Saturday, September 22, 2012

Don't use an F1 car to go shopping! I've been putting off writing about Louis' outing with Jaguar yesterday because if I'd written a report at this time last night, it would have sounded very bitter indeed, as opposed to just a little bitter! At the end of the day, poor old Jaguar wasn't on form, but as far as I'm concerned, Louis rode like a demon, showing a level of maturity far beyond what his 12 years on Earth and exactly two years in the saddle should allow. His reward was 50-point-something and last place. Don't get me wrong, it's not the fact that he lost that annoys me (while his progress thus far has been nothing short of rocket-like, fairytale endings simply don't exist), it's that he couldn't compete as a horseman...

Having been a diehard motorsport fan ever since I took my first steps, I shocked everyone when I stopped watching F1 a few years ago. Why? Because lately the team with the biggest budget always wins - the freedom of design doesn't exist any more and the skill of the drivers is irrelevant. As such, the car with the best electronic gizmo that R&D funds can buy wins the race, and the person standing on the podium is just a passenger. In my opinion, that's not a sport that breeds true champions. In fact, with the way things are set up nowadays, with next to nothing in place to allow drivers to progress from a grassroots (for which you can read 'sensible budget') background, I'll go so far as to say that it ceases to be a sport at all.

What yesterday highlighted was it's the horse that's by far the most important element in Dressage, which frankly saddens me, as it reflects the F1 syndrome. A friend who rode in the Olympics said a $4,000,000 budget was allocated to each rider through sponsorship during his time in competition - it's all starting to make sense, but that doesn't mean you have to agree with it. As such, today's results will basically determine Louis' future in the sport.

Out of principle, I will not buy a 'better' horse, because I don't believe in abandoning friends when they've done nothing wrong. And besides, Louis loves Jaguar as his partner - he wants to compete with him, full-stop. Personally speaking, that's the kind of spirit that impresses me more than the desire to simply collect medals on a horse with which the rider has no bond. He was happy enough, as it happens, and was the same with his mount yesterday afternoon as he is on gold medal days - it was me that was left disillusioned by it all. This isn't Keiba, where crossing the line first is the only thing that matters, it's about honing the rider's skills and developing the communication side - the creation of Jinba Ittai. Or at least that's what I thought it was about!

If how the horse looks is three-fourths of the game, this lack of competitiveness leaves three options as I see it - we either keep going and come last all the while (and with most folks only looking at results, not how they were achieved, that rules out any hopes of the boy being spotted); we go back down to the lower ranks, rekindling the enjoyment of true competition at the heavy cost of sidestepping the challenge (which definitely goes against the grain), or we walk away having learnt that you can't beat the system. With my own life on hold in Japan, because, as an outsider, I don't even have the chance to go up against the system, let alone beat it, this would be a particularly painful decision to have to make.

They say bad things come in threes. Well, yesterday was event location for starters (not my favourite place by a long way), my new camera breaking for some reason (somewhat ironic, given the current political situation, being from a top Japanese brand but made in China!), and Louis' results, which, despite the Japanese reputation for efficiency, I still hadn't seen in writing when I left the arena, over three hours after the finish. I guess it's time to drink a gallon of tea, scream loudly in the bath (the option of pulling out hair went a long time ago), and see what the rest of today brings...

Friday, September 21, 2012

We all know our limits - off the top of my head, I know I can't sing, I couldn't dance to save my life, and I can't draw or paint. The sad thing is I really like art (usually classic-style paintings and sculptures), so I try and get involved with it from the outside looking in. Recently, I've started importing things from my favourite artists in England to introduce them to a new audience over here in Japan.

I feel really privileged to be classed as an official sales outlet for Jacqueline Stanhope's artwork (please click on the link to the right to read her profile), which holds great appeal for me, both in terms of subject matter and quality of execution. As far as we know, I'm the only person selling her work out here, and there's even a nice project in the pipeline aimed at the Japanese market that I'm helping with.

Being a bit like 'Scrooge' when Christmas rolls along, I tend to feel like I've had a visitation from 'The Ghost of Christmas Present' whenever the postman delivers a couple of tubes from the Stanhope family. Popping off an end cover, laying out the contents on a flat surface, then peeling back sheets of tissue paper always manages to reveal something really special...

Slowly but surely, I've been building up stock over the last year, and now, thanks to this last batch arriving safe and sound, I have 24 different limited edition horse racing prints on hand, with over half of them being framed and ready to hang. By the end of the month, they should all be framed, but I couldn't resist showing you this image to give you an idea of what's now available through the Tokoro shop at Funabashi Keiba track.
I went across to Tokoro this morning to see Jaguar as he set off for a ride in a truck, only to find I'd missed him being loaded by a few minutes. Still, by all accounts, like a true Keiba trooper, he perked up the minute he saw the box wagon with the loading ramp in position, and duly arrived safely in Narita ready for a weekend of Dressage competition with Louis. In reality, using Thoroughbreds for these kind of events is a bit like using an F1 car to go shopping, so you can't expect too much. But as long as horse and rider put on a good show and get enjoyment from the day, I guess that's the main thing...

As well as the Dressage on Saturday and Sunday, which will doubtless be very interesting, seeing as this is Jaguar's debut at the higher levels (Louis used Tenn-chan in the last competition), on Monday, Carrot Club releases the details of which members managed to secure which horses from the latest catalogue. With early indications pointing towards one on my wish list being heavily oversubscribed, I'm hoping to get four of the five yearlings I wanted, respectively fathered by King Kamehameha, Neo Universe, Special Week, and King Halo. To be honest, my hankering over the latter is more to do with owning a tiny bit of Sir Ivor blood more than anything else - Sir Ivor being Lester Piggott's choice as the greatest of all his Epsom Derby winners.

Another thing I have to look forward to is the eighth race at Funabashi on Tuesday. My father died in July, and this race - the 'B.C. Whittle Memorial Race' - is my way of saying goodbye to him. Don't ask about the different names, it's a long story (no pun intended) and not really that important in the overall scheme of things. What is important is that he's fittingly remembered by a son who can write with ease and passion about historical matters, but doesn't always express himself so well when it comes to things on a personal level! Not sure who's running as yet, but Funabashi always provides racing of the highest calibre. I hope the race will provide a good spectacle for all, especially those making their first appearance at a Keiba track.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

We've all seen them - those tearjerker films like Dreamer that make ladies cry openly, and men disappear to the bathroom so that nobody can see them crying!

But sometimes - just sometimes, as we're talking about Hollywood here - the love between the leading actors and the animals on the screen is easy to understand in real life, and in our house, stories featuring human interaction with horses always hit the mark. A picture like this, with Sophie and Megumi saying 'thank you' to Heart for a nice afternoon of fun in the saddle, seems to say it all...
One of the fascinating things about horse racing for someone like me, who writes about history for a living as well as doing research for fun, is the level of record keeping attached to the sport from its very beginning. Okay, if we go back to the 1700s, some results are a little sketchy, but we know the runners in most races, and where they came from thanks to The General Stud Book - a bible tracking the bloodlines of every Thoroughbred ever born. Move into the mid-1800s, and the race reports are impeccable.

Compare this with car racing or rallying records, which is something I have to contend with on a regular basis, and the gap is obvious. Although we're talking about events that have taken place far more recently, and the number of machines involved is fairly limited at the top level, it's amazing how difficult it can be to track the history of a particular car.

Factories not recording chassis numbers is common, and when they do, there are often mistakes. One vehicle may have been used in practice, but a different one sent out for the actual race, as the driver and race number is often considered the only point of identification necessary in documentation. The engine may have been changed several times, and crashed cars rebuilt or given new frames. As historic racers became valuable commodities, things started to become even more twisted, with restorations taken so far, little of the original machine was left, chassis numbers being swapped, and cars that we thought had been scrapped decades ago suddenly appearing at auction as if by magic.

With the racehorses, it's a breath of fresh air. I built up a file on Jaguar's racing career and ancestors in no time, going back 13 generations, and then back to the foundation stallions via selected names within that block. I even made up my own quick reference database for eight generations, with things like date of birth, country of registration, owner and breeder names, race record and classic wins listed, and added photographs of the horses involved wherever possible. On reading that last paragraph through, I'm actually starting to scare myself!

But each Thoroughbred is a piece of walking history, with the majority having famous male lines that have between them won every race worth winning, owners that read like a who's who of European society (Jaguar, as Mayano Time, can boast about the likes of King Edward VII, King George V, King George VI, HH the Aga Khan, Lord Derby and Viscount Waldorf Astor being in his past), and links with the top breeders from Britain, America, Italy and France. In posts to come, we'll look at some of the great stallions and the characters behind them - we'll never run short of subject matter, that's for sure...
While hardly typical of any breed (my mother says they broke the mould when they made me!), there are times when my English blood shows through quite strongly. Okay, I don't wear a bowler hat or carry a rolled-up umbrella, but I can't live without a cup of tea in my hand, and I love antiques and 'olde worlde' craftsmanship. That makes me a quintessential Brit. Another thing I have in common with a lot of English people is that I can't help being involved (in one way or another) with racing just about anything that moves - cars, motorbikes, bicycles and horses have all played a prominent part in my life, or that of my ancestors.

Nowadays, horses tend to dominant my thoughts completely, as it's virtually impossible to enjoy the kind of car life that I grew up with in Europe here in the Land of the Rising Sun. At the same time, horse ownership costs aren't much different, and where I live in Chiba is Japan's equine hub - the Tokoro RC stables are on my doorstep, and the policy of the Bamba family that runs them matches mine nicely. Oddly, owning shares in racehorses is much cheaper, so every time I get stressed out, another name gets tacked onto the bottom of this page. A few more are being added as soon as the sales have been confirmed next week - you can make your own conclusions!

Anyway, always on the lookout for things that merge the various angles of craftsmanship, history and competition that appeal to my senses, the other day I ordered a Gibson exercise saddle, handmade in Newmarket to the same pattern introduced in 1960. If you click on the link to the right of this page, the video showing how the saddles are made is well worth watching. It's a beautiful piece, enabling me to deftly ignore questions like "but what are you going to do with it?" As with so many hobby items, pride of possession is worth a whole lot more than practicality...
Whilst searching for a nice picture of Tenn-chan, I came across this one, which I couldn't resist sharing with you. Everyone that knows me associates me with Newmarket blankets - paintings on the walls, and the real thing at the stables, in my office and in the back of the car! I even have pictures of me as a kid surrounded by the things, as even after the family stables were bombed out, my father's mother worked at a manor house with racing stables attached.

A friend of mine at Tokoro RC also has a bit of a fetish for Newmarket blankets and goods in the same colours, and bought this coat for her mother's dog. Unfortunately, it didn't suit it (the poor thing looked like Dougal in The Magic Roundabout), so it was passed on to me. As a result, last winter, I had the smartest Dobermann in the whole of Japan. Considering he wants to destroy anything fluffy on sight, this blanket lasted for a very long time. Seeing this picture again, I might just get him a new one for Christmas...
You'll see from the list at the bottom of this page that I have an interest in another retired racehorse in addition to Jaguar - I have a small, ten percent stake in a beautiful stallion called Tempai, known by the nickname of 'Tenn-chan' at Tokoro RC.

Born in 1993, Tenn-chan won seven races (including the Procyon Stakes) as a youngster, and even had a G1 outing. Looking at his blood, I guess it shouldn't be that surprising that he had class, with Jade Robbery as his father, and Seresa as his mother - a mare that won six races, which is actually four more than Jade Robbery achieved. The only difference, of course, is the American horse won a noteworthy G1 race in France before going to stud duty!

The story of how Jaguar came to be in my possession was related earlier. But why the interest in Tenn-chan, as I've hardly ever ridden him? Well, first and foremost, apart from the fact that he's a stunningly beautiful horse with great proportions and a noble look, there's a certain horse in the great-grandfather line - Nijinsky! Other classic winners in his more recent bloodlines include Tosho Boy, Nashua, Native Dancer, Northern Dancer and Swaps, while going back five generations kicks in several track heroes from Britain, as well as a few more from the States and Canada. Actually, it's interesting comparing the family trees of Tenn-chan and Jaguar, with the latter having far more British DNA.

Having had a bad case of colic the other day (which would have seen the end of him had it not been for a timely phone call from Megumi and the sterling work of my favourite vet, Ken Noguchi), it made me realize how old Tenn-chan was - with his soft, shiny coat and spritely manner, you tend to think of him still being a young horse. Hopefully, now he's back on form, he'll continue to provide a great deal of pleasure for all the members at Tokoro for many more years to come...

As it happens, you can ride him in your own house, as he's featured in a Nintendo Wii game!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

In the past, quite a few people have asked me how and why I started writing. In reality, it began with a simple hobby (classic cars), and a particular project that I'd put together for my own quick reference. This ultimately grew into something that was recommended for publication by a well-known author with the same interests, and the rest - as they say - is history. It certainly wasn't my intended profession, and my teachers at school would have split their sides laughing at the very thought of me being a writer given my English grades!

As such, I became a writer by accident. That answers the how bit. Sixty books later, mainly on motoring history, and not only has my spelling improved, the why part of the question has become easier to answer, too. Basically, it's a thirst for knowledge. If there was something I desperately wanted to read about and nothing available that took my fancy, I'd talk to my publisher, and, more often or not, the book I was looking for would be on the shelves within a year, with my name on the cover. Yes, I'm one of those scary types that actually finds research exciting - it probably explains my lack of success with the ladies, as I guess that makes me exactly the kind of guy you want to avoid at parties!

Anyway, as you can imagine, being in the trade, I tend to look at books with a fairly critical eye. For me, a nice book has to be something you can read from cover to cover without being tired, and at the same time something you can dip into and find a certain fact with ease. It should also be visually stimulating to the point where looking at the pictures alone satisfies the senses. The latest book to join my collection, which landed in my letterbox with a hefty thud earlier this week, is Ascot: The History by Sean Magee. Let's just say that there's no need for me to consider writing about this legendary British racecourse - the job has been done, and it's been done well. Wish it was my name on the front...

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Japanese usage of English words often makes me laugh. For instance, 'talent' gets used to describe someone in show-business that usually possesses no talent whatsoever (but has good management). The word 'mansion' is employed for a small flat that ultimately represents the exact opposite of a real mansion. And 'elite' basically describes someone who has been educated specifically to pass exams that all too often have little or no meaning in the real world. For me, 'elite' people are those that have proved themselves as exceptional in their chosen field. This isn't easy to do in any country, but, with what amounts to a caste system in Japan, it's even harder to rise to the top if you weren't born with a silver spoon in your mouth.

One of the people that has risen above it all is Masayuki Kawashima. Born in Chiba in 1947, he was a jockey in his younger days, but thought about becoming a boxer at one stage. Ultimately, with the help of the famous singer, Saburo Kitajima, he became an NAR trainer in 1990, based at the Funabashi Keiba track. Since then, he's won virtually every award there is to win, and is now the head of the Chiba Prefecture Trainer's Association.

With a life full of episodes that even inspired a manga comic, his stable has a reputation for being one of the best kept in the business, with his care and attention to detail bringing well over 1000 race wins, and the honing of superstars like Furioso, Adjudi Mitsuo and Clave Secreta.

There are so many things to admire about this man, but for me, the human quality stands out above them all. This picture, taken at the Funabashi racehorse auction in spring, sits in my office. Despite the sunlight bouncing off my head and the lack of a clip to keep my tie straight (did get a nice one for my birthday, though!), it's a treasure of mine...

Sunday, September 16, 2012

This is the question I was asked yesterday by quite a few of the Tokoro RC members, and it's a fair one, too. Sophie is my nine-year old daughter who loves all animals, but has a special bond with horses. With all the fuss being made about Louis' competition ambitions (the second session of jumping went well, by the way, but rain spoilt any chances of nice photography), she's tended to remain in the background a bit recently. On saying that, though, she is becoming something of a mascot at the Funabashi Keiba track!

Being small compared to Louis, she's only recently started making huge strides in her riding ability, as her legs are now just about long enough to give signals that mean something to the horse. She may look like a delicate little girl, but she's as tough as they come, and her John Wayne impression after her first big fall will stay with me until the day I die - after flying off Jaguar and landing face first in the dirt, she brushed herself down, spat the sand out of her mouth a few times, and jumped straight back on.

Looking towards the future, she wants to become a jockey, like her hero Kota Motohashi. She may never be as good as Kota (that Tokyo Derby win was magnificent!), but I can see no reason why she can't be wearing silks in a few years time - she certainly has the right spirit. And I wouldn't mind betting she'll give a few people a surprise if she does make it to the tracks. There's an old English saying that seems to sum her up very nicely: Never judge a book by its cover...
The Sunday TC racehorse Orfevre - that my daughter Sophie has pictures of all over the place! - has just won the Prix Foy in Longchamp as a warm-up race for L'Arc de Triomphe. Some bookmakers are now quoting Orfevre as the favourite for the big event in three weeks time. If the Japanese Triple Crown winner can take the spoils in his next French outing, it will prove once and for all that racing in the Land of the Rising Sun has at last caught up with the standards established in Europe and America.

It's important not to assume too much or build up hopes beyond reality, though, as Japanese horses have been fancied in big races abroad before and failed to shine on the day. And we've seen at home, too, that Orfevre can either be magnificent or a little lacking in focus depending on his mood. But on saying that, I sincerely hope the beautiful chestnut shows what he's capable of at the Arc...