Keiba in the Koen

In a prefecture without an official racecourse, a horse racing meet is the last thing you’d expect to see being held in a local park in Inabe.

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By Claire Usmar
Published Wednesday, June 29th, 2011 (10:24pm)

For 99 percent of the year, 両ヶ池公園 is just your average family-friendly park. But go there on one particular Sunday in May each year and you’ll find thoroughbreds, racing silk bedecked jockeys and rough-and-ready trainers battling it out in the shadow of Mt. Fujiwara.

This is racing at its purest — no pomp and ceremony, just bare-knuckled competition. Fancy track facilities? Who needs them! Forget about starting barriers or a rope. The starting line was just scratched into the dirt by the toe of an official’s boot. The tight 400 meter track was less than 10 meters wide, without an outside running rail and spectators could venture close enough to the action to get a dirt bath each time the horses came by.

When the kids took over the track during the long lunch break to hold their own derbies, I went to explore the stables. Plenty of other spectators had had the same idea. I’d all but finished poking about when a strangled, “Hello,” brought me face to face with local horse trainer Takenori Hirota.

About knee-high to a grasshopper, skin tanned into leather by decades in the sun and robbed of his larynx by cancer, Hirota wouldn’t have looked out of place at any country racecourse the world over. He was the epitome of the battling horse trainer from the bush with a friendliness to match his country roots.

Within a heartbeat, I’d had a photo session with Hirota and a random horse, had a beer thrust in my hand and been plonked down before a spread of barbequed fare that Hirota had been sharing with his training team.

The entire contingent of riders, trainers, stable hands and other random people looking on were have a good old chuckle at Hirota’s antics but he was impervious to their teasing. The boot was on the other foot two hours later when Hirota’s horse rode off with the main race.

But there were no, “Look who’s laughing now!” antics from the man of the hour. Hirota just took his charger for a quiet victory lap on the lead rope, before warming the horse down himself, quietly content with his successful day at the office. Tomorrow would be business as usual again for this proud horseman.

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