By Jon Lees
Japan: Never in her wildest dreams did France’s new riding star Mickaelle Michel expect to be breaking records when she took the gamble of trying to develop her career in Japan.
Like many aspiring jockeys she has plenty of drive and ambition, an absolute necessity if she is to attain the target set for her by partner and manager, former jockey Frederic Spanu, to become the number one female jockey in the world.
Yet Michel wasn’t competing on the lucrative Japan Racing Association circuit, where the world’s top riders like Oisin Murphy, Ryan Moore and Cristophe Lemaire have flourished.
Her workplace was Japan’s second-tier local authority-run National Association of Racing (NAR) circuit which boasts little of the glamour or prestige of JRA racing and is staged entirely on dirt.
Like the country, dirt was alien to Michel but she demonstrated she was a quick learner by registering her first winner within days, establishing a metronomic momentum for which she was rewarded with a record haul of winners for a foreign jockey on a short-term licence by the time she completed her two-month spell on Tuesday.
On the final day of the licence period, the 24-year-old Michel’s victory on Emmy’s Romance at Funabashi became her 30th winner from 267 rides.
The success took her past the previous best by a jockey on a three-month NAR licence, which had been jointly held by Alan Munro in 2011 and Ryan Curatolo in 2017. She had already beaten the record by a two-month licence holder of 25 set by Cristian Demuro.
It is not the first time Michel, from Hyeres in south-eastern France, has set a record. In 2018 she rode the most wins in a year by a woman when her 72 victories helped her secure the apprentice title.
“I am so happy and proud,” says the rider. “It is really amazing to do this because the NAR is really hard for jockeys in difficult conditions riding on dirt every day.
“But I am so lucky to ride many good horses for many good owners and trainers. It has been a really good experience for me too. Now I am a much stronger and better rider and better equipped to ride all over the world. Getting the record is fantastic.
“When I started here I just wanted to ride. I wanted to win many races. I did not imagine doing this, but I have.”
Michel had hoped to move on to the United States for the summer after her spell in Japan but opportunities to travel have been halted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the NAR has not extended her licence.
As a result she will remain in Japan for the time being, using the time to improve her English and Japanese, where the long-term priority remains to secure a JRA licence, subject to passing a stringent exam.
“What Mickaelle has done is unbelievable,” says Spanu. “Mickaelle is very happy to have broken this record.
“First there was Cristian Demuro’s 25 wins in two months, which she did a few days ago, and to break Alan Munro and Ryan Curatolo’s record of 29 in three months. To do that in two months, wow!
“When she came to Japan she wanted to make something very good but she never imagined she could do that.”
Of the immediate future, Spanu adds: “The licence is finished. There is no extension. Mickaelle will take three months more, but in the autumn, October, November and December, and she will take the JRA exam for the licence in October. The first exam is in English and the second exam in Japanese is in February 2021.
“The plan after this month was to go to America for three or four months at Gulfstream but because of the coronavirus we cannot go there. It is too dangerous. Day by day there are more cases in America.
“I would prefer we stay here in Japan and see how things are in the world in one month’s time. I am awaiting a reply from Canada for Woodbine. Maybe if everything is good there for Mickaelle we could go there for three months.
“Then we would come back in August in Japan for the World All Star Jockeys Series, like last year in Sapporo, and maybe after that we will stay in Japan. We don’t want to come back to France for the moment. We will take our time before we make a decision.”