Loading Nationalism Part 1: The System and Horse Racing’s Correlation

American horse racing could adopt fruitful foreign practices.

Updated: Nov. 12, 2018 • 9:45 AM ET

Japanese horse racing has a storied tradition in the country.

This happens to me all the time. There I am, clutching my betting slip and waiting for what seems like an eternity. Despite rule changes, baseball fans get frustrated with pitchers and how slow the game is; they should see how long it takes for Americans to load horses into a starting gate.

Watching horse racing is something I’m passionate about; I don’t care if it’s a claiming race or the Derby — a race is a race. Still, the experience could be better. After all, American horse races seem reflective of some of the broader problems our culture experiences daily.

Why does it take so long to load those magnificent creatures into the gate? No wonder possible fans get so turned off by this sport. To quote Anthony Hopkins’ character from “The Remains of the Day”, “Maybe what we need is a revised staff plan.”

The American way is inefficient and full of tardiness. Horses need to go into starting gates rapidly, especially in large fields. Horses that go in first are at a distinct disadvantage if they have to wait. Think about what a painful experience it is when you’re stuck in the back of an airplane, trying desperately to get free. Ugh!

And, what of those misbehaving horses that cause the loading to take even longer? What horse racing needs is a loading revolution; a “Load-a-lution!” And, if there’s a model for how to do it, it can be found in Japan.

For centuries, since horses first came to the archipelago from mainland China, the Japanese have valued and fallen in love with horses. Racing has become woven into the fabric of the nation.

Watching a Japanese horse race is unlike any experience I’ve had. Like most aspects of Japanese culture, it’s built on precision and mindful of time. Go watch any race, if you’re skeptical.

What you’ll see is a judge mount a cherry picker-like box and elevate himself into the air. His expression of seriousness tells all. On his mark, a red flag shoots up in his right-hand. Movement and activity are everywhere. The loading teams spring into action, and an 18-horse field goes in smoothly and succinctly. No messing about here, as four horses go into gates at a time.

Fairness and equality allow jockeys to spend no more than a handful of seconds in their stalls before being released. Like a fine piece of sushi (it’s the rice that makes the roll, not the fish!) or the World Cup locker room after their final loss, the Japanese do everything with purpose and intent. Thus, we might conclude from watching this exercise that loading horses makes for good racing.

Conversely, in America, our loading is haphazard and seemingly disorganized. There are just too many incidents that impact the start of a race. What broader significance does this have?

This past weekend marked the 100-year anniversary of the end of the First World War, a time when even horse racing on the continent didn’t take place. Amid the speeches, a struggle emerged as countries once again debated the merits or detractions of nationalism — a love of one’s own country and spirit.

As I recently observed Presidents Macron and Trump barbing one another, I couldn’t help but think, is there a correlation between the loading of horses into the gate in America with our own values? Clearly, the Japanese understand that national pride can be intricately intertwined with how you conduct yourself and your sport.

Take notice America. We could learn much about our values, if we would only look closer at how we load our horses into the gate.

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