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Michael Cox speaks to Italian trailblazer Mirco Demuro on being part of some of the iconic moments in JRA history, and how he hopes hard work can see him return to the top.
It is 1999 and the 19-year-old Italian jockey Mirco Demuro is legged aboard his first runner in Japan.
“Any instructions?” he asks via a translator.
“Jump well … and go!”
The lightweight youngster follows orders. A longshot win that day announces him to the country’s racing-mad fans as ‘the new Olivier Peslier’, the French jockey who blazed a trail for short-stint foreigners in the rapidly emerging Japan Racing Association.
Demuro’s debut day was a sign of things to come: he jumped well and has been going flat out ever since.
“That was the only order that I ever had in those early years – ‘jump well … and go’ – and I thought, ‘well, it’s an easy job here … just go’,” Demuro says.
“Next thing I thought after jumping well was “Wow, these horses really do go fast.”
We catch up on the day of the Teio Sho, where he rides leading chance Omega Perfume. A Shinkansen ride, 514km cross-country from Kyoto to Oi at around 300kmh, from west to east, awaits. For now the 43-year-old takes a seat on the fourth floor rooftop garden of his Kyoto townhouse and reflects on the past two decades, which have moved with as much pace and purpose as the iconic bullet train.
Demuro is a pioneer as a foreign jockey in Japan, a 37-time G1 winner since that first ride. He has become a heartthrob with fans and a globetrotting statesman in his travels.
“I fell in love right away with Japanese racing,” Demuro says of those early days. “And the three main things I fell in love with were the horses, the fans and the prize money.”
“I came from Italy and I had started riding in other places like America and France, but I could recognise, even the lowest grade race here, that the horses were just so strong,” he says.
“Then there were the people, the fans – back in Italy people only came for the Derby or the Oaks – I came to my first Japan Cup and there were 120,000 people there, but there were fans at every meeting, it had a big impact on me.”
The last factor – the prize money – might give the impression Demuro’s attitude was mercenary, but should be viewed in the context of the situation he came from in Italy.
“I had come from a place where the economy was not good, racing was even worse, you only got paid your prize money every six months … I came here and made more in three weeks than I made in Italy in 18 months,” he says.
“Everything was better here, even if I was beaten on a horse the trainer would apologise, ‘sorry for giving you a slow horse’. Back in Italy people would be throwing stones or coins at us.”
Demuro’s love affair with Japanese racing spans the meteoric rise of the nation’s racehorses and he has played a central role in some of the defining moments of Japan’s modern racing history. First to mind is the bravest of big race rides on Victoire Pisa in the 2011 Dubai World Cup, leading home an emotional one-two for Japan in the weeks after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.
In 2015, he was, along with Christophe Lemaire, among the first foreigners to be granted a licence to ride fulltime in the JRA – and the pair broke records. Demuro was second to Lemaire but the runner-up still rode 118, 132, 171 and 153 wins in consecutive seasons, 57 Group race wins peppered among them.
Demuro’s Group One winners are a constellation of modern stars; Duramente, Satono Crown, Loves Only You, Kiseki, Admire Mars and Uberleben.
In the JRA Museum there is a photo of another iconic moment that perhaps defines his career in Japan:
Demuro kneeling and head bowed in deep reverence, helmet off, out on the Tokyo turf in front of the Emperor after winning the Tenno Sho on Eishin Flash.
“Time goes so far, ten years, it feels like yesterday,” he says of the 2012 Tenno Sho.
It is a moment played on repeat by Japanese fans on YouTube – the sudden amplification of the crowd’s cheers as they realise the meaning of Demuro’s gesture still evokes emotion ten years later. It is a tear-jerker for racing fans and Demuro’s eyes fill with tears and his voice cracks as he retells the story.
“So I rode there and jumped off, I didn’t know that was against the rules, then I took my helmet off. I didn’t know that was against the rules either.
“They had to make a new rule for me.”
Demuro was soon to break new ground again – but his grasp of JRA rules would need to improve – as he pushed to become the first foreigner to be licenced full-time.
He failed the rigorous rules test first-up but passed, along with Lemaire, at his second attempt and ushered in a new era for the JRA.
After Demuro was licensed, ‘instant’ success followed, albeit 16 years in the making. The sting in the tail of that success, though, and the tough topic to raise for this interview, are his statistics of late.
As mountainside villages and fields flick past like postcards in the bullet train window, it is time for the most difficult question in the notebook.
Demuro still loves Japanese racing, but lately, to him, there is a nagging feeling that it isn’t loving him back like it used to.
After averaging 133 wins per season for the five years following him being granted full time status, Demuro has ridden 65 and 75 winners in the two completed campaigns since. He is 14th in the 2022 JRA rankings on 37 wins.
A drop-off in support from former powerful supporters Northern Farm and Shadai precipitated the dramatic decline in rides and results.
The other backhander is that he lost the rides on the aforementioned stars Satono Crown, Loves Only You, Kiseki, Admire Mars and Uberleben, having earlier won G1s on them.
Acting like the rejection doesn’t sting would be disingenuous. The passion and single-mindedness for success that has pushed Demuro through barriers has a flipside; the expectation eats at him when he isn’t riding in the biggest races and hoisting trophies above his head.
“Look, I am honest, I like to win, and I really don’t like to lose,” he says. “I want to show people that I am still good, I didn’t want to be mid-table behind Zac Purton or Joao Moreira, I want to be at the same level and that’s why I didn’t stay in Hong Kong, even though I rode a Group One winner within a few months there.
“I want to be the best I can be, that is why I always try hard to reach the goal.”
So what of those goals? Demuro has still managed four Group Ones among 13 stakes wins since the start of 2020.
Demuro has become a favourite for operations like Chiyoda Farm, for whom he won the Group One Hanshin Juvenile Fillies on Circle Of Life in December last year.
He also wants back on the world stage – maybe the Melbourne Cup, for which he could ride a strong 52 kilograms, whether that be on a Japanese raider or otherwise.
As far as turning his fortunes around domestically though, Demuro has a simple but familiar motto, something akin to those instructions on day one: “go for it.”
“All I can do is work hard, and do my best,” he says. “I just want people to know I am still the same rider – I am still here – I believe I am still the same rider that rode 171 winners in a season.”
What Demuro fell in love with all of those years ago Japanese racing hasn’t changed, in fact the horses are even better, the fans have grown in devotion to him and JRA prizemoney has delivered Demuro a good life. But for an athlete as passionate as the Italian is, that isn’t enough.
On arrival at Oi, there is a reminder of what helps push Demuro through: fans have arrived earlier and unfurled banners featuring his lady bird logo on the parade ring fence.
“If I had just looked at the results lately and got stuck on that, then maybe I would be back in Italy, but fans like that keep me going,” he says.
What started for Demuro as a devotion to Japanese racing has transformed into an abiding love for the country itself.
“I love the respect, safety in society and the values of the people,” he says. “I still love Japan.”
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