Photo/IllutrationAlmond Eye in Miho, Ibaraki Prefecture, on Dec. 11 (Masanori Ariyoshi)

A horse named Clever Hans stole the show in early 20th-century Europe.

Touted as a genius capable of performing arithmetic and other "intellectual" tasks, Hans was said to be able to answer questions correctly with the number of times he tapped his hoof.

However, later research demonstrated that the horse was merely reacting to the body language of his trainer who knew the answers.

"It's not difficult to train a horse to do what Hans did," said Sakae Kunieda, 64, a horse trainer. "Horses 'read' the eyes of humans they feel close to."

Kunieda is also the author of a just-published book on the theory of horse racing.

Horses are said to use their keen senses of sight and hearing to predict the immediate future. They usually don't mind practicing taking a position at the starting gate because they know it's only a practice and they won't have to race.

But once they are in a horse trailer, they anticipate the long road trip ahead and lose their appetite.

Though thoroughbreds are born to race, they reach their professional peak fairly early, at around age 4.

"As they mature, they become reluctant to race because they can foresee the exhaustion that results from being in a dead heat," explained Kunieda.

Kunieda Kyusha (Kunieda Stable) in Miho, Ibaraki Prefecture, is now the center of attention for one of its stars.

Almond Eye, deemed one of the greatest fillies in Japan's horse racing history, will run in the Arima Kinen Grand Prix on Dec. 22.

I was given a chance to see the famed horse up close.

Her face was surprisingly placid, with almost sleepy eyes and a gentle-looking mouth--a very far cry from her racecourse persona.

"She's an expert at switching between 'on' and 'off' modes," Kunieda said.

Having never been a horse person, I always thought thoroughbreds got their biggest kick out of racing before spectators, but I was obviously wrong.

Whether horse or human, the best and brightest know exactly when to perform at their top capacity and when to relax.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 20

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.