06/11/2004 12:00AM

Ruins of Negishi Racetrack tell story of Japan

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YOKOHAMA, Japan - Ghost track. It stands empty at the top of a hill a few miles south of central Yokohama, its three ivy-covered towers looming in stark relief on the horizon. Crows, cackling and fearless, fly irregular patrols overhead as if to warn unwitting intruders that the grandstand at the long derelict Negishi Racetrack is strictly off limits. To all, that is, except the spirits of the horses and jockeys who once made this eerie ruin the leading racecourse in Imperial Japan.

Negishi, the first Western-style racetrack in the Land of the Rising Sun, opened in 1862, nine years after Commodore Matthew Perry's "Black Ships" first sailed into Tokyo Bay. Perry's arrival would trigger the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the restoration of the Meiji Empire, and the opening to the West of the mysterious island off the coast of China.

At the time, British merchants were fond of riding out every morning in the rolling hills south of Yokohama, where they had taken advantage of the city's natural harbor to set up prosperous trading companies. One day they made the mistake of crossing the path of a daimyo procession. Being a feudal lord outranked only by the shogun and the emperor, a daimyo was not to be crossed without his express permission. The samurai bodyguards of this particular lord opened fire. When the smoke cleared, four Englishmen lay dead.

The incident prompted the British to the sensible realization that they needed some privacy for the pursuit of their equestrian habits. The Japanese government commissioned a British architect to design a grandstand that would become Negishi Racetrack. Among the first events run there were races restricted to samurai riders. The first real races under rules were held in 1867 and were restricted to foreign jockeys, all of whom left their swords in the tack room. The locals were intrigued by what they saw, and, in November of 1875, Judo Saigo became the first Japanese rider to win a Thoroughbred race at Negishi, or anywhere else in the world.

The Emperor Meiji, newly installed in Tokyo's Imperial Palace by the events that shook Japanese society in the 1860's, was an occasional visitor. The old stand survived the devastating 1923 earthquake that caused the deaths of 400,000 Tokyo residents, but an old Japanese nemesis, fire, laid claim to the wooden structure, and much of Yokohama, in 1927.

An American architect, J.H. Morgan, designed the new stand. Completed in 1929, it bears a resemblance to the grandstand that stood at Longchamp until 1966. Emperor Hirohito was a frequent racegoer throughout the 1930's. The infield was sculpted into a golf course, but after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Negishi's days as a sporting venue were numbered.

The last race there was run on Oct. 18, 1942, after which the Imperial Japanese Navy commandeered the stands for use as a print shop. The stable area beneath the grandstand was later converted into a cellblock for Australian prisoners of war.

Twas ever thus. In England, the British were using Sandown Park near London as a military depot. In France, the occupying German forces had turned the Longchamp infield into an anti-aircraft base even as racing continued on Sunday afternoons.

But after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, Hirohito decreed that Japan would "do the unthinkable," and surrender. Gen. Douglas MacArthur took one look at the use being made of Negishi and had the presses churn out half a million copies of the emperor's surrender proclamation for distribution to a chastened populace.

Since then, Negishi has been American territory. The U.S. Army turned it over to the U.S. Navy in 1953. Now it is the center of the Yokohama Detachment, or, as it is known in naval circles, "the best-kept secret in the Pacific Fleet." The area immediately in front of the stands is used as a community center for American sailors and their families. The surrounding neighborhood is an American housing community that includes a bachelor quarters, in which resides a host of young sailors who might have found a home away from home at the old track.

All that remains of the racecourse itself is a pedestrian pathway around Negishi Memorial Racetrack Park, through which you can follow the undulating route once taken by both jockey and samurai.

The grandstand, which held 20,000 people in its 1930's heyday, is fenced off, surrounded on three sides by shoulder-high weeds. Nearby, beyond what would have been the far turn, is the Equine Museum. It contains statues of

St. Lite, first winner of the Japanese Triple Crown in that fateful year of 1941, and of Sunday Silence, whose career as Japan's all-time leading stallion was preceded by victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Breeders' Cup Classic. There is also a photograph of the best dirt horse ever produced in Japan. The seven-length winner of the 2001 Japan Cup Dirt, his name is Kurofune, which is Japanese for "black ships."

On a grassy knoll that drops away from the rear of the grandstand is a playground where local boys and girls frolic with the children of American sailors. Little do they know that they cavort in the shadows of a building that represents a gigantic tombstone to a racetrack whose history parallels the rise and fall of Imperial Japan.