Equine entertainment you can bet on in Japan

Photo by Takahiro Takiguchi
Photo by Takahiro Takiguchi

Equine entertainment you can bet on in Japan

by: Takahiro Takiguchi | .
Stripes Japan | .
published: May 06, 2016

And they’re off!

Who can resist the excitement? Horses bolting from the starting gate amid a cloud of dust. Hooves clopping and whips cracking as tens of thousands cheer them on. In Japan, about 15.5 million fans a year can’t resist it. They attend about 21,000 races annually.

“It’s not like other kinds of gambling such as pachinko; horse racing is much more fun and exciting,” says Shin-ichi Sakurai, 45, a Tokyo office worker with 10 years’ experience playing the horses. “Prior to the actual races, you have to research each horse and race, then analyze it to bet properly. It’s like devising a battle strategy.”

Unlike Sakurai, who boasts raking in 500,000 yen ($4,200) in June on two or three 3,000-yen ($25) tickets, the sportiness of horse racing is the main draw for Chihiro Ito, 41. The Tokyo company head says he always buys his tickets at off-track betting parlors, but comes to the racetrack to cheer on his favorites and bask in the excitement.

“Regardless of the race results, I root for the horse that I like the most,” says the five-year veteran. “The more I get to know a horse through its stats, the more I get attached to it.”

There are 25 horse tracks throughout mainland Japan. Ten major racetracks in large urban centers are managed by the Japan Racing Association. The other 15 are run by the National Association of Racing and local municipal authorities. But you don’t need to be at, or even near, a track to bet.

Registered members can play the horses by phone or online and watch via TV or the Internet. Off-track betting offices dot large cities, while betting stats and horse racing magazines are readily available at virtually every convenience store in the nation. Online race results, statistics and predictions abound.

Horse racing was introduced to Japan by a group of British residents in Yokohama 153 years ago. The Japanese government made it a publicly operated industry, in part, to encourage quality breeding and training that could be used for military horses. Eventually, the pastime caught on with the locals.

Today there are small horse tracks such as Kawasaki Keibajo and large racetracks with major so-called grade-1 races. They include Tokyo Yushun, Kikka Sho in Kyoto and Chiba Prefecture’s Satsuki Sho, which comprise the nation’s prestigious Triple Crown.

Despite its continued popularity, however, horse racing isn’t what it used to be, thanks to the recession and competition from other forms of amusement. The industry shrank from 45.5 trillion yen ($422 billion) in revenues and 27 million participants in 1993 to 34.5 trillion yen and 15.5 million participants in 2003, according to the Japanese government’s most recent data. In some cases, such as Arao and Fukuyama cities, racetracks have shuttered altogether.

For the many horse racetracks that remain open, however, that doesn’t mean the house doesn’t always win. Both Sakurai and Ito confess that they have lost much more than they have won playing the horses.

“I have never calculated my total wins and losses,” says Ito. “But, in all, I would guess that I have lost three times as much as I have won.”

Still, the diehard fan insists that the chance to study the stats, crunch the numbers and choose a horse to cheer on – no matter how the race ends – is something you just can’t put a price on.

“Even the strongest horse ever can only race for a few years,” Ito says. “So having a favorite horse is a kind of like a life-defining event for me.”


A horse's life in Japan

There are an estimated 83,000 bred horses in Japan at any given time. Including foals, yearlings, adults and retired studs, 80 percent are in some way connected to the horse racing industry. About 20,000 are actively racing at any given time, according to Animal Rights Center in Tokyo.

While the average lifespan for horses is around 30 years, the average career of a race horse only last 3-4 years. Only a few elite winning horses retire as studhorses. The center estimates that about half of the horses bred for racing in Japan never make it to the track for various reason, and many of them, along with retired horses, usually are sent to a slaughter house.


Our day at the races

My wife and I recently decided to visit a horse track for the first time to learn about this popular pastime straight from the horse’s hooves. We chose the locally run Kawasaki Keibajo in Kawasaki City.

You can enter any racetrack for 100-200 yen ($0.80-$1.60) and watch all 11 to 13 races for the day. They are usually open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; some offer night races until to 9 p.m. You can watch from outdoor and indoor bleachers, or sit in special box seats for an additional 1,500 yen.

We inserted our 100 yen into the automatic gate and passed through it, then walked through a tunnel leading to the observation deck. Thousands of people, mostly men in their 60s or older, sat in the outdoor bleachers busily studying and marking their programs with red pens awaiting the next race.

Soon, the next race started with the roar of the crowd. Thirteen horses bolted out of the starting gate at once, galloping along the one-mile track at breakneck speed for less than two minutes. 

Horse racing in Japan is a publicly managed industry. The cheapest racing ticket costs 50 yen or 100 yen, depending on the racetrack.

We first tried the minimum 100-yen “fukusho” ticket (you win if your horse comes in first, second or third place) on a horse that a large electronic bulletin board said was the most popular.

Fortunately, the horse came in first, and we won 140 yen. If it were a “tansho” ticket, which only pays if your horse comes in first, we would have won 300 yen. A “sanrensho-tanshiki,” or trifecta ticket that requires picking the first three winning horses in order, would have brought in 8,750 yen.

If you’re feeling lucky, there is a more speculative ticket called “triple-tansho” that allows you to bet on which horse will come in first for three designated races. Just last month, one of these 50 yen tickets at Ohi Race Track (aka Tokyo City Keiba) paid out a record sum of roughly 74.8 million yen ($623,000).

One man sitting next to us declined to divulge his name or age, but was kind enough to offer us newbies a tip. He suggested that we had better stick with fukusho or tansho tickets rather than bet on the riskier combo perfecta or trifecta wins. According to him, betting on a single horse increased our chances of winning and would allow us to enjoy the race more.

Following his own advice, he kept buying 500 yen-fukusho and 1,000 yen-tansho tickets for his favorite horses throughout the afternoon.

“By focusing on my favorite horses, I can learn about the character of the horses, and that will work for the next races,” he said.

You can buy any kind of ticket fairly easily at a racetrack – just mark the horses’ numbers, the type of bet you want and the amount on the application form and insert it with the money into a ticket machine. Then out comes your ticket.

The forms are in Japanese, but the Japan Racing Association has an online guide in English (japanracing.jp/en/index.html), and most racetracks usually have some English-speaking staff on hand.

While we appreciated our impromptu guide’s suggestion, we took a riskier route: We each tried our luck with a “sanrensho-fukushiki” ticket, betting on which would be the first three horses, in no particular order.

I was completely off the mark. But my wife – guided only by how much she liked the horses’ names – picked two of the first three horses. And if the third horse would not have made an accidental false start, she might have won 3,700 yen from a 100 yen ticket.

I’ve come to the conclusion that, although it’s no guarantee, some knowledge of horses, jockeys and race conditions are necessary to fully enjoy these races. Either that, or a stroke of luck and a knack for picking a good horse name just might pull you through.


Picking the winning ticket

Ticket name / Type of bet
Tansho / Bets that a horse will take 1st place
Fukusho / Bets that a horse will take the 1st, 2nd or 3rd place
Rensho-tanshiki / Bets which horses will take 1st and 2nd places, respectively
Rensho-fukushiki / Bets on two horses for 1st and 2nd in any order
Sanrensho-tanshiki / Bets which horses will take 1st, 2nd and 3rd places, respectively
Sanrensho-fukushiki / Bets on three horses for 1st, 2nd and 3rd in any order
Jushoshiki / Double or triple bets on the winners of multiple races

Racetracks around Japan

Fuchuu (near Yokota Air Base)
Location: 1-1 Hiyoshicho, Fuchu City, Tokyo
Web: www.jra.go.jp/facilities/race/tokyo
Tel: 042-363-3141

Location: 1-1-1 Furusaku, Funabashi City,
Chiba Prefecture
Web: www.jra.go.jp/facilities/race/nakayama
Tel: 047-334-2222

Kawasaki (near Yokosuka Naval Base)
Location: 1-5-1 Fujimi, Kawasaki-ku, Kawasaki City,
Kanagawa Prefecture
Web: kawasaki-keiba.jp
Tel: 044-233-6701

Location: 32 Yoshijima-Watashibajimacho, Fushimi-ku,
Kyoto-City, Kyoto Prefecture
Web: www.jra.go.jp/facilities/race/kyoto
Tel: 075-631-3131

Location: 1-1 Komanomachi, Takaraduka City,
Hyogo Prefecture
Web: www.jra.go.jp/facilities/race/hanshin
Tel: 0798-51-7151

Morioka (near Misawa Air Base)
Location: 10 Kamiyagita, Shinjo, Morioka City,
Iwate Prefecture
Web: www.iwatekeiba.or.jp
Tel: 019-651-2999

Kokura (near Sasebo Naval Base)
Location: 4-5-1 Kitakata, Kokuraminami-ku,
Kitakyushu City, Fukuoka Prefecture
Web: www.jra.go.jp/facilities/race/kokura/
Tel: 093-962-3236

And they’re off … online
Japan Racing Association: japanracing.jp/en/index.html
Central Horse Racing ticket service: www.jra.go.jp/dento
Local Horse Racing ticket service: www.keiba.go.jp/ipat

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