The Search for Ferdinand

Over six months have passed since I reported the tragic tale of Ferdinand. When I set about getting the story, I had little idea of what it would lead to, what far-reaching repercussions the story would have as it set off a conflagration of emotion across the U.S. that spread quickly to Japan and back to me. Often all it takes to start a fire is a spark. In this case, that spark was a simple e-mail request asking me to help locate a horse.

I'd heard the name "Ferdinand," but wasn't familiar with his races. Upon receiving that e-mail I quickly calculated how old he would be and replied that, though I'd be glad to help, we'd be lucky to find him contentedly chewing grass in some Hokkaido pasture, especially if he hadn't proven as successful a stud as he had a racehorse.

Naturally I was delighted to hear he was alive. I was then asked to write a story about his days in Japan, a story that would possibly end in his return to the States. Trying to gain some insight into my subject, I set about searching the Internet for information. I watched a video of his Breeders' Cup Classic win and was awestruck by the magnificent display of spirit. It sent shivers through me. It was so exciting, I even had people at my workplace watch it, non-racing fans and all. I was stoked and looking forward to meeting this racing great.

As it was, my wish to meet Ferdinand finally forced upon me the truth. The great one had been "disposed of." It hit me like a kick in the gut. I put down the phone and cried, and then sent off an e-mail saying that, unfortunately, there was no story after all. The editor thought otherwise.

I realized that two decades in Japan had apparently given me a different take on things. What I had come to accept as a given, that most old horses, even champions, didn't get cushy retirement plans, was, elsewhere, apparently not always the case.

I agreed to uncover Ferdinand's story and, I admit, it was one of the hardest stories for me to get. I had been warned people would clam up, that I was trespassing on taboo ground. Persistence and a lot of asking, coaxing, and some demanding got me what I needed to know, which was a lot more than I cared to. Still, from the start, I felt defeated and disheartened, and I knew there were many who would frown on any press that wasn't rosy. Because of my increasing emotional involvement, it was also one of the hardest stories to write. Much of the time while I was typing, there were tears streaming down my face.

I kept on, nudged forward by a journalist's sense of obligation. Remembering the words of Ferdinand's former groom, Toshiharu Kaibazawa, helped fire my grudging obligation with a sense of injustice and a desire to speak for those who couldn't, and for those who felt powerless in the face of bigger forces. "I'm no reporter," Kaibazawa said. "I can't say anything. But you can."

The uproar that followed the story, saying Ferdinand almost certainly had been slaughtered, immediately caused a backlash in Japan, though not a public one. When American fans directed their anger and grief at the Japan Racing Association, I was called to the block and told to explain my motives. What else could I say but, in effect, "I mean you no harm but, well, the emperor has no clothes!"

For me it was a sad story that needed to be told and, fingers crossed, a shot in the dark at making a difference. Unfortunately, some people saw it as reason to shun me--and to shut doors. Ludicrous though it sounds, I have since been told on numerous occasions that I "have made enemies."

But what really is the issue here and who really is the enemy? A writer watching the parade and commenting on what she sees? Or a heartless apathy spreading through the industry, threatening not only to blind those who would look on but to silence those who would speak out?

Are those who would profit at the expense of racing's cornerstones to be allowed to threaten the very integrity of the sport? Or will those who care about the horses or who strive to truly raise the level of racing use their power to make a difference?

They were questions I had to ask myself. I hope my answer, Ferdinand's story, will continue to prompt others to ask them too.

Barbara Bayer is The Blood-Horse's Japan correspondent.