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Sunday, Dec. 17, 2006

MEDIA MIX

It's horses for courses if there's a few bucks to be made


Whenever the media covers some story about an animal that has been rescued or neglected there are always dozens of people willing to adopt it.

It's a paradox because hundreds of thousands of abandoned dogs and cats are killed every year by the authorities. A good illustration of this paradox was the stray dog in Tokushima last month that was trapped on a reinforcing wall for six days. The rescue operation attracted major coverage and local authorities received calls from people all over Japan offering to adopt the dog. What wasn't widely reported was that there are a lot of stray dogs in the area where the rescue took place, since people in the vicinity abandon unwanted pets there. If the dog hadn't got trapped, it might have been rounded up with the other strays and gassed.

The mayor of Obihiro in Hokkaido recently tried to rally the media to save some other animals. For more than 50 years the city has run a race track where people bet on large workhorses that pull heavy sleds over a course. This sport, called banei keiba, has been losing money for years. According to a recent article in the Mainichi Shimbun, the cumulative debt for the race track is about 4 billion yen.

A neighboring city, Iwamizawa, which once had its own race track, at first offered to help, but it pulled out of a proposed joint venture Nov. 26. On Dec. 1, Obihiro staged a parade of the big horses to attract attention and rally support for the track. Newspaper reporters and film crews covered the parade and a petition drive carried out by local residents. If no help can be found the track will have to close by March, and as a result hundreds of horses will have to be sold for meat. A 65-year-old woman interviewed in the Mainichi article said, "We shouldn't close down the track because the horses are so cute."

The parties directly involved in banei keiba are trying to make a case that it should be treated as a traditional sport, a unique feature of this particular part of Hokkaido. A 47-year-old woman from Obihiro wrote a letter to the Asahi Shimbun in which she referred to banei keiba as a "cultural asset." She describes in poetic detail the beauty of the animals as they pull their heavy loads over the course, which contains several graded rises, their massive hoofs "like big bowls," their neck muscles bulging "magnificently."

A subsequent letter writer brought up another point that no one has addressed so far. This woman said that she once lived in Hokkaido and used to enjoy watching banei keiba on local TV. Later, she went to a photo exhibition about the sport and was distressed to see the horses up close. She said that the scars left by the whip of the jockey were visible on the horses' hindquarters. In order to get the animals to go over the rises, the jockeys have to whip them very hard. The woman concluded that the horses don't want to climb the rises. "Has anyone considered the horses' feelings?" she asked.

The horse's feelings are probably the last thing that's considered. The point about the future of banei keiba is whether or not it can still be financially feasible. If people are no longer interested in it then it will die a natural death, so the interested parties have to get the public interested by boosting the sport's intangible appeal as a cultural artifact or an exhibition of strength and beauty, or as a place to see cute animals. In the end, however, what they really have to do is persuade people to come to the track and bet.

The Mainichi article explains that farmers brought the horses with them when they migrated to Hokkaido during the Meiji Era. The animals were vital to these farmers' livelihoods, and the sport developed as a recreational offshoot. In 1946 it became a publicly-sanctioned activity. Revenues peaked in 1991 and since then the sport has had declining attendance.

Nowadays, almost no one in Japan uses workhorses in agriculture, so this kind of horse is only bred for this kind of racing. As with all large animals, they are expensive to feed and care for, and, just like thoroughbreds, if a banei keiba horse cannot win money for its owner, it is sold for meat.

For this reason, it's difficult to make a case that the sport should be continued for the benefit of the animals themselves, though some people are trying. Another woman who wrote to the Asahi on Dec. 9 says she has worked with banei keiba horses for 13 years and recently was promoted to trainer. She says that without racing this "species" of horse will become extinct. She adds that 600 current race horses and 400 "candidate" horses will have to be sold for meat if the track is closed. "Don't take jobs away from these horses."

Maybe a better idea would be not to breed them in the first place. For all the trainer's talk about a "bond of trust" between horses and people, no one can prove that these horses enjoy pulling 800 kg dead weights over graded rises for 200 meters. The need for the whip would seem to indicate that they don't, but regardless of the horse's feelings it's still an economic problem, just like the whaling issue. People who make their living from whaling also use the culture card, but the fact is there aren't enough people who want to eat whale to sustain a full-fledged whaling industry. The public sector has to get involved.

The trainer may not have to worry. On the same day her letter was published, Softbank Players, an affiliate of the Internet company, announced that it has offered to work with Obihiro on the race track in an operating capacity. The news reports don't mention if the culture and tradition campaign influenced Softbank's decision, but the company apparently believes it can make money off the sport. They sure aren't doing it because they think horses are cute.



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