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Published: June 23rd 2019
If you’ve been following along – thanks! – you know that I very much like horse racing. So much so that when I travel I will check to see if there is a race track close to where I’m going, and if there is I will make plans to visit.
I regularly attend races in southern California, so it is always fun for me to see the differences between racing here and in other countries. Of course, the basic premise is the same – sleek horses with small jockeys competing to see who can cross the finish line first. But the tracks themselves can vary widely, as can the customs around the meets.
I was in Tokyo during the spring race season. Horse racing in Japan is a big deal. There are ten nationally sanctioned race tracks that operate under the auspices of the Japan Racing Association (JRA,) in addition to 15 locally managed tracks. In 2018, 3,454 thoroughbred races were held throughout the country, with over twenty-six billion US dollars
being bet, and over a billion US dollars in prize money. A pretty big deal indeed, in a country about the size of California.
The Japan Rail
system runs a train that goes right to the gates of the race track, so getting there was pretty easy. And the track itself is beautiful. After you get off the train, you walk along a covered elevated walkway, through a rose garden that leads you directly to the gates of the race course. Admission to the course is only 200 yen (about US$ 1.80,) and programs - in Japanese, naturally - are available for free at the gate.
Walking into the main building is like walking into the lobby of a casino – very plush, very grand, with multi-lingual young women manning the information desk. Before my visit I had sent an email to the Japan Racing Association, and they told me that I could pick up a program in English at the Information desk, so I went over and asked for one.
The nice woman – who spoke very good English – apologized profusely and said she didn’t have any yet, but that she would have one in about 30 minutes. I said “No problem, I’ll come back. “ I was just about to turn away when someone came rushing out of a back office and
handed the information rep some stapled together pages that looked like they may have been freshly printed from someone’s computer.
She then handed me the program - with past performances - in English, and again apologized for not having it sooner. I don’t know If they were just a little late getting programs to the information desk, or if they had printed one just for me, but it was much appreciated.
I had purposely gotten to track early so that I would have time to look around before the races started. The lobby has a huge display board mapping out all the major racetracks in the world. I was pleased to see that my home track merited a place on their board. In addition to the ATMS, snack shops, and info booths, there was also a 7-11. In Japan you can’t go more than about thirty feet without coming across a 7-11, and that held true here as well.
The paddock area, where horses are paraded before a race, was set in an outdoor amphitheater, so all the spectators could get a good look at the horse. There is an immense LED screen showing the current odds.
There is an even bigger screen out by the track itself that at 218 feet by 37 feet was the biggest in the world when it was installed.
When it is time for the jockeys to mount up, they come out of their ready room, stand in a line, and bow to the crowd. They then run, not walk, but run
, to their mounts. The horses are led onto the track by outriders sporting the formal red coat with black velvet collar of a race, or hunt official.
They make it very easy for you to bet, with directions in Japanese, English, Korean, and Chinese. I only placed one 100 yen (about US $0.92) bet, and lost. Unlike in the US, the winning horse is lead into the barn to be unsaddled and cleaned up, and then brought into the winner’s circle for pictures. Jockeys are treated like rock stars, with a little platform for jockeys to stand on so they could sign autographs.
As I headed back to the train station, I saw a sign for the Japan Racing Association Museum, so I headed over there. This museum focuses almost exclusively on Japanese race horses, and
tiered viewing area
there aren’t many signs in English, so probably wouldn’t be particularly interesting to most people. They did have a nice section on the history of thoroughbred racing from its foundation in three horses in England in the early 1700s, and that was in English. Possibly Useful Information:
* There are three lines on the Keio Railway that will take you to the track, which is station 46, from Shinjuku Station. The orange line – the Semi-Special Express – will take you there without having to change trains. The train took about 25 minutes.
* When you enter the racecourse from the train station you will be on the third floor with the Information booth in front of you.
* I was surprised at the number of runners that had horses from the US and GB in their pedigrees, including some Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners. Japanese breeders have bought a number of US and European horses at auction and out of claiming races, and brought them to Japan to establish a breeding program.
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