When I escorted Takashi Yamamoto to Laurel last week, I expected him to be a little bewildered. The 29-year-old turf writer had traveled outside of Japan only once before, and his spoken English was limited.
But I wanted him to have a pleasant and profitable day, so I explained, slowly and patiently, why I thought a horse named Dr. Lloyd was a solid bet in the third race. "Very fast," I summarized. "Other horses very slow."
My guest nodded, but as the third race approached, he excused himself and said, "I go to paddock." When he returned, he was shaking his head. The words escaped him, but he made a gesture with his hands to describe a horse he thought was thin and unrobust -- in American terminology, "tucked up" -- and made it clear he wouldn't risk a plugged yen on an animal who looked like that.
Dr. Lloyd sped to the front, opened a two-length lead and then wilted in the stretch. When the 6-to-5 favorite finished out of the money, he confirmed not only Yamamoto's judgment, but a truth about the sport. Racing is a game that transcends cultural differences and language barriers.
Owners, trainers and breeders share many aims and concerns, whether they live in Kentucky or Kyoto. Horseplayers are a distinct breed around the globe. Their approaches to handicapping have a lot in common, and the pain of losing a photo finish will be similar whether they are betting at Hollywood Park or Hanshin.
As evidence of the internationalism of handicapping techniques, my book "Picking Winners" was published in a Japanese edition this year. The translator was Takashi Yamamoto. When he wrote me he was planning a U.S. visit, I invited him to visit Washington and the racetracks in our area.
Yamamoto works for a newspaper in Osaka, and the nature of his job suggested just how racing-mad his country is. While the United States has one paper -- The Daily Racing Form -- that provides both racing news and past performances, Osaka has seven newspapers devoted totally to horse racing. And Tokyo, not surprisingly, has many more than that.
In Japan, Yamamoto said, there is a great emphasis on the importance of workouts, and they are a major focus of his journalistic duties. "Three or four days before a race," he explained, "a horse will be very strongly worked. The day before the race, he will have a handy workout. I get up at 4 a.m. and arrive at the track at 5 a.m. to watch them.
"In our newspaper, each horse's workout is very much detailed. How does the horse move -- handily, breezing or driving? How does he go in the stretch to the wire? And the time is very much detailed too." Yamamoto's paper breaks down a horse's work time for every eighth of a mile.
In the mornings he also interviews trainers and asks them about their horses. If an animal ran poorly in his last start, did he have an excuse? Is he training well now? I expressed incredulity: "Do trainers really tell you the truth?"
"No," Yamamoto said -- further proof that the nature of the game is similar in far-flung parts of the world.
However, a couple of strong differences struck him about U.S. racing. One, not surprisingly, was the fast pace of races. "In the U.S.," he said, "the horses start out at high speed, and if a horse has speed, he wins. In Japan, if a horse starts out at high speed, he doesn't win."
Yamamoto also was impressed by the comfort and roominess of Laurel's Sports Palace -- quite a contrast with the crowded conditions of a track in Tokyo where a typical Sunday crowd is 80,000 or more.
At the Sports Palace, of course, patrons watch all the action on large-screen televisions, and they can go through an entire day without seeing a thoroughbred live. In Japan, Yamamoto said, there is much more of an emphasis placed on the physical animal. "Most of the fans in Japan go to the paddock," he said. "After they see which horses look good or bad, then they bet on the horse."
But for the most part, Yamamoto found the whole American system recognizable and understandable. Within an hour of his arrival at Laurel, he was poring over The Daily Racing Form, consulting speed figures, racing back and forth to the paddock, betting exactas.
When he lost a bet, however, he would do so quietly and stoically, and he never denounced a jockey. I never figured out whether he remained quiet because Japanese bettors are habitually polite, or because he hadn't yet learned the phrase "crooked little pinhead."