Christophe Lemaire: journey to the JRA

When champion French jockey Christophe Lemaire left his home country behind for a life in Japan he could never have imagined the adventures – and champion racehorses – that awaited him.

Christophe Lemaire and his champion mare Almond Eye set a world turf record in the 2018 Japan Cup. (Illustration by Yu Tsubuku)

Michael Cox



‘Christophe Lemaire: journey to the JRA’ – Asian Racing Report’s illustrated feature documenting the extraordinary career arc of superstar jockey Christophe Lemaire – is an interactive experience.

Click on the illustrations to hear from Christophe himself, as well as selected race commentary from some of the Frenchman’s most significant victories.

Words: Michael Cox & Christophe Lemaire
Illustrations: Yu Tsubuku & Pikky


Chapter 1: The Leap of Faith

Losing a job is always tough. When French jockey Christophe Lemaire lost his role as retained rider to the Aga Khan in 2014, he was devastated. 

There was hope on the horizon though. Lemaire had been a regular visitor to Japan over the previous 12 years, winning some of the country’s biggest races, but becoming a full time jockey there and moving his young family to a new country would require a huge leap of faith.


In Christophe's words: click image to play audio


Chapter 2: The Fall

Becoming a full time rider in Japan would also require a commitment and determination beyond just race riding. Simply being a champion jockey isn’t enough for a foreigner to be licenced to ride full-time by the Japan Racing Association (JRA). Jockeys must complete a challenging quiz about Japanese racing, then – if they pass – test their verbal language skills in a mock stewards’ room scenario. 

As Lemaire prepared for the exam he would be faced with another challenge: recovering from injuries suffered in an accident at Kyoto Racecourse in 2014. After he was thrown from his stumbling horse, Lemaire broke his leg on the running rail and required surgery. 

Rather than return to France for his operation and recovery, Lemaire put his faith in local surgeons. He also made the most of his time in hospital, studying for the written exam and practicing his language skills with the hospital staff. 

In Christophe's words: click image to play audio


Chapter 3: The Test

When Lemaire sat for the exam he was more nervous than he is before any race. 

Adding to the challenge, the test was in English, not Lemaire’s native French. 

“It was in a classroom and I was sitting in there with a lot of apprentice jockeys. I will never forget, they all had their heads shaved and there was a lot of tension in the room. The questions were hard, I was not sure if I had passed.” 

When Lemaire received the call to say he had succeeded, he was overcome with emotion. 

“I just broke down and cried. It was such a relief.” 

In Christophe's words: click image to play audio


Chapter 4: The Quest

Italian jockey Mirco Demuro also passed and the pair became the first two foreign riders to be licenced to ride in the JRA full-time. 

“Mirco and I will always have this connection. It was a great achievement to go through this process, and an honour to be licenced to ride in Japan full-time.” 

Gaining permission to ride is one thing but feeling accepted into such a strong culture is another. After Lemaire and Demuro had achieved their full time licences, a group of rival jockeys wanted to welcome them to Japan and had something special planned. 

The Japanese jockeys created a ‘treasure quest’ adventure, leaving clues that started in Tokyo and led Lemaire and Demuro on a cross country adventure to the historic capital of Kyoto. 

They were led to the outskirts of the picturesque city and to the Fujinomori Shrine, a beautiful temple dedicated to horses 

As they approached the shrine what looked like a priest in a robe was sweeping the path for them. As they walked closer, the man removed the hood and showed his face. 

“It was Futoshi Komaki, one of the oldest jockeys in the JRA. He was clearing the way for us to come in. We walked in and the other jockeys were there to welcome us. I still get goosebumps and feel emotional now when I talk about it.”

In Christophe's words: click image to play audio


Chapter 5: The Eight

November 6, 2016, at Tokyo Racecourse was one of those days when everything just went right. 

“I opened the curtains and looked outside and it was a beautiful summer day,” he said. “There was a bright blue sky and some perfect clouds. It wasn’t too hot, the temperature was just right. 

“On my way to the track I felt great. It felt like there was no traffic, and all the traffic lights were turning green for me.” 

His eight wins from ten rides equalled Yutake Take’s record set in 2002. Lemaire would again ride eight wins in one day at Sapporo in August, 2019. 

“The eight wins at Tokyo was more special, it was the first time and to do it at the big track in front of that crowd was special. I was in the zone that day.” 

In Christophe's words: click image to play audio


Chapter 6: The Filly

Lemaire received the award for the jockey with the highest strike rate on the JRA for three consecutive years from 2014 to 2016, and won the jockeys premiership for most wins for the first time in 2017. 

In 2018, as he surged to a record 215 wins in a season, Lemaire struck a partnership with a special filly that would carry him to even greater heights. 

After Almond Eye won the fillies’ ‘Triple Tiara’ in 2018, her first test against older horses would be in the Japan Cup. 

At just her sixth start, Almond Eye was facing a field containing proven older horses like Suave Richard, Cheval Grand, Satono Diamond and Kiseki. 

Lemaire’s filly was favourite but there were some doubts if she could replicate her best form against such tough rivals. Kiseki set a breakneck speed in front but Almond Eye was able to run him down, stopping the clock in an incredible 2.20.6s for the 2400m trip at Tokyo, a world record on turf. 


Chapter 7: The Colt

The following year, Almond Eye would prove herself on the world stage with a commanding victory in the Dubai Turf and then cap her career in 2020 with another Japan Cup. 

Lemaire’s personal achievements continued to grow. In 2022, he made it four straight JRA awards for most wins in a season.

It was also the year another superstar horse came along that carried the same Silk Racing colours as Almond Eye. 

A dark brown colt with a distinctive white blaze named Equinox had finished second in the Derby and he would start favourite in the Tenno Sho (Autumn).

The race will be remembered for the massive lead opened up by Panathalassa, who still looked as though he had the race won until late. 

After Equinox ran Panathalassa down it was clear Japanese racing had a new hero and his dominant win in the season-ending Arima Kinen clinched Horse of the Year honours. 

Like Almond Eye, the next step was taking on some of the best middle-distance horses in the world in Dubai. Before the Sheema Classic, there were questions about who would lead the race and how Equinox could adapt to foreign conditions. 

Lemaire took fate into his own hands, leading all the way in a dominant performance that officially made the colt the highest rated horse in the world. 

Click image to play audio


Chapter 8: The Hero

Equinox was now the undisputed star of the JRA, a circuit where the ‘hero horse’ is celebrated above all else. 

There are two fan-voted ‘all star’ races on the JRA calendar: the Arima Kinen – which Equinox had already won on Christmas Day, 2022 – and the Takarazuka Kinen, a race held at Hanshin racecourse, Osaka, in June each year. 

The fans vote for their favourite horses, which decides the field for the prestigious and highly competitive races. In 2023, Equinox broke the record for most votes (216,379) and sent the crowd into raptures with his fourth straight victory, all at Group 1 level. 

In Christophe's words: click image to play audio


Chapter 9: The Drive

Japan is home now for Lemaire, along with his wife Barbara and two children, Luca and Andrea. Lemaire is adamant that he would not be able to achieve what he has without their support.

It is also Japan’s devoted fans that drive Lemaire. They are why he has set up a clothing brand ‘CL’, produced entirely in Japan, to share the joy racing and champion horses like Almond Eye and Equinox have given him. 

“I have a wonderful life here and I want to give back to the fans, to Japanese horse racing and to Japan itself. I can’t give something to every fan, I don’t have enough riding gear, but I can create something we can share with, that they can identify with.”

In Christophe's words: click image to play audio


Chapter 10: The Arc

After all of his accolades – the awards, records, big race wins and champion horses – what is left for Lemaire to achieve? 

The holy grail for Japanese racing’s owners, trainers and jockeys remains a win in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Thirty-one Japanese horses have now tried and failed on French racing’s biggest day. including the mighty Deep Impact in 2006. 

Lemaire left Longchamp racecourse dejected after he lost his job all those years ago, but if he can return there to win the Arc with a Japanese horse then his place in the rich history of racing in his adopted home will be ensured. 

In Christophe's words: click image to play audio



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