The summer of 2003 was a difficult one for many of Japan's citizens, as they suffered the after-effects of 10 years of economic stagnation — a period that became known as "the lost decade." But there were beacons of hope to be found in the country: one in the shape of a horse wearing a Hello Kitty mask. The horse, called Haru Urara (the name means "glorious spring"), never won a race, but came to be seen a symbol of spirit, a reminder to try your hardest even if you don't succeed.
Her name means "glorious spring"
Haru Urara's story is told in The Shining Star of Losers Everywhere, a short documentary filmed as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, and shown previously at events like Sundance and SXSW. The 18-minute video tells Haru Urara's story, but it's not really about horse racing, focusing more on the indomitable mascot she presented for a country in the economic doldrums. Her rare record was first spotted by Koji Hashiguchi, the announcer at the rural track she raced at. The track, in Kochi — way down in Japan's rural southern island of Shikoku — faced closure as the economic stagnation forced the population to move to bigger cities in search of work and spend money elsewhere. Hashiguchi noted that the horse would still trot energetically to the track and give her all in races, despite her status as a perennial loser, building a narrative of noble failure that was noticed by local reporter Ken Ishii.
Kochi racetrack's PR officer, Masashi Yoshida, says he was originally reluctant to promote a loser as the face of the track, but had to do something to face closure. Quickly, however, the story spread, first across Japan — with journalists and fans making the long journey to the southern coast of the country's smallest main island — and then the world. Haru Urara's owner played his part, too, first refusing to send her off to slaughter despite her apparent lack of ability, and then sewing Hello Kitty patches onto her pink facemask.
The video's well worth watching, so I won't spoil the ending, but history has shown that the "Haru Urara Boom" coincided with Japan's best economic performance since the country's economic bubble burst in 1996. Was it all thanks to a loser horse in a mask? Maybe.