The Japanese are having another go at Laurel's $250,000 Washington, D.C. International, proving they are a most persistent people. Their steeds never have been in the money in six previous tries and have been mostly associated with last place (three times). But today, with a colt named Hashi Kurantsu, they seek to establish a meaningful relationship with the race.
Their hope is a handsome, light chestnut 4-year-old, a bit bigger than the average racehorse, who has an English sire and an American dam.
Hashi Kurantsu has come 7,992 miles for today's race, from Japan via Anchorage, San Francisco and New York before being vanned to Laurel. The immigration officials were mean to Hashi in New York confiscating his native fodder, the two bales of Japanese hay and the Nippon oats on which he was reared. Contamination fears, you know. But his trainer says Hashi has adjusted to an American cuisine.
Hashi has certain credentials, having won the Snakeo Osaka Hai Stakes, the grass race they call the Japanese equivalent of England's St. Leger. At the International's 1 1/2-mile distance he has had three impressive second-place finishes.
But the flinty-eyed American oddsmakers still are posting Hashi as a 100-to-1 shot in Laurel's nine-horse field. It is an admonition not to pawn your cultured pearls for a bet on Hashi, who seems to be catalogued in the tradition of Japanese International entries: interesting colts who don't get up much run in the late stages.
The Japanese peaked early in their six tries to gain some status in the International: a fifth-place finish with their Speed Symboli in 1967, their first appearance in the race. Since then, nothing. They averted a third straight last-place finish in 1972 when their Mejiro Musashi came in seventh in a nine-horse field, courtesy of a spill that rendered two others in the race horse de combat at the mile mark.
Hashi Kurantsu represents the Shinzan Club Ltd., but he is owned mostly by Koji Hashimoto, a 29-year-old tycoon of a motor bus and truck company. "He says," said an interpreter "that Hashi Kurantsu is the second-best horse in Japan. The No. 1 is Hashi Hamito but he does not like grass and it would be a waste to bring him here. He like dirt tracks. Hashi Kurantsu likes grass."
HK will be the best-attended horse in the Laurel race, commanding a potentate's retinue. Besides his owner, and his trainer and rider, he has brought along his groom, two veterinarians and his personal blacksmith. Customarily, 100-to-1-shots do not get this ceremony, but the Japanese honor their International entries.
The trainer of HK is Shigeharu Naito, a jockey for 18 years, who has been asking a lot of the colt in training, sending him out for 2 1/2 mile gallops almost every day, plus some sprints, a regimen that would horrify U.S. trainers.
"'It gives the colt heart,' Naito says," said the interpreter. "He means stamina, I think."
Like the other foreign entries in the race, the three from France and one from Canada, Hashi Kurantsu cannot take to the Laurel track in the mornings until the American horses finish their workouts. It is an enforced segregation. U.S. Agriculture Department officials are stationed at the track to keep an eye out for any violations.
It has been that way for two years, ever since the breeding industry was shaken by an outbreak of CEM, an acronym for the dreaded venereal disease with a long name that contaminated certain American mares. It was traced to foreign stallions who had infected American breeding stock and caused aborted births. So no mix is permitted at Laurel except during the 2 1/2 minutes of the race, which could render any eager germs motion sick.
The counter-clockwise running of American races won't bother HK, who is familiar with it in Japan where they go both ways. And familiar, too, will be his rider, Mitsuharu Shibata. Nobody but him has ever ridden Hashi. Neither would the winner's circle be strange to Hashi Kurantsu. He has won $525,537 in American money. That translates nicely into 112,044,488 yen at present rates.
Trainer Naito seemed most pleased when he learned his colt had drawn the No. 1 post position. "Ooh, thank you," he said, suddenly breaking into English. But when asked whether his colt would try to go for the lead or wait for a late run, Naito smiled and put one finger to his lips in the universal hush-hush gesture, as if the question was a no-no. But later today, the Japanese code will be broken. It will not be the first time.