year-old Frenchman set a new Japanese record with 215 single-season wins last year, breaking Yutaka Take’s 13-year-old mark of 212.
Lemaire is also the 32nd JRA jockey to amass 1,100 career wins, reaching the milestone earlier this month. He was also the fastest in JRA history to reach the mark, getting there in his 5,454th race in Japan.
During the course of his career in Japan, Lemaire has won the Japan Cup twice — in 2009 and last year -—and is this year looking to become only the second jockey in the race’s 39-year history to repeat as the winner.
The defending champion and the 27-time Group 1 race winner talked about his career and the upcoming Japan Cup during an exclusive interview with The Japan Times.
Why did you decide to make Japan your base?
I always liked to travel and I always wanted to discover different countries. I wanted to come to Japan because I got very good feedback from jockeys, such as Olivier Peslier, who was riding in Japan at that time and very famous here. For European people, Japan is a very faraway country. We want to discover faraway countries because the cultures are so different and horse racing is so different.
Everything was very different for me. The architecture and people’s attitudes were so different that I was very confused in my first week. I did not know how I should act in public, how I should talk, what I should do or should not do. Japanese people, Japanese organizations and the Japanese way of life looks very organized and very strict to foreign people.
But once I got to used to it, I started to like Japan, Japanese food, Japanese people’s attitudes, Japanese organizations, the Japanese way of life and Japanese culture. It made me want to return every year.
What was the most difficult part of adjusting to racing in Japan?
As an European jockey or a French jockey I already had some experience in different countries. I developed my skills to adapt myself to different countries.
When I came to Japan for the first time, dirt races were difficult for me because we had no dirt races in France at that time. It was very strange to me. A lot of sand came to my eyes (during the race).
Also, races start very quickly here compared to France. In France, races start slow and the pace is slow. (The fast starts in Japan) were disturbing at the beginning. But I started to adapt after riding for few weeks, and I adapted my French skills to the Japanese way of racing.
Your father, Patrice, was a steeplechase jockey in France. Do you think your father’s career influenced you?
Of course. Since I was very little I watched my father at the racecourse and wanted to become a jockey. His job had a big influence on my personality. When I started my career as a jockey, he took me with him because he knew many people in horse racing world. I had a chance to work with very famous and talented horse racing people. It helped me get better every week.
You broke Take’s record last year, winning 215 races. You also earned your 1,100th career win this year. How does that feel?
I feel very happy. You have your family, life and your job. When you keep winning races, you feel very happy and comfortable. I have won a lot of races so I don’t have any trouble with my job. If I had no success, I would be in bad mood and I could be more irritable around my family. But that’s not the case. I’m doing very well and I feel relieved. I can take good care of my family.
Did you expect to win this much when you came to Japan?
No. Definitely not. When I came here, I wanted to be successful and always be in the best shape to ride the horses properly. I studied the races a lot and tried to be consistent with the results. Eventually, trainers and owners became happy with my riding and they started to give me better horses to ride. With good horses, you keep winning and feel happy. It’s a positive cycle.
How is the Japan Cup different from other races in Japan? What do the think is the significance of holding the race in Japan?
It’s an international horse racing event. Because Japan is far from Europe and Australia, and because Japan is an island nation, Japanese horse racing is quite insulated. So throughout the year, there aren’t many exchanges between Japan and other countries.
When you have an international event like the Japan Cup, others countries focus on horse racing in Japan. This event is very important because everybody in the world is watching.
The foreign horses have withdrawn from this year’s Japan Cup. How do you feel about that?
I feel sad. The Japan Cup is one of the very important (events) in the world, just like the Dubai World Cup, the Royal Ascot or Arc de Triomphe Award, the Melbourne Cup, or the Breeders’ Cup. In these events, foreign countries compete each other. Unfortunately, there are no foreign horses in this year’s Japan Cup. That is very sad. The prize money and the fame of the race are very high but no foreign horses are coming this year. I think we should figure out the reason why.
There are a several reports that say one of the reasons is the Tokyo Racecourse is too hard and fast. Do you agree?
No. It’s true that the track is fast. But we have also fast tracks in Hong Kong, Australia and America. This is an idiosyncrasy of the racecourses in Japan. Everybody has to deal with it. Japan does not have to change its racecourses to satisfy other countries. The foreign horses that want to come to Japan have to adapt just like Japanese horses do when they go to other countries.
For me, this is not a big deal to ride on the fast ground. There are European, American and Australian horses that like the fast grounds. For me, it’s not a good reason that there are no foreign horses in the Japan Cup this year.
You have won the Japan Cup twice in the past. Can you describe those two races? How did they play out, how did you win?
In 2009, I was riding on Vodka. She was more famous than me at that time. I felt some pressure because she was really a superstar horse. She had not won the Japan Cup yet. Also I had not ridden her before. But she was so good that I knew she could win the race. I just needed to give her the perfect ride. I thought a lot about how I should ride her before the race.
Luckily for me, everything went right and I could ride her to fourth or fifth position in the midpoint of the race. I tried not to move my hands because she was a very keen horse and she liked to gallop fast. I kept quiet, not wanting to waste her energy.
We won by a nose. But I didn’t know if I won or not right after the race because it was so close. I had to wait for 10 minutes to find out the result. It was so stressful. I could not enjoy the moment. It was when the No. 5 (the number of Vodka) appeared on the board that I finally enjoyed it. I was like, “Yes!”
Last year, I knew Almond Eye well because I had ridden on her a lot before. So I was sure I had a chance to win the race. The only thing I worried about was being at the No. 1 gate, which can be a problem because you could be locked inside.
I told myself I just need to put her out at the right moment. She showed her class. Soon after the start, I had a good position behind Kiseki and she traveled very well and relaxed. By the time we were around the second corner, I knew we would win the race. I really enjoyed riding her. When I ran past Kiseki, I could enjoy watching the crowd and shouting.
Only one jockey, Yasunari Iwata in 2011 and 2012, has won back-to-back Japan Cups. Do you think the Japan Cup is an especially tough race to win?
Every year you have best horses in this race. Every year you have new good horses coming. Once you win the race, you face new good horses the next year. . . . It’s very difficult to win back-to-back.
You will ride Muito Obrigado at the Japan Cup. What is your impression of him?
He’s a strong horse. Body is strong and tough. It means he can put in a solid effort for a long time. He is competitive. He’s a good horse for the Japan Cup because you need stamina. The race is quite long and the pace is mostly fast. You need stamina and toughness.
He hasn’t won a Group 1 race yet. Is that a concern for you?
Everything has its beginning. Maybe he’s going to start winning from this race. He’s won Group 2 races, and he’s still improving. I talked with Norihiro Yokoyama (who often rides Muito Obrigado and won the Copa Republica Argentina with him on Nov. 3 in Tokyo), he also said Muito Obrigado is improving.
You rode on him twice last year and won both races. It’s been 17 months since then. How do you communicate with him and prepare him for the race?
I will be riding him the week before the race in trackwork in Ritto (Shiga Prefecture). I can feel him again. I can feel his condition, his attitude and his way of galloping. I’ll also watch his races again, try to analyze how he likes to run. On the race day, I will try to keep him relaxed at the start of the race. It is very important to keep horses calm.
Jockeys do not always have a chance to ride on their horse before the race. Sometimes jockeys ride on their horses for the first time at the paddock. That’s how you judge if the jockey is good or not. The good jockeys can adapt to the horses very quickly, figure out the strong and weak points of the horses and make horses run at their best.
In general, how do jockeys prepare themselves for races?
There are two aspects, physically and mentally. Physically, you do some exercises during the week to keep your body in good condition. Mentally, it’s more about your experience. With more experience, you stay calm, especially before the big races where the pressure is very high. You’ll get excited, scared or nervous. But you should be able to settle down, keep quiet and focus on yourself and your job, but this comes only with experience.
This year’s Japan Cup race day has been dubbed “Deep Impact Memorial” in dedication of the legendary Triple Crown horse that died on July 30. Do you have any memories of Deep Impact?
The first time I saw him was in the Arima Kinen in 2005. He was a superstar horse with the Triple Crown. I beat him (with Heart’s Cry) and everybody was shocked.
I watched him win the 2006 Arima Kinen. I was watching TV at Hanshin Racecourse. He came from outside at the last corner. His stride was beautiful. I clearly remember that scene. He was a fantastic horse. I wish I could have a chance to ride him.