The U.S. has Julie Krone, Britain has Hayley Turner, Australia has Michelle Payne - riders successful at the highest level who have become the poster girls for female jockeys - and now France may finally be joining the club.
Mickaelle Michel is the new golden girl of French racing, and not simply for her engaging and charming personality or infectious enthusiasm for our sport. This 22-year-old is a natural talent in the saddle. She is a jockey pure and simple, no need for the prefix of ‘lady’ or “female”.
Her accomplishments speak for themselves - in a very short space of time. Michel rode her first winner in Paris only last September but, at the time of writing, she has now ridden 60, with 42 of them in 2018 alone.
She is the first woman to top the French jockeys’ table, where she remained for 83 days until a certain Christophe Soumillon overtook her. She is the first female to ride a treble at a premium meeting in France, which she has now achieved twice. She is the first to ride a winner at the newly renovated ParisLongchamp, the first to be top jockey at the winter Cagnes Sur Mer meeting … the list goes on.
‘I will never get a big head’
I sat down with Michel and her agent, ex jockey Frederic Spanu, after she had finished riding for the day at Saint Cloud recently.
“Work comes first, media second,” was the matter-of-fact statement from her agent at my request for an interview, a sign of where her professionalism comes from.
“Fred is very tough on me, but it is for the right reasons as he is a true perfectionist,” she explained. “I will never get a big head with him around. I have always worked hard at everything I’ve done, but I never had anyone who believed in me like he does.
“It is a little scary at times as I worry I won’t live up to his expectations, but he saw something in me and, with all of his experience and knowledge, I have to trust that he is right. We don’t have the normal apprentice-agent relationship, and I think many other young riders would love to have the support and attention I have.”
Fred Spanu is well known in French racing. The 44-year-old retired from the saddle in 2016 after a career spanning almost 25 years, with around 500 wins to his name in France and abroad.
How did he come to mentor a young, unknown apprentice who had only just arrived in the Paris region?
Michel takes up the beginning of her story: “My family has nothing to do with racing or horses even, for that matter. I started riding when I was young, and I knew early on that I wanted to work with horses. I looked into what opportunities there were available and from there I ended up doing a week-long trial at the apprentice school in Marseille.
“I was hooked instantly and knew that was the career for me. I spent time with trainers Michel Planard and Bernard Goudot as an apprentice, but I only had around 30 rides in three years.
Arriving in Chantilly
“I believe the best way you learn about anything is by seeing how different people do it, so I travelled around different yards a lot to gain as much experience with top trainers as possible.
“My best friend and I really wanted to see what racing in Paris was like, so we came to Chantilly last summer. I went to work for David Smaga, but my goal was to gain experience, riding in races never even came into my head. I was blown away to be riding on the famous Les Aigles gallops and to be meeting Monsieur Fabre and Criquette Head in the mornings.
“One day Monsieur Smaga offered me the dream chance to ride in a race in Chantilly. I met Fred by chance a few days before. I knew exactly who he was, but of course he had no idea who I was. I mentioned that I had a ride at Chantilly coming up and, out of curiosity, he watched my race. I must have done something right as he contacted me again afterwards to discuss working together.”
Spanu takes up the story: “I can’t explain it, I saw something when I watched her ride, and I knew right then she would be a future champion. That is how I sold her to trainers when I approached them.
“I was willing to put in a lot of time and effort to help develop her as a jockey, but first I had to make sure that she was as dedicated as she was naturally talented.”
This brings a laugh from Michel. “Oh, he did that alright! We met for the first time at the end of June, but we did not start working together until August in Deauville. During that time, he tested me both mentally and physically to make sure I had what it takes and that I was motivated enough to go the whole way.
“He came to watch me ride work in mornings, and there was a lot of physical work in the gym as well. We talked a lot as well as Fred likes people who are serious about what they do and he wanted to be sure about me. We also did observation work, both watching races to see how other jockeys ride and looking at horses in the parade ring. It was a proper education in all aspects of being a jockey and that sort of knowledge is priceless.
“From there we went to Cagnes Sur Mer for the winter and things just took off.
“Fred had worked very hard on the marketing side of things ahead of the meeting and we had flown down a few times beforehand to ride work and meet local trainers. I was riding winners almost every day for lots of different trainers. The media wanted lots of interviews, fans started to know who I was and trainers were ringing up for me to ride for them.
“The attention put more pressure on me as I know people are watching me ride now and they won’t forgive my mistakes just because I’m a woman.”
Role of the weight allowance
Much has been written about the weight allowance for female riders in France brought in last year by France Galop to encourage trainers to provide them with more race-riding opportunities. The jury is still out for many people on whether this is a good thing, but the facts speak for themselves: eight female jockeys are currently among the top 50 for this year so far compared to three for the whole of 2017, and none at all in 2016.
Michel is the poster girl for the weight allowance, with nearly all her career wins coming since it was implemented. She is therefore perfectly placed to give an insider’s opinion.
“The weight allowance gives trainers a reason to use a female jockey so, if it works, then great! The most important thing is for us to prove ourselves and improve our standard of riding once we get that chance. All the girls currently riding have done so, and well done to them all for that.
“It takes time to change people’s minds, however, and there still isn’t a woman riding in Quinte handicaps or listed races regularly in France. A weight allowance doesn’t make the jockey. People don’t say that when an apprentice beats jockeys. Female jockeys have to work twice as hard to be judged on the same level.”
Atmosphere in the weighing room
Has the sudden influx of female riders created any tension in the French weighrooms?
“Certain jockeys definitely don’t agree with the weight allowance. We have to respect them but at the same time make sure that we are respected. I understand where they are coming from as before there was only them, but now they have lots of women to deal with.
There was quite a bit of grief early on from the male jockeys, but it has eased off now.”
The female changing rooms on French racecourses are a lot busier now than they ever were before, which brings a whole new set of problems as many were not originally designed to the same level as those of their male counterparts.
“There was a lot of jealousy in the changing rooms for a while when I started doing well,” explains Michel. “It has calmed down a lot now that everyone has found their place. There are around a dozen of us riding regularly so we have had to learn to get along in such tight quarters.”
‘I still have much to learn’
What does the future hold for this bright and talented young jockey who is currently paving the way for a future generation of female jockeys in France?
“Every jockey will give the same answer to that question - we all want to ride Group winners. For me, however, my objective right now is for trainers to trust me as a jockey once I lose my claim. To be judged on the same level as a man would be a huge advantage.
“I am currently improving my English as Fred feels it is very important to be able to work with foreign trainers when they run their horses in France. I would love to travel to the States and the UK to learn more about how they train there too. I am only at the beginning of my career and I still have so much to learn.”
Learning her trade will no doubt be made easier under the tutelage of Fred Spanu, who has the final word on his protégé:
“The content is solid, both physically and mentally, she is the full package!”
I for one am sold after just one afternoon in her company watching her ride. Sign me up for the Mickaelle Michel fan club.