- The Washington Times - Monday, March 22, 2004

TOKYO — Glorious Spring is the undisputed darling of Japan’s racetracks. Thousands pack the stands to watch the thoroughbred run, a new pop song sings her praises, and a movie is in the works.

The 8-year-old horse has earned all the attention with an ignoble feat: She’s lost more than 100 races in a row.

Glorious Spring — or “Haru-urara” in Japanese — was out doing what she does best yesterday, losing her 106th consecutive race, even with Japan’s top jockey on her back. More than 10,000 fans braved the rain to watch her finish 10th out of 11 horses.

A horse that never has won a race is an unlikely hero, but Haru-urara’s struggles have struck a chord with the Japanese fondness for the hopeless but determined underdog.

“It’s better, if she loses,” said Noriyuki Fukui, 21, who came to the Shimbashi Wins off-track betting outlet in Tokyo to drop $9.30 on Haru-urara. “If she won, it wouldn’t be so interesting anymore.”

Haru-urara doesn’t disappoint.

Born in Japanese horse country in the northern island of Hokkaido, she first raced — and lost — at the Kochi Racecourse in southwestern Japan in November 1998.

She’s repeated the defeat with remarkable consistency, finishing second only four times and earning a paltry $9,300 in prize money. She was scheduled for retirement last summer, when her losing streak started attracting attention.

Since then, the horse has become Japan’s top four-legged celebrity. Her admirers are filling the Kochi Racecourse, travel agents are making a killing off “Haru” tours, and her chestnut face adorns shirts, cups and other tourist trinkets.

Her already legendary lack of speed has made betting tickets with her name on them talismans to guard against traffic accidents. And her face is being used as advertising space: She races with a pink “Hello Kitty” riding mask. A pop song about her came out last week, and a Tokyo film producer is planning a movie about her exploits.

Even top politicians are paying attention.

“I’d like to see Haru-urara win, even just once,” Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said recently in Parliament. “The horse is a good example of not giving up in the face of defeat.”

Haru-urara was a clear draw yesterday at the Shimbashi Wins betting parlor, which was packed with a mix of cigarette-smoking regulars and a younger crowd — and even a few women — drawn by the “Haru boom.” So many people bet on the horse nationwide that she ended up favored to win, with 1.8-to-1 odds.

Bettors pushed up to the screens when the race began, chuckling as Haru-urara started in the middle of the pack but quickly fell apart, despite the efforts of star jockey Yutaka Take. The results were flashed as urgent by Kyodo News service, and it was the second story on two national TV networks.

Even regulars said they were touched.

Shinji Yoshida, 54, said the horse’s popularity shows the Japanese, who grew overconfident during the roaring 1980s, had rediscovered their appreciation for the weak and the troubled during recent hard economic times.

But there are limits to sentimentality, he said.

“I bet on Haru-urara to get the ticket as a memento,” he said. “But I still bet on a different horse in the same race — and he came in third.”

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