By Jon Lees
Japan: French riding sensation Mickaelle Michel is reaching a crossroads as she considers her primary ambition: how to become the world’s number one female rider.
Hugely popular Michel, 25, has proved a massive hit during her current stint in Japan, riding 18 winners since she joined the local government-run National Association of Racing [NAR] circuit at the end of January.
But with her licence set to expire at the end of the month she has to decide whether to extend her stay in the Far East or spend the summer riding elsewhere, with the United States one of the favoured options.
Former jockey Frederic Spanu, Michel’s manager, mentor and boyfriend, says: “Mickaelle’s licence finishes on March 31. We must make an application to stay for three more months.
“But do we continue through April, May, June or do we wait and come back to Japan for October, November, December when there are many good races?
“If we don’t, we have six months where we can go to America. I would like her to go to the USA for three months, or Brazil or Argentina. We want many things.”
With Spanu behind her Michel, from Hyeres in south-eastern France, broke the record for the most wins in a year by a woman in France, her 72 victories helping her secure the 2018 apprentice title.
She caught the attention of the Japan Racing Association, who invited her to take part in the 2019 World All Star Jockeys series, in which she rode her first winner in Japan and finished joint third overall in the competition. She returned to Japan with the long term aim of getting a licence for the lucrative JRA circuit.
‘All the Japanese people fell in love with her’
“It was the first time in 33 years that a woman jockey finished in the first three in the Jockeys Series,” recalls Spanu. “All the Japanese people fell in love with Mickaelle, and Mickaelle fell in love with them.
“If she wants to stay there, like Christophe Lemaire or Mirco Demuro, we know she has to learn to speak Japanese. So she is learning to speak and maybe next February she will pass an exam.
“She has been having one hour and a half lessons with a teacher three or four times a week for months. It’s a difficult challenge when she also rides work in the mornings and there are eight races a day.
“The fans are unbelievable. Many, many Japanese people love Mickaelle and come to the races for Mickaelle. In four weeks four racetracks have record-breaking betting, more than 2 billion yen! The NAR people have never seen that in 15 years. She is bankable for Japan.
“But the rules are the rules. She must work very hard and learn to speak the language.”
Spanu, whose father Antonio trained the 1992 Prix du Jockey Club winner Polytain, rode more than 500 winners until he retired in 2015 with a number of G3 and Listed successes to his name. Among the best horses he rode were Lahudood, who went on to win the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf after being switched to the US. He was also the regular work rider of Cirrus Des Aigles but never got the chance to partner the millionaire gelding in a race.
At the time he met Michel at a shoot for a small movie in which they were both taking part, Spanu was a jockeys’ agent. “She told me she was riding in Chantilly and I said I would go and watch,” he recalls.
“I saw many good things. I didn’t understand why she had no experience and for one year and a half she had hardly any rides.
“I said I would come every morning to see her for one month and watch everything. After a month we signed a contract. I was an agent. I had five or six other riders but I wanted her on my team.
‘I told them I had found the new Julie Krone’
“Two days later I went to speak to French TV, the newspapers and I played all my cards. Like a poker player I went all in.
“I told them I had found the new Julie Krone! Believe me she will be the best one. I didn’t know her, just from talking and seeing her ride in a race once, I was sure. I saw something special. Everyone told me ‘You’re crazy, Fred’.
He goes on: “One year after that she was champion apprentice with 72 winners, a record for a woman in France. She rode a treble at the new Longchamp, had other trebles and doubles that first year.
“She was leading jockey for three months in front of Soumillon, Boudot, all the best jockeys. You never see that anywhere. An apprentice in front. It wasn’t normal.”.
Despite her success, Spanu believed Michel’s goals could not be achieved in France where a 2kg allowance was introduced in 2017 to improve opportunities for female jockeys.
“For me the best thing to do for Mickaelle is to become an international jockey,” he says. “The trainers in France are not ready for women jockeys.
“They have moved a bit from two years ago. Every year gets better but maybe in ten years in France it will be very good but we don’t have time to wait ten years. Mickaelle wants to win many races, she wants to break records, she wants to be a famous jockey.”
Kawasaki, where they share a small apartment, has become the pair’s new home – and because of her popularity Michel has signed a contract with a modelling agency and made many TV appearances.
Yet behind the scenes Spanu is driving his protégée, putting her through rigorous strength and exercise sessions in the gym, which he believes are paying off on the track.
‘She wants to better the men every day’
“I manage this woman and I am very hard on her,” he says. “I am not very easy to work with but she is very strong in the head. She wants to learn every day and she is a fighter. She wants to better the men every day. For me it is perfect to work with someone like this. We do many exercises and against all my men jockeys she finished first every time.”
In her latest appearance on the international stage, Michel finished joint-third in the men v women jockeys’ challenge in Saudi Arabia won by legendary US rider Mike Smith. Spanu is convinced there is more to come.
“In a few years she will be much better,” he says. “I know what she has to do to progress. You can’t do that too fast, it must be step-by-step.
“Many people think, ‘Okay she is his girlfriend so he would say that’ but I will do it. I have my plan. Believe me she is now one of the best women jockeys in the world after two and a half years. But she will be the best in maybe, one, two, three years. Believe me. You will see.”
• For more information about racing in Japan, visit the JRA website