Off to the Races! Horse Racing in Japan
The Sport of Kings
On Sunday, November 29th, 2015, a four year old filly named Shonan Pandora hurtled past seventeen other horses to win the Japan Cup for the first time. Ridden by jockey Kenichi Ikezoe, Shonan Pandora took the victory in 2 minutes, 24.7 seconds for a purse of over $5 million (USD).
Those fortunate enough to bet on the 9 to 1 long shot took home a comfortable prize themselves. If you’re intrigued by this story and the idea of enjoying a day out in Japan watching the ponies run, read on.
There’s Horse Racing in Japan?
Equine traditions in Japan date back to the Kofun era (250 to 538 AD). Samurai from the fifth century onwards used them as calvary mounts, and good horsemanship was considered a valuable skill. And, in fact, the samurai used to hold horse races during festivals as a form of friendly competition between warriors. However, Western style horse racing did not come to Japan until the 1860s.
Yokohama’s Negishi racecourse, completed in 1866, marked the beginning of a long and storied history that continues to this day. Built for and at the urging of (mainly) British residents, the sport did not gain widespread acceptance and popularity until the early twentieth century, when the government began to allow betting on the races.
Soon after, legislation was introduced to promote all aspects of horse racing sport and culture, including breeding, training and gambling. Modern racing came with the end of World War II and the establishment of current racing clubs.
Where Are the Tracks Like?
G1 Races (the top tier, biggest purse races) are held at what’s known as Japan’s Big Four: Tokyo, Nakayama, Kyoto, and Hanshin. Several other cities hold G2 or G3 races at their own courses, including Sapporo and Hakkodate in Hokkaido, and Kokura on the Southern island of Kyushu.
The Japan Racing Association (JRA) maintains strict guidelines for these tracks ensuring that they are clean, well staffed, safe, and, above all, a fun and pleasant place to spend the day. Given that there is alcohol and gambling allowed on the grounds, a considerable amount of effort is expended making the race tracks family friendly environments.
As an example, Tokyo Race Course boasts family restrooms, two children’s play rooms, viewing sections for disabled patrons, and over a dozen restaurants and snack bars.
And, of course, for the racing devotee, there is a wealth of information available on the official sites, in English, listing whether the course run right or left handed, the undulation (for both dirt and turf), lengths, and course maps.
Ok, Ok, But I Want to Gamble!
The good news is, betting on the outcomes of the races is legal, easy, cheap, and fun. The bad news is, the betting forms are only in Japanese. Not to worry though, the JRA has an English gambling guide available on their official site as a free PDF download. The guide has lots of details and provides several different ways to bet.
For myself, I usually go with a Trio, which is similar to a Win, Place, or Show bet in the U.S. The bettor chooses three horse to come in first, second, and third places in any order. In other words, if I choose horses 3, 5, and 8 and those three horses are the first across the finish line, I win!
Perhaps most importantly, though, is that betting is not mandatory. It is perfectly acceptable to head to the track to enjoy the atmosphere, the food, and the spectacle of the horses. And, if you’d like to bet but are worried about mounting costs, the minimum bet is only ¥200.
When Should I Go?
Although the JRA hosts races all throughout the year at different tracks, I find the May and November races at Tokyo to be the most fun. Some of the biggest races of the year are held then (I’m particularly fond of the Victoria Mile in May and the Japan Cup in November) and the weather is usually just right for a day outside. Having said that, the February Stakes (G1) looks like a lot of fun and I may just brave the cold to go see it. Maybe I’ll find the perfect long shot. Maybe I’ll get to see the next Shonan Pandora take the prize!