Christophe Lemaire ascended to No. 1 in Thoroughbred Racing Commentary's world jockey rankings in December, closing out the year with a flourish.
It was a magnificent achievement. It was also a giant reminder of the significance of his wildly successful years in Japan.
Lemaire first established himself as a premier jockey in Europe and elsewhere, including Australia, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates. For example, he won the 151st running of the Melbourne Cup aboard Dunaden in 2011.
Lemaire was the Japan Racing Association's winningest jockey in each of the past four seasons, and he's on target to do it again this year.
Saddling up for 252 races through Sunday, April 18, Lemaire is No. 1 in wins (58) and runner-up finishes (41), while also recording 23 third-place finishes. Adding to his record of consistently being in the hunt for victories are the following solid numbers: 24 fourth-place finishes and 23 times placing fifth in a JRA race.
The 41-year-old French jockey holds a comfortable lead in the wins category ahead of Yuga Kawada (45), Kohei Matsuyama (43) and Yuichi Fukunaga (41).
What's more, Lemaire broke the JRA single-season win record in 2018, riding thoroughbreds to 215 wins and eclipsing Japanese legend Yutaka Take's record of 212.
None of the above facts should surprise you, because of the following: Lemaire possesses an innate understanding of how to win races and how to get the best performances from his horses.
In an exclusive interview with JAPAN Forward, Lemaire shared some revealing thoughts about his love for horse racing and the approach he's taken to develop a strong rapport with horses over the years, including Almond Eye, who retired in style after winning the 40th Japan Cup on November 29, 2020. For the 5-year-old, the storybook victory represented her ninth Grade I triumph on Japanese turf, a JRA record. And all of those wins came with Lemaire deftly handling the reins.
Though it's early in the 2021 season, Lemaire isn't shy about his target for December.
"My goal is to keep my jockey title," he said. "Because when you are on top, you need to do your best to stay on top. So it's a big challenge for me through the year."
He went on: "I will do my best to win as many [races] as possible."
This goal, he mentioned, includes the Japanese Derby (Tokyo Yūshun), a race traditionally held in late May or early June. It was first held in 1932. (Lemaire finished first in the 2017 Japanese Derby aboard Rey de Oro.)
"In any country, the derby is very special," he stated.
During the global COVID-19 pandemic, Lemaire has scaled back his lofty ambitions to compete on the global stage due to travel restrictions and other factors beyond his control.
"I usually say that I want to go abroad and I want to win big races with Japanese horses abroad," Lemaire told me. "But unfortunately from last year it's hard to predict what is gonna happen and it's hard to have such a goal because of the [coronavirus] everywhere. The situation is not really improving, so it's very hard for us to travel from Japan, and to come back the rules are still very strict. So I don't think we need to plan anything for the next few months abroad because we are not sure at all if we can go or not, so it's quite complicated."
With his current focus only on domestic racing, he's patiently waiting for the risks associated with the pandemic to diminish.
"My family, myself and the people around me, we are all safe and we are all fine. It's a bit risky to go abroad. ... We are lucky enough to have good technology to talk to each other and see each other through the screen. So for me, there's no point in taking risks by traveling."
Lemaire's Rise to Stardom
Deciding upon a similar occupation as his father Patrice (a former steeplechase jockey), Lemaire's rise to prominence included victory in the Grand Prix de Paris in 2003, four years after he received his jockey license in his homeland.
Asked how much influence trainers have had on his success over the years, such as strategy for a particular race, Lemaire acknowledged that "it's hard to say this trainer told me this, this trainer told me that."
But Lemaire has vivid recollections of meeting Sir Henry Richard Amherst Cecil, one of the all-time great trainers who passed away in 2013 at age 70. In short, the legendary Scottish trainer boosted Lemaire's confidence when he arrived at Newmarket Racecourse in Suffolk, England, for the first time as a jockey.
"He gave me very nice advice, but it's all about experiences," Lemaire insisted. "You need to observe how trainers work, how they build their horses, how they have to be ridden during a race."
At the beginning of his career, Lemaire was an exercise rider for Frenchman Andre Fabre, who is widely recognized as one of the premier trainers in the world. A pair of Fabre's thoroughbreds, Hurricane Run (2005) and Manduro (2007), reached No. 1 in the World Thoroughbred Racehorse Rankings.
"To work with him every day was a very good school," Lemaire said of Fabre.
Asked to provide a few examples of what he gained in knowledge by working with Fabre, Lemaire said: "I understood that the horses they have to press, they have to find their own [motivation], they have to be physically able to keep a strong pace and to be mentally ready to fight in the last furlongs."
Consider it the equivalent of a doctorate in racing.
Fabre's wisdom and experience rubbed off on Lemaire.
To this day, Lemaire rattles off in mellifluous phrases the questions that a jockey must know the answers to.
"What are horses able to do during a race?" he offered as a primary example.
Lemaire continued the impromptu lecture: "What is their potential? How fast can they go and how far?"
The answers to those questions from the foundation of a successful jockey-horse tandem.
Or as Lemaire put it: "And then you adapt your riding to the horse."
Successful Start in 2021
Lemaire and Cafe Pharoah teamed up to win the first Grade I race of the current JRA season on February 21 at Tokyo Racecourse. Their triumphant gallop down the stretch produced the desired result at the 1,600-meter February Stakes. (Cafe Pharoah's father, American Pharoah, won the 2015 American Triple Crown, becoming the first horse to do so since Affirmed in 1978.)
So is it appropriate to expect great things from Cafe Pharoah?
Lemaire said he believes Cafe Pharoah's pedigree and natural speed are an impressive combination, which can only lead to great expectations.
"He's got the natural speed, but like many horses he had a bad period where he couldn't improve," Lemaire admitted. "He was a little bit out of form, maybe mentally and physically, so for a few months he couldn't improve and really show what he's able to do.
"But from this year, I couldn't ride him on track work, but I saw his track work [two weeks before the race] and the horse was looking different, and when I saw him in the paddock before the February Stakes, I really saw the true Cafe Pharoah. When he raced in the Champions Cup in December, he was not the true Cafe Pharoah. He was not looking good at all, and before the race I was very pessimistic."
Cafe Pharoah placed sixth in the Champions Cup on December 6 at Chukyo Racecourse in Toyoake, Aichi Prefecture, confirming Lemaire's low expectations. But the American-bred bay colt's February Stakes win was a big step forward, according to Lemaire.
"I think he can become a top-class horse on the track, because he refound his physical and mental potential," Lemaire stated.
Studying Race Videos Vital for Preparation
Thinking about the evolution of sports and modern technology over the past several decades, prompted me to ask Lemaire if and how he incorporates watching video of races to better prepare for work.
His response highlighted his total commitment to his craft.
"Before every weekend when the racing card comes out, so when I get all my rides of the weekend, I study every single horse," Lemaire said. "I watch his previous races and if possible I watch their track work. I study every single ride I will have on the weekend. I want to know because most of the horses I ride them for the first time, so I discover them on the paddock. So I like to know what is the horse's ability, what is the horse's reaction on the [final], if he takes a good start or if he's slow at the start, if he needs to be pushed or if you need to settle him, if he's nervous or lazy.
"The more indication I have on the horse, the better I can ride him."
All of these equine traits play into the way Lemaire approaches his job.
He continued his racing dissertation by delivering the following remarks by phone from his Kyoto home: "If you know a little bit of the background of a horse, then you can anticipate. And in horse racing, all the great jockeys are better because they can anticipate. So if you can anticipate the reaction of a horse, then you can have a better result with him."
Competition Level Keeps Improving in Japan
Analyzing the level of horse racing competition in Japan, Lemaire pointed to a factor that may be overlooked by the casual fan: horse breeding.
"First of all, the level of the horse has improved year after year because of the big investments from the Japanese owners and breeders who bought the best horses on the market all around the world," he said, referring to select sales, yearling sales and mare sales.
"They bought many Group I winners from America, from Europe, a little bit less from Australia, but they brought a lot of blood lines in Japan, and with the level of the competition here, the breeding improved and improved, and it's still improving."
During our conversation, Lemaire shared his opinions based on two decades of observations. He first competed in Japan in 2002, when he received a short-term license.
"And with stallions like Sunday Silence and now with Deep Impact, they really stepped up in class and in level," he said of top breeding lines among Japanese thoroughbreds nowadays.
"Like usually, the first time I came [to Japan] the horses used to be very long-stride horses and long-acceleration horses. And now with Deep Impact, we've got horses with very good turn of foot, with more speed, so the level went up gradually, but in the last 20 years it really upgraded. It's really good."
Another contributing factor to the improved level of competition here is the arrival of some top foreign jockeys. A quarter century ago, Oliver Peslier was the first foreign jockey to spend three months riding in Japan, Lemaire noted. After the four-time Prix de l'Arc Triomphe winner's groundbreaking work, other jockeys followed and arrived for Japan's winter racing season.
It's been a win-win situation for the Japan Racing Association.
"The [Japanese] jockeys could learn from these top jockeys who came here through the years, and even for the last five years there's [Italian] Mirco Demuro and myself riding here full time," Lemaire said with a hint of pride in his voice. "So I think with Mirco and myself, the jockeys could have another vision of horse riding and make them improve. I can definitely say the level of the jockeys went up the last 10 years, and if you observe closely the races in Japan, the jockeys take a good start, then they settle the pace, they slow down the pace and they use the acceleration of the horses much better than they did it in the past."
In addition, Lemaire cited success by Japanese horses, trainers and jockeys in overseas races in recent years as evidence of the improvements happening here.
Special Relationship with Almond Eye
After winning the 2018 Japanese Fillies' Triple Crown, finishing first at the 2019 Dubai Turf triumph and earning Japanese Horse of the Year honors in 2018 and 2020, among other notable accomplishments on the track, Almond Eye will forever be linked to Christophe Lemaire's distinguished career.
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Unfortunately, due to the linguistic limitations that we encounter as humans, Almond Eye's thoughts on Lemaire will not appear in the space below.
Instead, Lemaire weighed in on their formula for success again and again, including in back-to-back Tenno Sho (Autumn) victories in 2019 and '20, during her 15-race career, which produced 11 wins, two runners-up spots and a third-place finish.
Lemaire only cited one race in which Almond Eye didn't compete at a high level ー her ninth-place finish at the Arima Kinen in December 2019.
"In all her [other] races, the last 300 meters on her back was some of the best sensations I’ve had on a horse," he declared. "I will always remember her stride and the power and the speed all together in the last two furlongs. It was just amazing."
Indeed, Almond Eye was a great closer. Her ability to elevate her performance in the closing portion of a race was the stuff of legends.
Lemaire has made great memories on the racetrack in France, in England, in Japan and elsewhere.
While he competed in the United States in 2012, winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf aboard Flotilla at Santa Anita Park in California, he still wants to participate in the Kentucky Derby, America's most famous horse race, which was first held in 1875.
"Every year I talk with owners and trainers about going to America. It's not an easy challenge, but Japanese horsemen are really sportsmen and they like the challenge,” Lemaire commented. “So hopefully in the next [few] years I'll have the opportunity to ride in the Kentucky Derby, or Belmont Stakes, the Preakness Stakes. Yes, it's one of my wishes!
"If I could choose one race, I would choose, of course, the Kentucky Derby because it's such an iconic race and the atmosphere is incredible and the race itself with 20 runners is very unusual in America. It's like going to a battlefield and in the first corner, it must be great excitement."
Author: Ed Odeven