Horses Need No Translation

Sitting shoeless and squat-legged beside a two-foot-high table of squid legs with yams and chicken livers with leeks, Thanksgiving Day dinner becomes a partaking of nourishment the Pilgrims never encountered.

Back home, halfway across the globe, on a day that dawns 15 hours later than the hands on a timepiece, the family members were arriving, the linens and silver were being pulled from the closet, and tables were being set for the prayers and meal that signify deeply that we, as Americans, do indeed form a blessed nation.

But here in Japan, on our weekend of national exception -- the feast on which turkey with stuffing and mother's pumpkin pie are eaten between halves of a football game that is seen on a television -- I am having an altogether extraordinary experience.

Despite their abiding love for sumo wrestling, karaoke, pachinko, and baseball, the celebrants of bounty descended upon Tokyo Race Course, home of the world's third-richest horse race -- the Japan Cup (Jpn-I). Standing a foot taller in a shirt size I can't buy at the souvenir stands, and realizing I know nothing about which horses to bet on or how to even bet them, I am feeling like a gaijin among insiders.

Away from the racetrack, one learns easily to let others fill your glass, to leave your shoes at the door before entering a home, to refrain from eating snacks in the streets, lest you risk being thought of as vulgar.

But once at the races, what is to be made of this language in which characters, not letters, are used to communicate? No horse that is entered is identified by his given English name. And these flimsy unreadable slips -- the ones that you stick into a betting machine, that require you to trust that you've written down the right amount of thousands of yen on the runner that you've chosen to wager on -- what are they all about?

It's intimidating to be among fast-moving strangers who act savvy about a mysterious game that frustrates its followers more often than it rewards them. Could this be how Americans with no racetrack experience feel when they visit an American racetrack? Like losers who are "Lost in Translation?"

Nevertheless, the buzz of the crowd, the spectacle of colors -- these signals elicit a natural response, no matter the challenges. Tokyo Race Course is a panacea for pleasure addicts. It is squeaky clean and roomy. Halfway through the 12-race card, the action subsides so that fans can have lunch. Now how cool is that?

One of the grandstand's six public levels has been purposely designed to exist without betting, prompting the question of how so much space could be allocated to non-wagering purposes at a facility that exists for the purpose of doing so. The interesting corridor has a child care facility, an Internet café, a food mall, convenience store, and massage parlor. Casting about on the premises is no different than walking the streets of a neighborhood.

"Of course, it's the handle that drives business, but without fans there's no future," explained Hiroshi Ito, one of many doting Japan Racing Association representatives. "If people can come here without the pressure of having to bet, they will learn what we have to offer," Ito said.

On our shores, people try to manage emotion using logic. As a result, the tracks force feed the public with tutorials, expecting A to follow B to follow C with an aim that some day the process will produce horse players.

Visiting Japan, one realizes that being among people who share in the pursuit of risk afford its own lesson, and that left to one's curiosity, the level of participation in the group will rise without prompting.

It is not like the Japanese to say no (or, for that matter, yes) to even the silliest interests. Yet, when their most presumptuous guest arrived on these shores to ask for the Japan Cup, two local horses denied her the victory she sought.

British-trained champion Ouija Board, an all-world performer, finished third to Deep Impact and Dream Passport. But in the wake of this global disappointment, the outpouring of affection expressed for the home team by 120,182 strong was, in fact, caused only in part from the pari-mutuels.