by | 11.17.2010 | 12:46am
By Ray Paulick

I knew I wasn't in Kentucky anymore when I went out for an early morning walk and came across a group of about 20 people standing at a nearby intersection. It was only a two-lane road, and there wasn't a car in sight in any direction, yet everyone stood patiently for what seemed an eternity, waiting for the crosswalk light to change from red to green.

I resisted the temptation that any American who's ever jaywalked across a city street surely would have had.

When the light changed, everyone broke into a brisk walk, as if, all of a sudden, they were in a hurry. It is one of the strange idiosyncrasies of the people of Japan, this nation of talking elevators, American fast-food, on-time trains and silly television commercials. Its natives honor Japanese laws, yet many of them complain privately about the nature of their traditions.

I've come to Tokyo ostensibly to cover the 32nd Asian Racing Conference, which began on Sunday with a trip to the Tokyo Race Course and runs through Thursday. (The time frame of some of my reports may seem a bit odd since I'll be writing in the past tense about days that haven't yet arrived in most of the U.S., since Tokyo is plus 14 hours from Eastern Standard Time.)

Tokyo Race Course walking ring

In truth, however, I've decided to cash in some frequent flier miles and come to Japan to meet and hear from officials representing racing countries that have faced challenges, worked cooperatively and developed strategies they hope will succeed and help them grow and prosper.  I've come for a shot of optimism after nearly drowning in the sea of pessimism that saturates American racing these days, where the efforts seem to focus on stopping the bleeding and the only strategy relies on subsidies from other forms of gambling. Most American tracks have given up on the idea that they can be competitive anymore.

One example: In Hong Kong, where the stock market has fallen by nearly 50% in the current financial crisis, betting is off by about 6%. But the Hong Kong Jockey Club, instead of wringing their hands over the dreadful economy, has developed a new program to give bettors a 10% rebate on individual losing bets that exceed a certain amount.

Another story: When on-track business peaked at Japan Racing Association tracks in the mid 1990s, the JRA looked at its aging flagship track, Tokyo Race Course, and rebuilt the main grandstand, giving it a much more inviting design, one that in some ways resembles the Forum Shops of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. When they began losing fans, their strategy was fixed on giving on-track customers a better experience.

There are more than 600 delegates here from at least 30 countries. The Asian Racing Federation, which presents the conference, consists of racing nations from Asia, Australia/New Zealand, Africa and the Persian Gulf. These countries represent 36% of the world's prize money, 32% of the international foal crops and 47% of global wagering on pari-mutuel racing. Europeans and Americans are welcome to attend the conference, though only a handful of them do. Only five Americans are scheduled to be here, two of whom are journalists.

Among those I ran into at the track was Michael Dickinson and his partner, Joan Wakefield, who  are here as exhibitors for Tapeta Footings, the synthetic surface developed by Dickinson that has been used so successfully at, among other places, Golden Gate Fields, Presque Isle Downs and the Fair Hill Training Center in the U.S., and as a training track in Dubai. Dickinson, of course, is hoping to find new clients among the Asian Racing Federation's membership.

It was the couple's first visit to Japan, and as someone who's been to Tokyo a number of times for the Japan Cup and other major races, I gave them a walking tour of the massive, yet elegant new building. They were amazed at the cleanliness and bright, friendly design, the variety of comfort levels, and the size and length of the nine-story main structure, which is nearly a quarter-mile long.

In the bowels of the grandstand, there is a maze of tunnels for horses to use as they leave the paddock, go onto one of the three tracks, or return to the stable area. We took one tunnel up to the winner's circle, where Dickinson gazed wistfully out onto the main turf course and dirt track, desperately wanting to walk the courses to get a feel for them. The former trainer is a man long obsessed with the conditions and safety of racing surfaces, and his new calling as a proponent of synthetic tracks comes to him naturally.

“Do you think it would be okay for me to walk out there, after all the races have run, just to see what the dirt and grass tracks are like?” Dickinson asked. And he wasn't kidding.

I'll try to find out tomorrow whether the man known as the “mad genius” found his way out there to sample the footing of the Tokyo turf and dirt. I'll be reporting from inside the meeting and presentation rooms of the conference, and working the unofficial meetings and break rooms for the latest news and gossip throughout the racing world.

I've come here in search of some optimism for our sport, to learn more about how other countries have achieved their success. I'll be disappointed if I return home empty handed.

Copyright © 2008, The Paulick Report

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