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The Riches Of Japanese Horse Racing

A look through the rich and varied history of Japanese horse racing and how it went from an unwanted distraction to one of the richest economies in the sporting world.

One of the greatest Japanese Racehorses of all time, Deep Impact

How Did Horse Racing In Japan Start?

From the middle of the sixteenth to the middle of the nineteenth century, Japan was nominally ruled by an emperor, living in a great palace/castle in the centre of what is today’s modern Tokyo. 

In practice the emperor was almost powerless, the actual government of the country being carried out by the Shogun – a warlord - who controlled great bands of Samurai to enforce his edicts.

These, together with other bands of Samurai with no affiliation to anyone but themselves, kept Japan in a state of semi-feudal civil warfare, denying access to the country to any and all foreign visitors, particularly traders and religious delegations, bent on civilising the Japanese in the ways of Christian Catholicism. All this was to change in 1853, however, when an American Military sea captain sailed his fleet into Tokyo harbour in an attempt to establish trading relationships. 

He was given short shrift by the Shogun in power at the time and told to go away. Japan was not interested in, nor did she need, trading contacts with foreigners. Captain Perry, for it was he who was in charge of the fleet. Pointed out to the Shogun, that he had a number of very large ships, larger than those possessed by the potentate, and that they all had similarly large guns. Perhaps the Shogun would like to reconsider his response. These “negotiations” eventually lead to the signing of a formal treaty in 1858, which obliged the Japanese Shogun to grant access to foreign trading delegations through specific “open” ports. Seizing the opportunity as always, the British, ever eager to maximise their opportunities for trade were offered and accepted an area adjacent to the port of Yokohama -  an area of drained marshland, commonly known as the Swamp ground, which the Shogun considered to be such an unpleasant location that the British would not stay long. How wrong can he have been!

Attracting Royalty To Racecourses

Taking over the area in 1858, the British had firmly established a colony by 1862, and, as happened in other areas taken over by them such as Australia and America, horse races followed as a form of entertainment for the exiles. Still the Shogun would not accept the “colonisation” of the area by the British, although his mind was gradually changed for him by the increasing attendance of locals at these events. In 1866, the British abandoned the Swamp Ground, not, as hoped for by the Shogun as the first step in departing Japanese shores, but to build a new formal racecourse at Negishi so that the events could be better organised. 

A depiction of a Spring Racing Meet at Negishi in 1865

The course, built next to the prosperous Yamate district of Yokohama, began to arouse local interests, and attendance at the races became a social event. Indeed, the emperor himself, Meiji, is recorded in attendance more than fourteen times over the next two years, reportedly attracted by the ceremonies of the meetings – after all the Japanese are great lovers of ceremony- the colourful racing silk costumes – Japan being a great producer of silk – and above all, the gambling. Such was the wave of popularity of horse racing which swept through Japan, that by 1870 every major port/city in the land had its own racing venue and its own Jockey club to supervise events. Truly it can be said that the great Japanese racing industry which exists today, began when the Shogun decided, wrongly, to allow the British to develop facilities on a patch of swampy ground outside Yokohama.

Developing A Horse Racing Powerhouse

So what exactly is the picture on today’s tracks in Japan? Why is horse racing such a popular, and profitable, sport in the land of the Rising Sun? Well, one of the reasons has to be that the sport is rigorously controlled by its governing bodies. The most important of these is the Japanese Racing Authority (JRA) which controls the racing on all the major tracks. A second body, the National Association of Racing (NAR) assumes responsibility for events on rural courses, and on different types of track surfaces, such as turf, artificial and dirt. JRA races are almost always held on turf. For many years of the last century, particularly before the war, the sport was heavily influenced by the Yakuza,  a criminal element which could  and would influence results in races, to gain maximum benefit from the prize money and gambling which took place. 

By the mid 1980’s, however, the JRA had succeeded in wresting control almost entirely from criminality and set out imposing rigorous rules to guarantee the purity and honesty of the bloodstock and its’ races, For example, for a long period, only horses of pure Japanese blood were allowed to race in Group 1 races. Gradually this restriction was lifted and imported stallions were permitted for breeding purposes, thus allowing the breeders to select for strength and staying power in their horses, which in turn obviously led to an improvement in the overall quality of the stock. Not only did this produce in turn an improvement in the races held in Japan in terms of speed and competition, the horses produced showed sufficient maturity to enable them to take part in races of importance outside Japan.

A perfect example of this improvement is the 2006 Melbourne Cup, held in November at Flemington. Jockey Yasunari Iwati, on his first ride outside Japan, on a horse by the name of Delta Blues, also running for the first time outside Japan, came home in first place at the head of a mightily distinguished field. 

Unfortunately Iwati could not maintain his form outside Japan and finished with only a further three winners (to date) on foreign soil. His record is most certainly eclipsed by that on another Japanese jockey with extensive riding experience outside his home country – Yutaka Take. Since July of 2001 when Take rode a five year old filly by the name of Proudwings to victory in the Falmouth Stakes at Newmarket, he has chalked up over thirty winners on foreign soil, including two wins on the Gold Coast in Australia, and eighteen in France at Longchamps and Chantilly.  Indeed, during his racing excursions to Australia, Take enjoyed particular success partnering a horse called Deep Impact on which he managed to earn a massive $16million plus in prize money on his visits, and achieve for himself the title of richest jockey in the world. Whether this is a true claim, only Take can verify. One thing is certain that, in a career spanning over twenty years with 3000 winning rides he will not be worrying about his pension when he finally retires.

Rules And Regulations Of Japanese Racing

But back to the JRA and the examination of why it has been able to make Japanese racing the second richest in the world. Having cleared the sport of most serious criminal activity, it was able to assume control of gambling in the sport and take a serious interest in course and running fees. For example the JRA owns the ten major courses at which all Group 1 races are staged. Additionally, the JRA controls the registration of horse owners, horse sales, auctions, registration of births and the issue of training and jockey licenses. Only recently for example, did the JRA agree to licensing more than six non-Japanese jockeys in any one year, a decision aimed at improving the performances of local jockeys and preparing them for international racing in countries less strict about riders credentials. All these registrations and licences providing a tidy set of income streams which strengthen the JRA’s overall position in the sport

By far the most important income stream, however, is the gambling which accompanies horse racing. This, as mentioned earlier, was one of the factors which drew the locals to the sport in its infancy. Today it has the pull of a super -powered magnet.  Estimates for the total amount wagered on horses, in bets of one sort or another place the figure between $28 and 30billion, and even though a goodly quantity of this is repaid as bet winnings, there is still a substantial chunk left over to be ploughed back into racing, and since horse racing is only one of four permitted sports for gambling, this “contribution” can only continue to rise. The benefit of this management system using the JRA as a control, means that there are always funds available for the improvement of track facilities, bloodstock needs and, most importantly, winners purses for the races.

The Riches In Japanese Horse Racing 

Some two years ago the Japanese permitted the gambling on horse races and other events which did not take place in Japan. Two illustrations of the positive effect of this de-restriction come from overseas races. The Prix de l’arc de Triomphe held at Longchamps in 2019, saw over 5000 Japanese enthusiasts travel to Paris to witness the event. On the day of the race the locals wagered some €1.6million, Japanese “investors”  gambled more than twice that figure. Similarly in the case of the Melbourne cup last year which saw Twilight Payment win, where total prize money amounted to $8million and bets in the Cup alone came to $2m. Estimates from Japanese sources show that almost $4 million was wagered on the result of the race, double what the AU press had covered. With monies of this magnitude flowing into the JRA coffers there is little wonder that Japanese racing is held to be the second most financially well funded after the sport in the USA.

Typical of this richness of funding is the Japan Cup, an invitational event which takes place in November every year at one of Tokyo’s two JRA owned courses.  First run in 1981 with the aim of bringing foreign owned horses to Japan to test and improve locally bred steeds, it has now blossomed into a veritable festival with a prize purse of at least $6.2.million, rising considerably, using a complicated formula which puts more money in the pot if horses invited from overseas either win or place in races leading up to the Cup itself. In the first twenty years the race was run, there were only eight Japanese bred and trained horses, the majority coming from the USA, Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. From around the turn of the century there has been a marked change in the winners enclosure, whether this is evidence of success in the desire of the JRA to improve its’ bloodstock quality or simply by chance, since the first horse past the post has almost invariably been Japaneses born and bred.

Australian Influence On Japanese Horses

In contrast, apart from a few consecutive years when the race was won by Japanese jockeys such as Take and Iwata, we have come to see races dominated by foreign riders on Japanese horses. Among these we find Frankie Dettori, Oisin Murphy and Christophe Lamaire from Europe and from Australia the great Hugh Bowman, who outstripped the field in a thrilling win in 2017 on Cheval Grand.

As a jockey whose name will be forever remembered as the partner of the legendary Winx, it is perhaps only fitting that his only Group 1 Win (to Date) in Japan should be in the country’s biggest race, the Japan Cup, netting over $7million. All told, including his Japan Cup win, Bowman has notched up 23 wins on Japanese tracks bringing home prize money of more than $13million.

Another Australian Jockey who has performed well in Japan is Craig Williams. Well known for his performances at Flemington and Randwick, Williams has actually clocked up a total of 90 winners on Japanese tracks claiming more than $32million in prize money. His biggest success came in the World Super Jockey Series back in 2007. The four race series attracts riders from all over the world and with two wins to his name in the series there could only be one winner – and the US$ 26000 winning jockeys purse went home to Melbourne with him.

And In Conclusion

Looking back at how Japanese horse racing has grown from a small patch of swampy ground and thrived to become the second most wealthy country in the sport is truly astounding. From a ramshackle course, unwanted and forced to operate on little more than a bog, we now see an industry established on the world stage. Races with prize money of amazing value, Japanese Jockeys riding at all the world’s great courses and in all the big races – and winning, and foreign horses in Japan to race and breed, often with jockeys of international repute only serve to illustrate that horse racing, managed well and with good support can only bring benefits. Long may it continue, In Japan and throughout the world – wherever there might be a horse track!

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