HENDERSON, Ky.— It didn’t take place amidst the sprawling splendor of Ascot or the glittering backdrop of Meydan Racecourse, but the latest achievement in Mickaelle Michel’s burgeoning career caused a wave of relief and emotion to wash over her nonetheless.
For all the success she has already enjoyed in the saddle and illustrious venues she has participated at, earning that first victory on American soil was something the 27-year-old jockey knew could open a new set of doors in her ongoing quest to ascend the ranks. If she can prove herself on the competitive circuits in North America and showcase how well her record-breaking talents translate to the U.S. style of running, Michel’s hopes for an extended stay on this side of the ocean could become prolific reality.
Hence, the joy coming from the French native was palpable on the afternoon on July 17 as she made her way into the Ellis Park winner’s circle having guided Friar Laurence to victory in the third race of the day at the Pea Patch. In her 17th mount in the U.S., Michel had shown her newest comrades in the jocks room the kind of competitive problem they could have on their hands going forward.
“I’m not here just to be a jockey, I want to be a really good jockey,” Michel said. “I’m hoping to make something really good happen here.”
Given that she has made a strong impression in every jurisdiction she has ridden in, earning her first win in North America seemed only a matter of time for Michel since making her U.S. debut this spring. With that triumph now under her belt thanks to the efforts of the Ben Colebrook-trained Friar Laurence, France’s former champion apprentice is turning her focus to earning the sustained support of some of elite barns in the industry as she sets up shop in Henderson, Ky for the summer.
American pundits may still be learning her name, but Michel has earned a reputation internationally for being a quick study and natural talent on a variety of courses. After winning a then-record 72 races to become France’s apprentice champion in 2018, Michel headed to Japan in 2020 where she established a new mark of 30 wins for foreign jockeys on a short-term contract.
In October 2020, she captured her first group race when she won the Gran Premio Del Jockey Club Stakes (G2) in Italy aboard Walderbe (GER). That pairing would continue to enjoy high marks together as Michel would go on to guide the son of Maxios (GB) to a runner-up finish in the 2021 Dubai Gold Cup (G2) at Meydan.
“I was in Japan a few months two years ago, so I got a lot of experience (riding) on the dirt,” said Michel, who has bloodstock agent Jane Buchanan handling her book in the United States. “I broke the record over there too for a foreign jockey and I’ve ridden in many different countries like in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. I’ve already ridden with some of the best jockeys in the U.S. like Mike Smith and Rafael Bejarano.
“My French agent, who is now my husband (Frederic Spanu), it was his idea for me to come (to the U.S.). He spoke to me about U.S. racing, and he thought I would have the right form for American racing. We decided to come at the beginning of the year and…now I’ve won my first race. So, I’m happy.”
Trying to break through as a female jockey is a challenge on any circuit, but Michel said the going was particularly tough in her native country where support from horseman is scarce at best.
Since coming stateside, however, she has already been able to catch the eye of Hall of Famers Mark Casse and D. Wayne Lukas, that latter of whom has put her on multiple mounts. She nearly prevailed in her first U.S. ride, piloting Good Measure to a runner-up finish in a 1 1/4-miles allowance race at Churchill Downs on May 26 for Hall of Fame finalist Graham Motion.
“She’s a very competent rider. Nobody does what she did in Japan unless they’re a very competent rider,” said Motion, who rode Michel back on Good Measure when the two ran second again on June 24. “I think that speaks volumes. I thought she rode my horses very well. She’s very informative about the horses when she gets off them. That is very helpful. She’s a very good and a very fit rider.
“Jane (Buchanan), who also works for me, that’s been her angle a bit with Mickaelle is she’s got that dirt experience. I think people think she might be more of a turf rider, but she’s got a lot of experience on the dirt, very familiar with riding on the dirt. I think once she gets more established, that’s going to put her in very good stead.”
The volume of globe-trotting Michel has done already in her career has her hopeful she can stay in one place for the foreseeable future. She already received a four-year visa and, in addition to her time at Ellis Park, she has plans to head to Saratoga in the beginning of August to try and make even more of keen eyes aware of the ability she possesses.
“I know a jockeys’ life can give you a big surprise. You never know what will happen the next day so I’m just like, I want to enjoy my career and my job because many people forget sometimes that it is a really tough job,” she said. “I’m here now and I want to enjoy it, I want to win a lot of races, and I want to win a big race.”
Added Motion, “I think she just needs to catch a break. She was a little unlucky with the way things went at Churchill with the turf course (being shut down). I think that hurt her a little bit because the fields weren’t as big. I think once she gets established a little more at Ellis Park, I think she’ll do very well.”
Ellis Park Press Release
Photo: Mickaelle Michel and her mount, Friar Laurence, after their AOC victory (Coady Photography)