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Lane’s Hong Kong experience can benefit Japanese raiders

Damian Lane’s difficult first stint in Hong Kong as a young man helped set him on a path to being a rider with an international profile and a go-to option for some of Japan’s most high-profile connections.

Damian Lane has been in head-turning form in Japan this autumn and the Australian is aiming to carry that into Sha Tin on December 11 when he will ride Win Marilyn and Gendarme at the Hong Kong International Races, before heading home.

Lane is confident Win Marilyn in the G1 Hong Kong Vase will follow the fine recent tradition of Japanese mares making their mark overseas, and is in turn hopeful he can unlock the infrequently manifest talent of Gendarme in the G1 Hong Kong Sprint.

Both are high-profile contenders for prominent Japanese connections, befitting Lane’s ever-strengthening status as a jockey for the world stage. The accomplished 28-year-old has advanced far since his first Hong Kong experience back in 2015 when, as a callow rider stepping into the wide world, he wrestled with the peculiarities of life at Sha Tin.

“It was a difficult period, one that took me right out of my comfort zone and certainly I struggled,” he told Asian Racing Report. “That four months was a really steep learning curve, I had to chase rides myself and do some things that I wouldn’t have done before.”

Still looking as fresh-faced as the 21-year-old who navigated the Sha Tin scene with quiet awkwardness, he now has the cool demeanour of an assured jockey maturing into a star of the sport. He looks back on that five-win first spell – he has returned to ride there since – with a sense of pride.  

“It kicked my career along because it really increased my appetite to travel and ride for different stables in different countries, and ride different horses, so it was a massive turning point in my career in terms of how I changed my view on not just race-riding but overall life experience.”

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Damian Lane after riding a winner at Sha Tin in 2016. (Photo by Kenneth Chan/Getty Images)

Since then, he has thrived in Melbourne and blossomed during overseas spells in Japan. Perhaps most famous among his expanding list of Group 1 wins is the victory of Lys Gracieux in the 2019 Cox Plate, which he and she followed up with an epic G1 Arima Kinen success at Nakayama.   

Lys Gracieux, like Loves Only You, Deirdre and Normcore in recent years, passed through Japan’s all-age filly and mare feature, the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, before not only competing in Hong Kong but also achieving success outside of their homeland.

The Takahisa Tezuka-trained Win Marilyn heads to the Hong Kong Vase after running second last time under Lane in the 2200-metre Queen Elizabeth, behind the Arima Kinen-bound Geraldina.

“She’s got a great chance,” he said. ‘She’s going towards the race in great shape, she competed really well at her last start and brings some very strong form lines. I thought the winner was exceptional and she will be very hard to beat in the Arima Kinen, and Daring Tact came out of it and ran great in the Japan Cup.”

Lane takes the view that Win Marilyn will relish the 2400 metres in the Vase. The five-year-old has raced at the distance only once before, when second in the Japanese Oaks, and her one start at 2500 metres brought victory in the G2 Nikkei Sho last year.

“Watching her videos and looking through her form, she seems to go best beyond 2000 metres and she actually hasn’t been there that often. Off the back of her last run she gave me the feel that the extra distance is only going to suit her more.”

While Lane praised Win Marilyn for her ‘consistent’ performances, he noted that recent G1 Sprinters Stakes winner Gendarme is ‘certainly not ultra-consistent’ but he also emphasised the seven-year-old’s quality when things go the well-bred entire’s way.

And Gendarme’s esteemed trainer Yasutoshi Ikee – the man who nurtured the madcap champion Orfevre – has a handle on what makes his charge tick.

“The trainer thinks it’s a lot to do with his start from the barrier,” Lane revealed. “The horse can be a little bit finicky in there and when he doesn’t jump well, when he gets back in the field and things don’t go his way, he doesn’t perform. Last start when he jumped really well, he put himself right in the firing line and he competed really well.

“The plan is for me to do a little bit of barrier practice in the days leading up to the race so hopefully we can get on the same page.”

Gendarme, one of owner Koji Maeda’s home-bred runners from his Kentucky farm, is by Kitten’s Joy out of Believe. The mare won Japan’s top sprints, the Sprinters Stakes and the G1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen, either side of running 12th in the 2002 Hong Kong Sprint. Despite that heritage, Gendarme placed second over 2000 metres as a juvenile in the G1 Hopeful Stakes and was tried in the Japanese Derby at a mile and a half.

Gendarme and Kiwamu Ogino claim the G1 Sprinters Stakes. (Photo by JRA)

Win Marilyn taking out the G2 Sankei Sho All Comers in 2021. (Photo by JRA)

His first start at 1200 metres came as recently as March last year and his record at the trip reads three wins from nine starts.

“He’s probably not one you can bank on but with a good win last start and a bit of confidence, hopefully he can carry it through this run. I’m hoping they’ve found the knack to him now,” Lane said.

Before all of that, though, Lane will attempt to steal away another Group 1 – he took the Mile Championship last month – when he rides Badenweiler in the Champions Cup on Chukyo’s dirt track this Sunday. The four-year-old has won six from 11 but faces the might of last year’s winner T O Keynes, as well as Lane’s G2 UAE Derby winner Crown Pride.

“The horse looks a progressive type who has a promising record overall, but if he is to be competitive at Group 1 level, he has to improve on his last run,” he said.

When it comes to improvement, Lane has taken forward steps every season he has ridden, and more than seven years on from his testing stretch of a first Hong Kong stride, Group 1 success at Sha Tin might be just one more step away.  

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