A reversal of fortune

Entering the final stretch

To experience the true spirit of horse racing, one has to venture trackside, amidst the thunder of the hooves, the roar of the crowd and the highs and lows of money gained and, more often, lost. Michael McDonagh takes his chances at Tokyo' home of racing--Fuchu Racecourse.

It's early in the day and, as the tension builds during the lull before a race, I fall into conversation with Takahashi. He is an typical punter - rolled up newspaper, red pencil, lived-in face, and a smoldering cigarette. My companion is no stranger to danger. As a tobishoku (construction worker), he spends his day precariously tiptoeing along the scaffolding he puts up for a living. Today, he's swapped a folded hachimaki (headband) for a trilby and tabi (rubber slippers) for leather uppers. Takahashi has gone for the high risk, high return option and put his money on a long shot. He's backed two horses to come anywhere in the first three finishers-a "quinella" bet, he explains, giving me a look that seems to say I ought to know that kind of thing. He is happy to share his expertise, confiding that he needs a win to make up the JY30,000 he has lost in the morning.

Becoming steadily more animated as the race proceeds, Takahashi and the crowd erupt as the horses dash for the finish line. A thunderous wave of cheers, jeers and expletives dies down, and most of the spectators look frankly disgusted. The photo finish flashes up on a giant video screen confirming the result. Occasionally it is a reversal of fortune that leaves erstwhile winners cursing while celebrations break out elsewhere. But not this time. Takahashi is JY50,000 down. He decides to call it a day. Not only has my newly found friend failed to tell his wife where he is but, as she holds the purse strings, a hole in the housekeeping budget will be difficult to hide. He'll be back next week to try to balance the books.

The competition is fierce as the horses approach the finish line

And they're off
While many of the punters are among the least able to afford it, the thrill of a race and the chance of a big win remain difficult to resist. Not surprisingly then, horse racing, the second most popular spectator sport in Japan, is one of the biggest of the few legally sanctioned gambling rackets (along with such notables as the stock market, lottery and pachinko)-annual betting receipts, at around JY4.5 trillion, are second only to pachinko, and ten percent of the earnings go to the government.

Tokyo's Fuchu Racecourse, the largest in Japan, has been a favorite haunt of gamblers since 1933 and hosts about 500 races across 48 weekends a year. While the highlight is The Japan Cup, an international Grade 1 race that boasts one of the largest cash prizes in the world-nearly JY250 million - the upcoming February Stakes offer a great opportunity to join in the big race atmosphere. On a typical race day the stands are filled with royalty and commoner alike. But betting on the horses is a predominantly working-class pursuit - as anyone who has passed one of the off-track betting centers (WINS) in Shinjuku, Shinbashi and Asakusa knows-dispelling the myth of a classless Japan.

Building a high horse
Horseracing has a long and often undistinguished history in this country. In the 8th century, races were held for the benefit of the Imperial Court as part of religious ceremonies and spread around the country as a popular attraction at Shrine festivities. The modern foundation of the sport was laid in the 1860s by a group of mostly British ex-pats on a beach in Yokohama. These antecedents conjoined during the early Meiji period. It was at the Negishi track in Yokohama, now the site of the Equine Museum, where the Emperor often enjoyed the races and as legend has it, indulged in the occasional small wager. Events were also held in locations as diverse as Shinobazunoike Pond in Ueno and Yasukuni Shrine. True to the era, there was a military subtext to some of this activity as racing improved soldiers riding skills and the quality of army horses.

In Japan, as in most countries, gambling is one of those gray areas of social acceptability. In late-Edo/early-Meiji, it was officially frowned upon though private wagers flourished. The first official betting system, introduced in 1888, was allegedly restricted to foreigners, reflecting an age-old double standard of strict prohibition for ordinary people while their social superiors were free to indulge. The press on the other hand suffered no such ambiguity, remaining unequivocally hostile to the social evil that encouraged irresponsibility and undermined the work ethic. Anti-gambling sentiment climaxed in a ban in 1908 that lasted for 15 years. Horse racing was officially redeemed after the war as a "necessary evil" to raise funds for the cash-strapped government.
But despite official backing, history has reinforced horse racing's shady reputation. Racing is an expensive business for everybody involved, as unwitting taxpayers found out recently through revelations that a foreign ministry official had spent JY163 million of embezzled funds on 14 racehorses between 1997 and 2000. Training fees alone ran to some JY60 million and his winnings haven't even begun to recover the massive debt.

The model steam engine in the picnc grounds is fun for punters of all ages

Horsing around
Since the 1980s the national governing body (JRA) has successfully remodeled racing's often tarnished image. It began with the photogenic combination of jockey Yutaka Take and the horse Oguricap, who upped the popularity of the sport enormously. The fad followed the usual pattern - all-girl gangs of fans, intense media attention, the release of a record and a line of cuddly toys. Proceeds were invested in a heavy media spend to prompt a change of heart in the corporate press. Clever marketing has transformed the perception of the sport. JRA advertisements feature the usual suspects - movie, drama and pop stars, including the ubiquitous Kimutaku of Smap - who have helped horse racing jostle for position as a mainstream commodity in the disposable Yen stakes.

The best bet at the moment is the horse Special Week (the world's top money earner and winner of last year's Japan Cup with jockey Yutaka Take). Other favorites include Meishi Doto, American Boss, Narita Top Road and Air Shakar. Chances of a win are increased in combination with top Kanto jockeys including Yukio Okabe, 50 years old but still going strong, Norihiro Yokoyama, Yoshitomi Shibata, who chalked up his 1000th win recently, Tadashi Ebina and Katsu Tanaka, the "teen idol" of the jockey world.

The simulated race lets you be a jockey for the day

How and where to bet
Betting in Japan follows traditional systems, everything, down to the prices, is in kanji--bets start at JY100. However, the Japan Association for International Racing has a comprehensive English website with everything you need to know about horse racing here, including a betting guide and translation of the bet card ( In addition to the 25 WINS centers, hi-tech bets can be placed on the phone or via the Internet. Extensive racing coverage appears in the sports papers, and in addition to regular TV slots, the Green Channel on cable is devoted exclusively to racing.

Fun for the whole family
At the Fuchu track there is as much action off-track as on. At the horse racing museum, star attractions include a 360-degree surround screen cinema complete with swivel chairs to follow a head-spinning day in the life of a Paris racetrack. Stagger out and leapfrog onto one of the plastic horses lined up in front of the video screens. The simulated race begins with a gentle canter, but brace yourself for the manic gallop in the final stretch that will almost bounce you out of the saddle. To recover, retreat to the picnic grounds and take a ride on the model steam train. It accommodates punters of all ages and doesn't cost a thing.

Notable races at Fuchu:
The February Stakes:
Sun, Feb 18.
Saudi Arabia Royal Cup/NHK Mile Cup:
Sun, May 6.
The Yushun Himba (The Japanese Oaks):
Sun, May 20.
The Tokyo Yushun (The Japanese Derby):
Sun, May 27.
The Yasuda Kinen:
Sun, June 3.
Epson Cup:
Sun, June 10.
The Japan Dirt Cup:
Sat, Nov 24.
Capital Stakes and The Japan Cup:
Sun, Nov 25.

Tokyo Racecourse 042-363-3141 or JRA 3503-8221

Web Page:
(Japan Association for International Racing).

Getting there:
Fuchu Race Course is 30 min from Shinjuku stn on the Keio Line, or a five-min walk from Fuchu-honmachi stn on the JR Musashino Line.

Urawa Racecourse is five min by bus or a 10min walk from JR Minami-Urawa stn or a 10-min walk from JR Urawa stn. A free bus service is available from JR Minami-Urawa stn on race days.

Funabashi Racecourse is a 10-min walk from the Minami-Funabashi stn on the Keiyo Line or a five-min walk from the Funabashi-Keibajo stn on the Keisei Line.

Ohi Racecourse is just a three-minute walk from Ohi Keibajomae Monorail stn, or a 10-minute walk from the Tachiaigawa stn on the Keihin Kyuko Line. A free bus service is available from JR Omori or Oimachi stn on race days. Situated in the Tokyo Bay area it is the largest of the regional racecourses and famous for the popular night events called Twinkle Races, held between Apr and Oct.

Kawasaki Racecourse is a 15-min walk from JR Kawasaki stn, or a one-min walk from the Minato-machi stn on the Keihin Kyuko Line. On race days a free bus service is available from JR Kawasaki stn.



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