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Though little noticed elsewhere, Japan is holding the derby of all derbies, one that dwarfs the world's turf classics with its immense crowds and betting

The Samurai were about the only people interested in horse racing in ancient Japan, and perhaps understandably. They would race hell-bent down a field for the honor of decapitating an enemy who was, in effect, the winning post. Scoring by a head or a neck meant a decidedly different thing in those days.

But in the Era of Showa (literally Enlightened Peace, which is the name of Emperor Hirohito's reign), the martial and elite character of that early racing has been forgotten and the sport has become a mass and massive endeavor. Baseball the national game? No way. It draws peanuts in Japan compared with the crowds that pack the tracks.

Despite a drizzle and uncomfortably humid weather, 120,000 people wedged themselves into Tokyo Racecourse 10 days ago for the Japanese Derby. There is no turf spectacle like it. Those vaunted classics at Epsom and Longchamp and Churchill Downs never draw such a horde, nor does the wagering on those derbies of the Western World approach the extravagant outpouring on Japan's big race—$28.3 million. To cope with such frenetic betting, the track opened 2,183 mutuel windows on race day, and the country's 14 off-track betting offices did stampede business as abacuses clacked and computers whirred.

To prevent riots at the gate, the Japan Racing Association sold more than 100,000 admission tickets to the derby almost a month before the event. In addition, a limited number were made available on the eve of the classic, and fans began lining up four nights in advance to purchase these. This supply was exhausted an hour after the ticket windows opened at 5 a.m. A racetrack filled to capacity—and turning away fans—is a thing unheard of, except in Japan.

At dawn on race day a full program of derby shows began on television and radio. In subways, restaurants and mah-jongg parlors talk was about the race and little else. Thousands of women were among those pushing toward the racecourse on the fringe of Tokyo. Old-line politicians, including the governor of the city, frown on ladies joining in the fray on these occasions, but increasingly this seems to be a minority concern. "Decorum as a traditional mark of Japan's womanhood is O.K. by me," says one track official, "but to stick to it, no matter what, is no way of ensuring a happy life." The new prime minister of Japan, Kakuei Tanaka, apparently believes in partaking of the fun. He owns a racehorse. Nor does he mind women in the sport; his wife owns three.

The growing popularity of racing—and betting—is viewed by at least one Tokyo psychologist as an important emotional trend in such a crowded land. "Living here breeds friction and tons of frustration," says Kazuo Shimada, a man much esteemed in his profession. "We must have some means of alleviating the pressure, and betting seems to." The elbowing crowd on Derby Day would not seem to provide ease and serenity, but the professor goes on to explain, "Where our interests are the same, we clannish Japanese delight in the multitude, finding in it not solitude but a soothing sense of belonging."

Whatever the reasons for the sport's bonanza, the thoroughbred industry is now big business in the country. For close to a decade Japanese have been crisscrossing the world buying up horses to improve their stock. They are importing an average of 200 stallions and mares each year and are outbidding Americans and Englishmen at prestigious international bloodstock sales. Not long ago a Japanese breeder purchased one of the grand old farms of the Blue Grass, and he is using this Kentucky stud as a base of operations. Six weeks ago a 90-year-old Japanese businessman spent $1 million to buy Hard to Beat, the favorite in the Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby), and promptly won that prize.

The wisdom and value of these foreign investments was made all the more evident when a colt named Long Ace, whose sire had been imported from England, took the 39th running of the Japanese Derby. The son of Hard Ridden (an Epsom Derby winner) had never started as a 2-year-old, but at three he has now won six of seven starts. With the $110,000 derby purse he has earned $222,000 in all, a sizable amount for a colt anywhere.

Twenty-seven horses started in the mile-and-a-half derby, with Long Ace the favorite. The race was surprisingly swift from the start, considering the boggy, wet turf. Long Ace bided his time and it was not until the final strides that he burst from the pack to win in record time—2:28.6. Samurai style, he scored by a neck. The loser was named Land Prince.

In the ceremony that followed, Long Ace was decorated with a scarlet banner and his jockey and owner were draped with beribboned medals. Meanwhile, losing bettors staged a traditional rite, tossing their worthless tickets into the air in a multicolored shower. The moment has an almost esthetic quality, reminding one of a forest full of cherry blossom petals falling to the ground in a gentle wind. Because of this, the Japanese have begun to call their classic the Cherry Blossom Derby.

Imagine calling a horse race that. The ancient Samurai would not have been able to make head or tail of it.


Long Ace (No. 6), the son of an Epsom Derby winner, makes his victory surge in the stretch.


Oppressive heat can't cool their yen to bet.


The thousands who encircle the paddock before a race give a hint of the fervid interest.


As in Kentucky, the reward is roses. The winning owner gets one, the rider a bouquet.