Thu, Mar 04, 2004 - Page 16 News List

No-hope nag wins hearts of Japan's racegoers

Because of Japan's long recession, race fans are said to be identifying with a horse that keeps losing

AFP , KOCHI, JAPAN

With over 100 races without a win, Japanese racehorse Haruurara is an "also ran" that embodies the never-say-die spirit, but she has won fans' hearts and helped save a local racecourse from bankruptcy.

The eight-year-old mare extended her winless streak to 105 outings last Sunday by finishing ninth in a field of 11 at Kochi Racecourse in the Japanese coastal city of Kochi, some 600km southwest of Tokyo.

The chestnut thoroughbred, wearing her trademark pink hood, failed to deliver on the race's highest odds of 130-1, but did not disappoint the 2,600 fans who flocked to the otherwise quiet dirt course in the rain to see Japan's most famous horse.

"We are encouraged by her give-it-everything spirit," said Mitsushi Yoshinaga, a 63-year-old reti-ree. Fans identify her losing streak with their own difficulties at a time when Japan has long suffered recession," Yoshinaga said. "We feel we can work hard again when we see her racing desperately for the finishing line."

A great cheer went up from the crowd when Haruurara joined the frontrunners in the first straight. Although she was gradually overtaken by one horse after another in the muddy going, the fans rooted for her throughout the race.

"I'm satisfied with ninth. She did a good job," said Masako Kadota, 30, who works at a local politician's office. Haruurara is cute and attractive. Whenever I see her gallop here, I feel cheerful," she said. "She is my heroine."

Since her debut in November 1998, Haruurara, which means "gentle spring", has finished in second place four times, and her total prize money has barely reached 1 million yen (US$9,170).

"I named her Haruurara in the hope that she can be gentle and pleasing like the spring," said trainer Dai Muneishi, 53.

"Urara is very sensitve, fragile and unruly, but has an ability to run in any kinds of conditions. She is an all-rounder," the jockey-turned trainer said, using the horse's nickname.

"She runs at full gallop no matter what. That's her style," Muneishi said, after feeding Haruurara as she relaxed in her stable decorated with a bouquet and a string of a thousand origami paper cranes sent by her fans hoping for her first victory.

Haruurara was born in 1996 on the northern island of Hokkaido, the nation's horse-breeding center but no one wanted to buy the then-weak filly.

Sugita Farm, where she was born and raised, had little choice but to become her owner and sent her off to Muneishi's stable, which had a reputation as a repository of hopeless horses.

As the number of races without a win mounted, Haruurara faced the prospect of being slaughtered in June last year -- a common end for no-hope nags.

But her life was spared after her popularity shot up last summer when local media focused on the fact her winless streak was nearing a landmark 100 races.

Haruurara's popularity has also helped saved the troubled course, which had been on the verge of bankruptcy with debts of 9 billion yen due to a plunge in the number of fans amid the region's prolonged economic slump.

"If we hadn't had Haruurara, we might have been in a very serious situation by now," said Hidehiro Maeda, who was sent from Kochi prefectural government to operate the course, one of the nation's 18 publicly run local racetracks.

"For the past four years, five racecourses have closed. We had been said to be the next ... unless we could invite [Carlos] Ghosn," he said, referring to the executive who is famous for turning ailing carmaker Nissan around.

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