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The setting may have changed but the ambition remains the same for Damian Lane. He caught up with Asian Racing Report’s Michael Cox in Tokyo and spoke about his drive to be one of the best jockeys in the world.
Three years ago, Damian Lane sat down at a Japanese restaurant in Melbourne and revealed his ambition to be considered among the best jockeys in the world.
At that point, with Lane about to head to Japan for the first time, the goal to be regarded as a peer of globetrotters Ryan Moore, Christophe Soumillon or William Buick, or the likes of James McDonald, Christophe Lemaire, Joao Moreira or Zac Purton, seemed a tad audacious.
Sure, Lane was fast approaching 1000 career wins and had just bagged the Golden Slipper. The 25-year-old was undoubtedly considered a rising star in Australia … but best in the world?
Lane’s one overseas stint to that point was in Hong Kong, a ‘learning experience’ which saw him secure five wins from 152 rides.
It also seemed incongruent with Lane’s reserved public persona. It just doesn’t seem like something the jockey from humble beginnings in Bunbury, Western Australia, would say.
A little over three years since that interview, Lane is sitting in an Italian restaurant in Tokyo. His statistics now do his talking for him. Those numbers suggest he might one day feature in the ‘best in the world’ conversation, and that maybe he should be there already.
“In my mind, as an athlete, you always want to be the best you can be,” Lane says.
“So I want there to be a day where at least some people recognise me as the best jockey in the world. Back in 2019, Japan was a step I wanted to take in that direction – I wanted to be recognised. I thought a good way to do that would be to get on Japanese horses that are traveling to international carnivals. Not only ride winners in Japan, but Hong Kong and Dubai and those carnivals – and to be recognised more broadly.”
I want there to be a day where at least some people recognise me as the best jockey in the world.
“Of course being the best is subjective and a matter of opinion, but that was, and is, my aim.”
Yes, there is that subjectivity, but then there are facts. Lane ticked nearly all of those aforementioned boxes with a blistering first stint in Japan that featured 39 wins. By year’s end he had three Japanese Group Ones and had a Japanese strike rate of better than 30 per cent. He also had Group One wins in Australia aboard Japanese-trained horses Mer De Glace (Caulfield Cup) and Lys Gracieux (Cox Plate). Lane has also been twice-Group One placed aboard Japanese horses in Hong Kong and won the UAE Derby in Dubai.
Lane has now become the second fastest jockey to reach 100 wins in JRA history.
Top of that list is Joao Moreira, who took just 294 rides to reach 100, but for whom many winners were racked up in summer stints in Hokkaido.
Lane has, for the most part, made his name in the thick of the action at major tracks, in the biggest races and at a time when Japan’s raw, challenging two-year-old talents are hitting the track for the first time.
He took just 427 rides to bring up his century and below him on the list are the not only Lemaire (869) and Mirco Demuro (619), but regulars in the ‘best in world’ debate, Moore (528) and Olivier Peslier (607).
Lane’s success means his face is everywhere at the JRA’s merchandise stand and beyond: T-shirts, posters, stationery and convenience store cards. There is even a special edition beer. “I have seen my face on a lot of stuff, but that would have to be my favourite,” Lane says with a grin you’d expect from a boy from Bunbury made good.
But Lane is quick to point out that it isn’t his merchandise that his face is featuring on; the T-shirts, stationery and even the beer is for Lys Gracieux – the powerhouse mare that carried him to a Takarazuka Kinen, Cox Plate and Arima Kinen in the space of six life-changing months.
“The horses are the stars of the sport, they should be recognised as that, and they are here in Japan,” he says. “When you are at the races people are yelling for the horses. Sure, people are fans of jockeys, but it is mostly about the horses and it creates a different atmosphere – the crowd are all there for the racing, they are all there for the horse.
The horse is really celebrated in Japan and it is a great aspect of racing here.
“In Australia, 20 percent for the races, 80 percent for the party, and then 50 percent of them don’t see a race. The horse is really celebrated in Japan and it is a great aspect of racing here.”
In Australian racing, where ‘larrikin’ jockeys are celebrated and big personalities rule, Lane’s calm and serious persona could perhaps be seen as a negative. He could be misunderstood as someone that lacks competitive fire or ambition, even if the feature wins and premiership placings suggest otherwise.
In Japan, there is a word that sums up Lane’s qualities, majime (まじめ) – meaning serious, earnest, hard-working and honest – and his stoicism here is seen as an overwhelmingly positive attribute.
Australian commentator Murray Johnson has been in Japan for more than 30 years and says that even though Lane’s results during that first stint rocketed him into stardom, it has been his manner since that has solidified his reputation among Japanese connections and an adoring fanbase.
“They embrace both the ability, but also the humility,” Johnson says. “Damian is thankful, appreciative and polite. He isn’t gregarious and what you see is what you get. He is a credit to his family and to his West Australian upbringing.”
Helping Lane navigate the myriad cultural challenges of professional life here is another West Australian transplant to Tokyo, translator Adam Harrigan, who has also represented Moreira and Tommy Berry during their trips.
“Adam is great to look up to because he understands so much about the culture and he is so well-received by the Japanese people,” Lane says.
“He is a great role model, and there have been many situations where I could have said something I would have in Australia, but it just wasn’t the time and place, but he has helped me understand that. I think that earns you respect.
“I see it with some other international jockeys here – they don’t make the effort – and you can see that rub off on Japanese people. Adam has been a big help, and not just in racing, but meeting people and on how to handle myself.
“The trainer Noriyuki Hori, my main supporter, is also a massive help and support for me. You just learn so much from people like this.”
Lane had ridden 21 wins during this stint at a strike rate that is third-best among jockeys with more than 100 rides this season. There hasn’t been the Group One glory of that first stint, but what Lane craves most is respect, not adulation.
I have worked hard at showing that respect, both for Japan and the sport here.
“I don’t want to be just seen as a jockey that is that outlier and comes in and takes people’s rides,” he says. “I have worked hard at showing that respect, both for Japan and the sport here. I want to show that I am willing to put in the hard yards to be part of the industry. I want to be a regular visitor here.”
Johnson says Lane’s win in Dubai aboard Crown Pride in the Group Two UAE Derby counts among the most impressive riding performances he has seen, and further deepened his reputation.
“I thought it was a courageous ride,” Johnson said. “To go to a place you have never been, he had never seen or been on the horse, and goes there and sweeps around three wide on a surface he had never been on. It spoke volumes to his ability.”
It was the type of nerveless performance those in the best in the world conversation execute regularly. The win further opened Lane’s mind to possibilities.
At the post-race press conference, connections were asked about the Kentucky Derby – a race they had just qualified for – and his reservations dropped away. He couldn’t hide his delight at the idea of heading to the Run for the Roses, even if it would have been on an outsider.
Lane never got to go Stateside, but wherever and whenever a top Japanese horse does turn up next, he hopes he is in the frame for the ride.
“I still have aspirations to ride at other carnivals,” he says. “I am always looking for what I can do next.”
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