How Japan shrugged off another bitter Arc disappointment

Japanese racegoers before the 2014 Arc. Photo:

Harp Star’s extraordinary performance: Japanese journalists refuse to join the criticism

When a country has high sporting hopes brutally dashed, the usual reaction of fans and the media features scorn for the failures and cries that heads must roll. It’s not pretty and it’s not commendable. It’s just how most people in most countries like to deal with their disappointments.

Not the Japanese though. After the eclipse of their vaunted Arc trio, Just A Way, Gold Ship, and Harp Star, westerners unfamiliar with the way Japan likes to deal with these things might have licked their lips at the thought of recriminations and accusations that were bound to follow. 

Surely the trainers would be criticised, if not insulted, for their decision to send their horses to France only on Sept. 20, and so miss the Arc trials. Surely the jockeys, particularly Yuga Kawada, who set Harp Star what seemed to be an impossible task and then blasted home over the last 600 metres in a time that was 0.49 seconds faster for that distance than the great Treve, would be ridiculed in public and pilloried in print.

What actually happened? At a post-race press conference, Hiroyoshi Matsuda, who trains Harp Star, was asked by French journalists whether he was satisfied with the ride she was given. He replied that Kawada had ridden her exactly as he’d been instructed to, which is to say exactly as she had been ridden in every race she’s run in Japan. So how could he be anything but satisfied?

Perhaps the need for a translator or deadlines dissuaded anyone from delivering a supplementary question on whether Matsuda himself now felt the instructions were the right ones. Matsuda was asked, however, whether he felt it was a good idea to go for the Arc with a horse who had no experience at Longchamp, ridden by a jockey who also had no experience at Longchamp. Only French journalists were present at the time, the rest of the media being more concerned with the brilliant winner.

His reply seems to have been lost in translation. At any rate, the Japanese press barely took the matter up, and certainly offered no adverse comment of their own, contenting themselves with a factual report that “French journalists” had asked the question.

Compare such studied neutrality with that of British observers, particularly those on social media. One of the very mildest of the post-race tweets came from one disgruntled punter who announced he was “off to catch the Eurostar. I expect to get there before Yuga Kawada.”

Bearing in mind that more than 5,000 fans had travelled to Paris in the hope of seeing history made and what is becoming a national hoodoo broken, the Japanese twitterati were remarkably restrained. There were a few mild comments rather than accusations about the fact that Harp Star and Gold Ship, who were held up at the rear in a steadily run race, had not had enough speed to catch the leaders as they’d been able to do in faster run races at home, but no outright statements that the tactics were misguided: definitely none suggesting that, against the best middle distance horses in the world, they were absurdly overdone.

Many of those westerners most critical of the rides given all three Japanese horses were clearly talking through severely lightened pockets. These included supporters of Just a Way, who went into the race as the highest rated horse in the world but also ran strangely, making little ground in mid straight before finishing almost as powerfully as Harp Star. We hardly need to concern ourselves with some of their derisive utterances.

The most measured remarks in the western press, which naturally concerned itself primarily with the winner, came from Timeform’s Sectional Debrief by Simon Rowlands, himself a regular TRC contributor.

“The Japanese filly [Harp Star] did remarkably well to come from last place turning in, in a race in which such a position was a disadvantage, and her calculated last 600 metres of 33.35 seconds [equivalent to 33.55 seconds for 3 furlongs] exhibits the kind of speed that even top sprinters can struggle to attain. She was still gaining at the line, having come widest of all in the straight, and it is difficult to avoid criticism of jockeyship in this instance.

“Sectional analysis has Harp Star a better horse than the runner-up, Flintshire, but the mark-up merited for Treve in also breaking 34.0 seconds for the closing sectional puts the French filly just out of reach. Prince Gibraltar, Just A Way, and Siljan’s Saga can also be considered better than their final positions, judged on sectionals, if not by so much.”

This is as elegant and understated way of saying the Japanese filly was never put in the race as we’re likely to find, but the extraordinary thing is that there was no comparable analysis to be found in the Japanese media, far less the sort of fierce criticism of all concerned that might have been published in other countries.

Imagine the broadsides that would have been fired in the American, British, or Australian press (in Australia the “bagging” of jockeys is almost a national entertainment) if one of their champions had been defeated on a mission abroad without even having got close enough to have fired a shot.

As a Japanese friend said in response to an observation that the Japanese response to disappointment seems invariably dignified (and no, there was no snide follow up that they’re beginning to get rather a lot of practice): “Honestly speaking, we are proud of having a certain degree of manners, and that is a Japanese characteristic. 

 “The thing is we have to be good learners, and we need to reflect on what we have learned and bring that to future opportunities,” he added. That doesn’t involve a squawking press or howls of rage from embittered bettors. Dignity in defeat. It’s what the Japanese are good at. It’s a cultural thing.

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