Interview: The Saudi adventure of the Lermyte family
Driven by the "Saudi Vision 2030" project, initiated by Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has joined the ranks of the international racing community via the creation of the Saudi Cup meeting in 2020. It’s now two years since the French trainer Christophe Lermyte set up shop in the Kingdom, and he was recently joined there, for a period of a few weeks, by his jockey son, Jérôme. This combination got off to a flying start as they teamed up to win at the first time of asking. Frontiers are no barrier to talent. Here we interview both father and son.
Jérôme Lermyte: "I like Saudi Arabia very much!"
JDG Arabians. – Why did you come to Saudi Arabia?
Jérome Lermyte. – The fact that my father trains there made my mind up for me. Furthermore, it should be stressed that a combination of picking up an injury and the coronavirus meant that I only rode for only three months last year. Normally, I holiday during the winter, but not this year. So it was a good opportunity to visit him and work together, which we had never done before! Luckily, my very first race there resulted in a first victory. It was really good timing.
You managed to win on the PA mare Generalat Shammar despite a wide draw...
After watching a lot of races here, I noticed that a wide draw isn’t necessarily a big disadvantage. We often see horses finishing well here. Although I don't have the impression that the surface is deeper on the inside. I have discussed this with Mickaël Barzalona and we agreed that there is a small advantage to be had by racing two metres away from the rail. It could be a visual advantage because the horses that race from the front often "end up in a heap". So they make a beeline for the inside whereas the hold-up horses track around the
outside. On the dirt there is also the kickback to contend with and, on the outside, there is less of this. However, frankly, this track is really top class! Compared to US dirt surfaces, which I’m familiar with, as it’s more compact. The dirt surface seems lighter and the horses seem to be more at ease on it, unlike the US, where they sometimes "grind” their way to the line.
What does the future hold in store for this PA mare?
The rating of Generalat Shammar (General) was too low to warrant a crack at the Obaiya Arabian Classic (L PA) on the Saudi Cup card. After this victorious comeback, she tackled a ‘qualifier’ race but got beaten. As she was second to the ‘untouchable’ (a 15 lengths winner), Mutawakel Al Khalediah (Laith Al Khalediah) [editor's note: this horse has since run second in the Obaiya Arabian Classic]. Heading to Dubai to tackle the Kahayla Classic (Gr1 PA) could be an option, but the race has attracted a big entry and it will not be easy.
The Saudi Cup meeting, where the greatest racing professionals congregate, must make you dream?
Yes, I watched it on television last year. I was here in person this year and, next season, I’m hoping to ride a horse at the meeting. That’s a dream but not necessarily a concrete goal.
Are you tempted to return here on a regular basis?
I'm on the lookout and like what I see very much. I wasn't necessarily expecting it to tell the truth. I didn't come with that in mind, but just to see my father, whom I hadn't seen for five years. We have both been working in opposite parts of the world and are very busy with our work. He was here and I was commuting back and forth between Woodbine and Fair Grounds. The pandemic has turned the season upside down: on the one hand there was no real reason for me to go to the US and, conversely, it has become complicated to travel. Eventually, and because the season at Woodbine ends in December, it could allow me to come here every winter, and in line with what many French jockeys do by going abroad. I know that they race here all year round. I wouldn’t come unless I have a contract with a stable like Prince Faisal's for example. Anyway, I'm going to study the project closely. If the country continues to open up in this way then surely an opportunity will arise. The races are of a good level and will continue to improve, as will the quality of life. It's not on a par with Dubai yet, but they have an end goal and a project, "Saudi Vision 2030", in place, and they aspire to being a "modern" country.
When will you be leaving?
As of mid-March, I will be returning to Canada to ride in the first morning gallops, and to prepare for the season which begins in mid-April. In the meantime, as already stated, I've come to ride for my father. For some time now, I've also been riding for the Kingdom’s biggest owner, Prince Faisal Bin Khaled bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (editor’s note: The colours carried by the Saudi Cup winner Mishriff].
How is life there on a daily basis?
Life as a jockey is pretty cool. That's for sure compared to France. They only race twice weekly which leaves a lot of free time. Life here has proved a pleasant surprise. It's not as strict as you would imagine. It's even rather pleasant. As far as Riyadh racecourse is concerned, it's a magnificent, really top dollar, and I’ve experience of racecourses all around the world! The track and the infrastructure are perfect for horses and professionals alike. Actually, it functions very much like a US track.
Does your father train for one particular stable?
Yes, he trains for Khalaf Al Shammari: a businessman who has owned racehorses for quite some time. However, he wants to step up by taking it to the next level. He set up shop this year at Riyadh racecourse. He bought a piece of land at the back of the racecourse and built his stable there. It's unlike the US where everything is already in place. Since then, he has started buying horses, and mostly English thoroughbreds. Initially, he trained exclusively PA horses, which were based at the private racecourse of Al Khalediah, and the only venue where there were races for the breed. Although PA races have recently been introduced at Riyadh racecourse. Besides, Mr Al Shammari had his horses scattered in different places. Four to five horses have since joined our stable in the last few months, including an English thoroughbred bred locally, Alnabrah (Spring at Last). The 4-year-old filly had her first outing for our stable the other day and was third. Given that it was our very first English thoroughbred runner, we were very happy, especially as she had only raced once previously, and not very well at that, in August.
Does riding PA horses represent a journey of discovery for you?
No, as I had experienced riding these type of horses during my stay in Qatar. Although I hadn't ridden a PA horse for some time. Good PA horses aren’t really that different to ride than English thoroughbreds. On the other hand, they have small necks and it's harder to ride a finish. They also have a different temperament. So sometimes you need to kid them along, and to call their bluff. However, you adapt.
Christophe Lermyte: "Horses are as hard as nails here. There’s no place for average horses"
JDG Arabians. – What prompted you to move to Saudi Arabia after a successful career in Morocco?
Christophe Lermyte. – I wanted to experience a change of scenery after an offer came along. I initially visited the country in person so as to get an idea of what it entailed, before finally deciding to stay.
Who employs you?
I work for Khalaf Al Shammari. He’s a businessman. He wanted to recruit a French trainer to train his horses. He’s very widely travelled. He’s very familiar with Europe as he has horses in-training in France. He’s not in a hurry and allows me to take my time.
What is life like on a daily basis?
It's totally different. Here we work the horses "American style". The horses are very tough and are as hard as nails. It's unlike France where the pace is sedate with a view to quickening up in the last 400m. The dirt surface invariably dictates why there is a lot of accent on speed. Horses which are on the tender side don’t tend to last that long.
You are currently based at Riyadh racecourse?
Yes, I used to train at Al Khalediah racecourse. Although I wasn't allowed to train English thoroughbreds there. For the past two and a half months we have had our own stable here in Riyadh, and are starting to add the numbers. We’ve two large paddocks, one for male horses and the other for fillies/mares, which runs contrary to the norm here as the paddocks tend to be smaller than our ones. My first English thoroughbred runner, Alnabrah (Spring at Last), was third. A locally-bred filly, she was bought at the Prince Sultan sales. I’ve also come by a horse from Dubai, who is by Deep Impact (Sunday Silence). I still have other horses there. I train around 20 horses at the moment and we aim to bump this up to 40 next year. We have needed to retain four to five PA horses of a good standard, whereas the rest of the horses are English thoroughbreds. There are more races/better purses on offer for the latter Group. As training PA horses dictates that we have to primarily target the top races.
Are there any special restrictions in place when it comes to buying horses?
You can’t just bring them in like that. As they need to have achieved a minimum rating of 85, which equates to a handicap mark of 39 in France. This is designed to prevent the import of the run of the mill horses. You need a budget of no less than €100,000 for a horse that fits the bill in France. Furthermore, those horses competing in Quinté + races, or even at Listed level, aren’t necessarily for sale.
Your son joined you during the winter, and you teamed up for the first time together at Riyadh with a win...
Yes, we won with Generalat Shammar (General). She’s a mare that began her career last year, and who made her return at Al Khalediah in December. I couldn't run her in the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz World Cup in January because the entry stage came around too soon, and, besides, I had no desire to see her nerves frayed by tackling just any sort of race with the view to obtaining a sufficient rating. She actually won easily at Riyadh. I want to manage her career accordingly because she is by General (Ameer), and he’s a stallion whose offspring need time to mature. Next time out she got beaten by a good horse, Mutawakel Al Khalediah. When he quickened the tempo at the beginning of the straight, we had the impression that he was bursting out of the starting stalls. Anyway, I think she isn’t battle hardened enough for these feature races, whether it be on the World Cup or the Saudi Cup cards. The aim is to have horses that are durable.
I believe that the mare was born in France...
Yes, at the stud of Guy Barry. Her dam is Kerlia Lotoise (Kerbella). That makes her a half-sister to Naame (Dahess), a colt who won la Coupe des Trois Ans in very good style. Moreover, I have another mare, bred at the same stud, who won for me at Riyadh, Maroussia Lotoise (Dahess).
That's true and this after teaming up with your son for the first time!
She made her debut for me last year at Al Khalediah. She had won over a mile on the Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz World Cup card, and her jockey, Fabrice Veron, opined that she should stay longer. Although, after several races, I changed my mind and finally entered her in a 1,400m (7f) race at Riyadh. In the final analysis, she has proved herself to be a speedster. The deceptive factor here lies in the fact that they go the same pace whatever the distance. For the tempo is invariably a stiff one as the gates open. This means that the horses either see out the trip or they come to a standstill.
Do you have another PA horse in the yard that deserves a mention?
Asad Al Khalediah (Khalid El Biwaibiya), a real tough sort, springs to mind. He was second in the UAE President Cup at Al Khalediah two seasons ago. He’s the brother of Baseq Al Khalediah (Tiwaiq), the winner of the Qatar Total French Arabian Breeders' Challenge des 3ans (Gr1 PA) in France.
I gather that you’re familiar with PA horses after training them in Morocco…
Yes, and I know how to make best use of them. They’re more fragile physically and mentally than English thoroughbreds. You need to know when to ease off at the right moment as otherwise its curtains. You have develop a feel for the PA horse and, above all, you mustn’t neglect them. You need to be patient and choose the right moment when to ease off or step up with them. You mustn’t run them when they’re not as well within themselves, even if a racing opportunity looks tempting, as there’s no recall in the aftermath. You also need to be very careful with their tendons. A horse's place of birth is also very important.
Can you elaborate on this last point?
Using the example of English thoroughbreds reveals that the crack performers of this breed don’t tend to be born in Marseille or Toulouse. The quality of the soil and the feed have a lot to do with this. When you breed horses in a sandy environment, their limb confirmation and balance is often affected as a result. Here, we feed them Red Mill, as in France, and not just barley and/or oats. Lucerne is also available.
Yet the weather plays a key role in the country?
In Saudi Arabia the temperature in summer reaches 57 degrees Celsius (°C) in the shade and over 40°C at night. Furthermore, during this period, racing transfers to Taif which is a city located in the Sarawat mountains region. The weather is more clement there. Mecca is nearby and it’s not far from the coastal city of Jeddah. However, you get used to the heat. The proof of this lies in the fact that we put covers on the horses when it reaches 24-25°C!
Is there a lot of racing in Saudi Arabia?
Racing resumes in May [editor’s note: the season previously began in July] at Taif. There's a $1 million race on offer for PA horses this year. Prize money levels have also increased. There are often three maiden races per meeting at Riyadh with fields of 20 runners! There are also six races for 2-year-olds during racing weekends. Moreover, a new racecourse is under construction, 140 kms from Riyadh, which is magnificent. It would be good if they could race twice weekly at the new facility because there are a lot of horses here. It's huge.
What, if anything, is lacking?
The turf course, which was installed at Riyadh for the inaugural edition of Saudi Cup,
hasn’t been used this year except for the big meeting. There are plans to run a PA race on it, from what I saw in the programme book, but nothing has been decided. Lastly, not all horses act on dirt and deserve to run on turf, whereas some don’t act on left-handed tracks. There are no right-handed courses here. Even the new track won't be. But, hey, we're not going to complain. Racecourses are springing up, and people are breeding horses right, left and centre, and especially PA ones.
How do you access your results since your arrival in the Kingdom?
The 2020 season proved to be a good one as I was second in the PA trainer rankings to Al Khalediah. I’ve continued to occupy the same position in the table this season. We could focus everything on a policy of buying horses, sometimes with unpleasant surprises along the way, but the owner has decided to invest in broodmares.
You’re also involved in breeding…
Yes, we have an US mare who recently produced a foal. We breed at Janadriyah which is 10 kms from the stable, and English thoroughbreds and PA horses alike. Our mares are Kerlia Lotoise (Kerbella), Kelinda Lotoise (Madjani), an unraced daughter of Kerlia Lotoise, Melissa Lotoise (Munjiz) and Djamila Al Mels (Akbar). The latter won in France for Didier Guillemin. She has also has a foal by the resident stallion, Nashmi Al Khalediah (Tiwaiq). My boss had bought him to run in France but, due to leg problems, he became a stallion. The result is a very beautiful foal, a colt, who has his mother’s looks. He has inherited his father’s colour but his physique speaks to his dam. However, during this breeding season, we will not be using "Nashmi" but rather Dahess and other stallions. In any case, breeding is a very complicated process. It has its own imponderables. I can a recall lady in Morocco who gave me a complete genetic rundown of our all mares. She had used ‘genetics’ to determine the choice of stallions to which to breed the mares and... it didn't work out at all!
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