Saturday, September 29, 2012

Looks like Curren Chan is fancied for the big race at Nakayama tomorrow, trying for a second victory in the Sprinters Stakes. It gives me a great opportunity to share this picture with you - one that I took at the 2011 event. Let's hope the typhoon stays away from the Bay Area long enough to allow everyone to enjoy a good day's racing...
As I was mucking out Jaguar's stable today, the sound of thundering hooves made me look up. There was a flash of yellow and red, and Louis and Jaguar were there for an instant before disappearing at a fast canter around the corner on the outer track. I've never seen Jaguar looking so fired up, or Louis looking so pleased with himself. He can handle him, alright, even when the tension in every Thoroughbred's DNA rises to the surface.

I like underdogs and fighters. I grew up surrounded by them when I was a kid - the line of work my father was in didn't need university graduates, just tough guys that didn't mind getting their hands dirty in return for a decent wage. I reckon I've seen more rough diamonds than the average DeBeers worker, but spending time with them has allowed me to look past the rough edges and see deeper - the gem is often there, it's just that modern society and the ultra-conventional thinking that comes with it hasn't allowed it to shine.

At the end of the day, in many ways, I've always been something of an underdog myself. But leaving school at 15 didn't stop me getting my first management post with my own department and staff at 17 - and no, it wasn't a gift from my Dad, I'd gone my own way at 16, and by an odd twist of fate couldn't even reap the benefit of his name. The 'D' I got in English didn't stop me teaching myself how to write professionally by reading everything I could get my hands on - I often joke that Ian Fleming was my teacher! Despite a lack of formal qualifications as a writer, I had my first book published at 22, and I guess the 2,500,000-plus words I have in print so far points to a bit of a fighter - or at the very least a stubborn streak of monumental proportions! None of this would have been possible on my own, though - somebody somewhere had to have faith in me to get things moving off first base.

This is why I feel so strongly that Jaguar, the roughest diamond in the equine world, has to have a fair chance to prove himself, even though it's not the done thing in Japan - everything follows manuals and past experiences, the latter only coming after consulting the former! I'm hardly sleeping now, but I couldn't sleep at all if I didn't give him a fair crack of the whip, so to speak. I know deep down he has a lot more to give - any horse that can win four JRA races certainly has a lot of heart! He just needs a bit more polishing, and I'm sure that in time, he will shine brighter than my balding head on a sunny day...

Friday, September 28, 2012

Just been to the post office to drop off some mail, and picked up this on the way out. Due for release early next month, the new stamps depict ten famous racehorses chosen to commemorate the 150th anniversary of horse racing in the Land of the Rising Sun. Featuring artwork of horses like Orfevre, Deep Impact, Mr C.B. and Narita Brian, I've already put my name down for a few sheets...
Slowly but surely, I'm going to start introducing a few Japanese jockeys through these pages, as hardly anything gets written about them in English, and even less if they're NAR people as opposed to JRA riders. I'm going to start with Yuta Sato - the softly-spoken but determined NAR jockey that I feel will make a great trainer one day.

Yuta was born on the 6th July 1975 in Kawasaki City, Kanagawa Prefecture, on the opposite side of Tokyo Bay to where I'm based. Good at a number of sports and wanting to be a professional sportsman of some sort, his small frame was naturally suited to Keiba. He started racing in April 1993, being attached to the Kawashima Stable virtually from the day the legendary Funabashi operation opened for business.

His win tally eventually passed the century mark in 2005, which would tend to point towards slow progress, but, in actual fact, his winning rate is over six percent. More than the actual racing, it was recognized early on that working as a training partner was his forte, and he helped bring through the likes of Adjudi Mitsuo and Furioso, to name but a few.

Currently the head of the Chiba Prefecture Jockey Association, early on in the year he had awful fall involving several horses, but - despite all the broken bones - came back quickly and fearlessly, and with a characteristic smile on his face. It's always a pleasure to see his distinctive pink silks in the starting gate...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Having hardly slept a wink last night, thinking about this and that, today has been spent tidying up loose ends - responding to mail that has sat unanswered, getting photographs of the race on Tuesday printed for the folks back in England and Spain, trying to give my pocket camera that died on Saturday the kiss of life, and dealing with little things I said I'd do for people as soon as I got five minutes. One of those latter jobs brought about a very interesting chat with a friendly chap from my neck of the woods - speaking a whole conversation in English was a breath of fresh air, as was the subject matter, which naturally centred around horses. I hope to go up to Hokkaido and see this gentleman in the near future.

Meanwhile, with Louis away and an early finish at school, Sophie was able to ride Jaguar for a long time this afternoon, with no sign of 'The Difficult Horse' in sight. In fact, in the cool weather, he rather lived up to his Jaguar name - a TWR V12 model at that - and I reckon if you'd have shown him the Nakayama turf, he'd have been off like a rocket.

Actually, that reminds me of a little story from earlier in the year. At the end of a Nakayama meeting, people were allowed to walk the course to break up the rush for the trains after the final race. Of course, in-between wild sprints for the finish line, everybody took a few blades of grass home as a memento, including my two. Louis religiously wrapped his and put the package up on his bedroom wall as soon as he got home, while Sophie put her stash straight in her pocket and left it there. A couple of days later, the same coat was used to go to the stables, and she thought it would be a wonderful idea to show Jaguar the grass, just to see what response he gave. You know what comes next, right? Needless to say, the grass never made it back home!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

After all the excitement of the last few days and the mad, last minute panic of getting Louis ready for a school trip this morning, having at last got the room I'm sitting in now resembling my own office instead of the one belonging to the wife (the very definition of organized chaos), I figure it's time to have a break for a couple of hours. I'm going to eat a ton of chocolate while Jaguar munches on his special cookies, and we will chill out together as old buddies are supposed to.

Tomorrow, as well as restarting the diet after today's temporary lapse of willpower, I'll begin writing the movie script of how a gangly 12-year old boy riding probably the world's most ornery Thoroughbred racehorse challenged the All-Japan Championships and won. It would indeed be a story worthy of a film, but if sheer determination counts for anything, be sure not to write it off as nothing more than a silly dream...
Before putting things away for safekeeping, I thought I'd share this picture with you of some of the items I'll be putting in a little box to remember Dad's memorial race by - the race card for the day, a betting slip signed by the winning jockey (I'd bought one for each of the 14 riders just to be sure!), and some biscuits from a friend of the family, who I won't name here, but those present yesterday know who it is! Far too good a memento to eat them all...
Had an E-mail from Simon Pickford (my best friend back in England) last night, and attached was an interesting photograph of his Great-Uncle, James Gillespie. Having been reading the blog, Simon sent the picture across because Dr Gillespie was the vet assigned to Doncaster racecourse in days of yore. Here he is pictured with his Ford Model A, which he seems to have pranged. Hope it wasn't one of the horses that he ran into!
The B.C. Whittle Memorial Race at Funabashi went off smoothly this afternoon - it was a nice way to say goodbye to my Dad, and I'd like to thank all those that made it a special day, either just by being there, or through their organization skills behind the scenes. I reckon we should do it every year from now on!

Today, the track was pretty waterlogged, to say the least, so the going was extremely heavy, and talking to one of the jockeys, it was difficult to see unless you were near the front. Of the 14 riders that bolted out of the starting gate for the eighth race, it was the veteran jockey Hiroshi Morishita that read the conditions the best, coming through to cross the line first by quite some margin aboard Red Heart.

At the end of the race, I presented the winning trainer, Kenji Uchino, with a limited edition print by Jacqueline Stanhope featuring a pair of horses that remind me of Jaguar - the first horse my father had any real contact with, and who he always asked about whenever we were on the phone; living 6000 miles away, he used to love seeing pictures of the kids enjoying time with Jaguar. It all fits in place when you know this detail.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Shares in five new Carrot Club horses were approved earlier this afternoon - four JRA yearlings, and one that will run in NAR events, the latter unexpected, but pleasing, as the father is Gold Allure, while the damsire is Kurofune. They've all been added to the bottom of the page, although it will be some time before they receive names, of course.

Having gone across to Tokoro this afternoon to unload all the kit from the weekend and give Jaguar a cookie or two, I'm told that even 51 is truly a cause for celebration in Louis' category, especially having just started in it, and even more so given that Jaguar was only firing on a couple of cylinders on Saturday, in a new location and in a class he's never competed in before. Nonetheless, there was probably some skillful diplomacy in the fact that the certificate from the first day mysteriously went astray, while the one for Sunday now sits on the desk next to me with a batch of photographs kindly taken by Noriko Mori. They certainly give a good idea of the awful conditions everyone had to contend with and/or endure on the second day. Thank you, Mori-san - as always, much appreciated!

I meant to write this earlier, but got called away - Yoshimi won her class on Twister at the weekend, which is naturally a nice thing to be able to record, as the bond between these two is a joy to behold. But a story filtered through that one of the Tokoro members, a delightful lady whose sight is failing, had an image of mountains when Yoshimi was riding thanks to Shinji's music. For me, that's almost as inspiring as watching Mutsumi-san fearlessly riding Noel, her pale grey Thoroughbred, while Waka the guide dog patiently awaits her return...

Sunday, September 23, 2012

In reality, I should be working on a Mercedes-Benz book now, but having tapped away on the keyboard for a couple of hours, I've concluded I'm simply not in the mood - sorry, Hannah! With a couple of hours to spare before I once more become taxi driver for the kids, I figure it's high time we lightened the atmosphere of the blog again, so hail to the king. Actually, it's Hail To Reason that I want to talk about. But for me, he's the king of Thoroughbred stallions, so the article's title seems quite fitting - it also has a nice ring to it in a journalistic kind of way...

Hail To Reason was born in 1958 - the year in which Pele made his name on the soccer pitch, and at the other end of the inspiration scale, The Chipmunk Song was released on vinyl, numbing the senses of an unsuspecting public. Sired by Turn-To, after nine wins (including victories in seven Stakes races), his career on the track came to a premature end when he lost a shoe in training and broke his leg. Thankfully, he was allowed to stand as a stallion, and gave the world the likes of Roberto, Halo and Bold Reason to name but a few.

What's interesting for me is whenever people hold up Sunday Silence as the bloodstock that put Japanese racing on the map, I see Hail To Reason. Again, for Brian's Time, the father of Mayano Time (aka 'Jaguar' or 'The Difficult Horse' depending on the time of day!) and another legendary sire in Japan, I see Hail To Reason blood. It's the same thing for so many of the current stallions proving to be popular in the Land of the Rising Sun - more often than not, there's a fair percentage of Hail To Reason blood somewhere in the equation. As such, I shall be particularly interested to see how Lourdes No Hitomi - a Hail To Reason cross (4Sx4D) - runs in her first race, which should be coming up soon. I've also just learnt that another Hail To Reason cross - one of the new Carrot Club yearlings - is coming my way, too. We'll now be able to see more clearly than ever if my theory is correct over the next few seasons.
The decision has been taken to continue campaigning Jaguar in Dressage competitions. Louis is confident that he's identified areas of improvement that would put him into contention for a podium finish, despite using a horse whose form is bred to race rather than dance. Winning isn't the be all and end all, but, for me at least, having a realistic chance of finishing well is important, even if the odds are stacked against you. 

If one thinks in terms of professional boxing, where rules apply, if you're 17 weight divisions below the guy in the ring, you'd have to be downright stupid to jump in there and try and fight fair. On the other hand, if the difference is only three or four weight divisions, the odds would still favour the bigger chap, but if your heart is in it, it's well worth giving it a go if there's a benefit to be gained when the final bell rings. 

What I want to avoid is the scenario I encountered with a struggling F1 team a few years ago, the publicity folks justifying the programme (and their existence) by saying: "Millions of people see us on TV every weekend." My response was to tell them that if all those watching only ever see you fail to finish, crash or make up the numbers at best, it's better not to be seen - it's simply wasting time and money, and tarnishing a hard-earned reputation that took decades to establish. That may not be a particularly sporting attitude, but as far as I'm concerned, that's the difference between competition and messing around in an expensive hobby. 

It's certainly not going to be easy with Jaguar, for it seems to me every time you do something to make progress, he steps backwards in another direction as if to balance things out in his head! As it happens, Hannah Shakespeare at Crowood Press told me about a new book the other day called The Difficult Horse, and we had this wonderful idea for a PR photo of Jaguar chewing on the covers - the perfect example of a difficult horse taking a bite out of The Difficult Horse...

It's a credit to the boy, though, that he wants to continue to make his bid for gold with Jaguar, rather than take an easy route. I like that. At the end of the day, he's not far off the pace, and if his desire to compete at higher levels is that strong, on a par with his love of the horse, how can I possibly say no? Good luck to the two of them!
Louis was out on Jaguar again today, and the real Jaguar was back! He somehow knew what was going through my mind, and set out to prove a point. I'm not going to retract what I said earlier, for although I was told today that the horse doesn't make that much difference at this level, it obviously does, for I've also been told to forget any ideas of trying to enter Jaguar in the All-Japan Championships - maybe at Children level, but certainly not Juniors. Louis and Jaguar are currently competing, without any handicap, against all-comers in the fiercely-contested Chiba Prefecture Championship, just one grade below what's used in AJC events, so there obviously is a difference. Secondly, Louis rode no better and no worse than Saturday, but his score went up by a substantial margin because Jaguar was in the mood. If it's all about rider skill and little to do with the horse (there were no real mistakes made yesterday after all said and done), explain that for me...

Anyway, although sixth (last), at least today he was in contention, and that's fair enough. Moreover, in my overwhelming disappointment at seeing yesterday's scores, I'd forgotten a few things, or failed to weigh them up properly. Firstly, Louis had jumped two classes, and this was only his second outing at the new level; secondly, this was Jaguar's debut at this level (Tenn-chan is a real veteran and a lot less temperamental), and thirdly, after numerous niggling problems, Jaguar hadn't been in competition for nine months. Taking these things into account, plus a remarkably short career in the saddle, 55.1 gives us something to work on - yesterday's 51.2 (slightly higher than I heard over the speaker) was frankly heartbreaking and unjust. As far as I'm concerned, it was taking the mickey at the end of the day! Time to think now, but 55 for a 12-year old riding a notoriously difficult ex-racehorse is something to be happy about by any stretch of the imagination. The 56.5 on Tenn-chan is within reach.

No pictures I'm afraid, because there was no space in the car for a big camera (it was pouring with rain anyway, so I wouldn't want a good DSLR getting soaked), and my pocket camera has died. RIP! Sophie, with her perfect camera for the job (waterproof, shockproof and sealed against sand and other dirt), failed to tell me that she'd filled the memory card before setting off for Narita until teatime this evening. Kids - gotta love 'em!

Perhaps the highlight of the day was Yoshimi's outing on 'Twister'. As always, the youngest of the Bamba sisters rode superbly, but there was something a little special for her fans this time around - a piece of backing music entitled 'Cure' created especially for Yoshimi by the hugely-talented composer and musician, Shinji Inamura. Without doubt, both of them have a bright future ahead of them in their respective fields.