Keeping track of a hero in Japan

SUN JOURNAL

Horse: A `downsized' racehorse that set a record for consecutive wins after being demoted has inspired workers who are dealing with recession and high unemployment.

July 30, 1999|By Jon Herskovitz | Jon Herskovitz,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ASHIKAGA, Japan -- It is a sadly typical tale in recession-beleaguered Japan: An honest worker, too old and too slow, loses his job. "Downsized" is the euphemism, or "restructured."

But Dojima Fighter fought back, overcame obstacles, inspired a nation and in his triumph became hailed in the Japanese media as "the Restructuring Horse."

Dojima Fighter is a middle-aged racehorse. Demoted from Japan's main racing circuit and downsized to minor-league tracks, he has put together a record winning streak -- 27 straight races over the past three years.

Along the way, he has picked up legions of fans among corporate warriors spooked by Japan's worst unemployment numbers since the end of World War II. They have found inspiration in a "restructured" worker who was able to prove himself a winner.

"Restructuring" is the explanation when corporate giants such as Sony announce large layoffs. The movie studio Shochiku is planning to cut a third of its work force over the next three years. Even neighborhood tofu makers are cutting their payrolls.

Japan's unemployment rate reached a record 4.8 percent this year, while the rate for working-age males hit a postwar high of 5 percent. Those figures are nearly three times the unemployment rate that Japan became accustomed to during the long economic boom -- and most economists regard them as understating the employment picture. Corporate bankruptcies have reached record levels, according to Tokyo Shoko Research.

"Restructuring" is dreaded by workers in any country, but nowhere is it more terrifying than in Japan, where workers are accustomed to a system of lifetime employment and job security. Suicides rose 35 percent last year to 31,734.

Horse racing has taken a beating. The local tracks, on which Dojima Fighter runs, have had four straight years of declining revenue.

But, as Dojima Fighter proves, "restructuring" can also mean the possibility for a second life.

The bay horse made his debut as a 4-year-old in 1995 on the central Japan Racing Association circuit, where the biggest races attract crowds of more than 100,000 and the major international race, the Japan Cup, offers some of the biggest prize money in the world.

Dojima Fighter showed promise, placing second once and third another time in his first five races. But a hairline leg fracture brought his season to an abrupt halt.

By the time it healed, it was too late for Dojima Fighter. Under the Japanese Racing Association's rules, any horse that doesn't win once by the time it is 5 years old can no longer compete for big money on the main circuit.

After it was decided he was too old and ineffective, Dojima Fighter was demoted to the circuit of 30 local racetracks run by the National Association of Racing. The tracks and the prize money are small. Dojima Fighter ended up at Ashikaga racetrack in Tochigi Prefecture, a rural area about 45 miles north of Tokyo nestled at the foot of large mountain ranges. The track draws about 1,600 fans on a typical race day.

In his first race at Ashikaga, Dojima Fighter broke from the gate, and he hasn't looked back since. Over the next three years he won every race. On April 25, in front of 2,378 fans on a rain-soaked track, he scored his 27th straight victory and set the Japanese record for consecutive wins.

It was a great day, says track spokesman Toshiyuki Maruyama.

"For one day, we were at the center of attention among [Japan's] racing media," he recalls. Where normally a few media members scrunch into the cramped press room at the sleepy little track, "there were satellite dishes for TV networks and scores of journalists when Dojima Fighter broke the record."

Fans drove from Tokyo, battling daunting traffic and strong rains.

Whatever the victory meant for the national morale, the bettors received no payoff. Nobody wagered against Dojima Fighter, so no losers could provide winnings for the winners.

"There haven't been any tough races," says Dojima Fighter's trainer Yukihiko Tezuka. "He has always won easily."

Tezuka, 66, has spent his life working at the track, first as a jockey and then as a trainer. For a racing man like Tezuka, Dojima Fighter is his best break, but still a horse -- not a symbol of Japan's economic plight.

"I don't like the name `Restructuring Horse,' " he says.

Maybe not, but he gets a steady stream of fan letters from across the country. He has a stack of them stashed at home. Writer after writer tells Tezuka that because of Dojima Fighter's record run, they have seen that it is possible not only to survive a tight employment market, but also to thrive through adversity.

"Despite the handicap of not being from the elite and being 8 years old, I want to salute Dojima Fighter's brilliant achievement from the bottom of my heart," one person wrote.

A 50-year-old woman wrote about the consecutive-victory record, "I was so happy that I cried."

Dojima Fighter is likely to spend the rest of his career on the small tracks in Tochigi Prefecture. The horse has a tender hoof that limits the frequency of his races.

Fewer races means fewer purses. Dojima Fighter has won about $200,000 in prize money, but taking time off for injury cuts his earning power and he cannot accumulate enough prize money to step up in class.

Fans packed Ashikaga racetrack this month to watch Dojima Fighter stretch his record winning streak. Banners waved and tension built until, just before post time, the disappointing news came that Dojima Fighter was a scratch. A small cut in his hoof will keep him out of action for at least two months.

Tezuka thinks the hero horse can stretch his win streak to 30 straight races before the year ends.

When Dojima Fighter recovers from the injury and takes to the track, a parade of punters and salarymen will be eager to see if their hero has again beaten the recession.

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