It's easy to spot them. The slightly rumpled sport coat, the haircut from 1957, gray, thinning, the sunglasses with just the faintest tint (because they never come off), the furrowed brow. The dead giveaway is the newspaper folded into a quarter, long columns with lots of numbers, no photos, and pencil circles drawn around funny, often poetic names. The race fan.
I was on the Keihan Line, on my way to the Kyoto Racecourse to see the 77th Kikuka Sho, the so-called "Japanese St Leger", and the last leg of the national Triple Crown. (Established in 1776, the St Leger Stakes is England's oldest and longest horse race at 1 mile 6 furlongs.) At every stop the train picked up more of these characters.
I am not a gambler, nor am I a big horse-lover, but I do love the track. I've been going to the races with my family since before I was gambling age. My grandfather was a race fan, so perhaps it is in my blood.
It is the atmosphere. The brilliant green of the turf contrasted with the dull gray-brown of the dirt, trimmed by the thin white rail. The (traditional) dress code: jackets, dresses, hats, sunglasses. The acceptably immoderate smoking and drinking. The extraordinary and decidedly difficult combination of research, analysis and luck. The exhilarating combined effort of animal and man. The jockeys - diminutive humans dressed in colorful silk with bold, graphic designs. And of course the horses - beautiful, idiosyncratic creatures, the epitome of power and grace.
I never win at the races. I have won just once in more than two decades. Besides my basic lack of knowledge, there is a reason for this. I rarely bet on the favorite. I prefer long-shots or horses that have a mostly uneven win record. There is a much better return on your investment with these types. I brought my friend Tomomi-san along to Kikuka Sho. She'd never been to a horse race, but her father follows Japanese racing. He gave us a tip for the main race. Tomomi-san translated horse and jockey names for me and other relevant statistics in the racing paper. Race after race I plunked down ¥200 and watched my horses come in well behind the winning positions.
Kikuka Sho is a 3,000-meter (about 15 furlongs), right-handed race on turf for 3-year-old colts and fillies. There are 18 runners. The total prize money this year was ¥248,400,000 (about $2,390,000).
Tomomi-san's father picked numbers 3, 6, 11 and 17 for this, the 11th race. French jockey Christophe Lemaire was riding number 3, Satono Diamond. He'd already had a couple wins earlier in the day. The racing paper pegged this horse as well as number 1 and 6 as favorites. But 11 (Rainbow Line) and 17 (Jun Vulcan)? Why them? I decided to "box" 3 and 11 on one ticket and 6 and 17 on another ticket.
Because I was trying to snap a photo of the horses as they crossed the finish line, I didn't really see who came in. The board showed number 3 in first and number 6 in fourth, but second and third were blank. A photo finish, which would require a judge's review.
After a few minutes the numbers appeared: 11 in second and 13 in third. I won! Unbelievable. My ¥400 bet paid ¥7,020.
Funny. I always feel just a little bit luckier in Japan. Looking forward to my next day at the races.