Guide to Japanese Horse Racing

March 26, 2024

From the bustling streets of Tokyo to the serene landscapes of Kyoto, boat racing, or keiba, is a thrilling spectacle that captures the hearts of millions in Japan. Whether you're a seasoned aficionado or a newcomer to the world of horse racing, you won't want to miss experiencing this deeply rooted Japanese tradition of gambling.

Tracing the Origins of Japanese Horse Racing

Horse racing is not just a sport in Japan; it's a cultural phenomenon. With the advent of mobile technology, fans can now place bets and watch races like bike racing from the palm of their hands. But how did this cultural staple come to be?

The roots of horse racing in Japan can be traced back to religious ceremonies in the Imperial Court over a millennium ago. These ceremonial races evolved over centuries, surviving numerous societal changes, and have been modernized to align with Western-style horse racing, thanks to European settlers in the 19th century.

The opening of Japan to the world was facilitated by the United States through the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854. This event paved the way for the introduction of horse racing, which found its modern-day home in Yokohama. The sport has since adopted European customs and track styles.

Over the years, the sport faced legal challenges due to its association with gambling. However, the Japanese government eventually passed legislation that not only legalized betting but also improved racing conditions. This led to the establishment of the Imperial Racing Society and the birth of iconic events like the Japanese Derby.

Top Horse Racing Events in Japan Today

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In contemporary Japan, the National Association of Racing (NAR) and the Japan Racing Association (JRA) govern the premier horse racing events. These events feature three distinct styles: flat racing, jump racing, and ban'ei racing. Let's delve into the most celebrated events.

1. Japan Cup

The Japan Cup, held every November, is a global sensation. Established in 1981, this event has rapidly gained international recognition. It serves as a platform for international collaboration and showcases the best of Japanese horse racing.

2. Japanese Derby (Tokyo Yushun)

The Tokyo Yushun, or Japanese Derby, is another Grade-1 flat race held at the Tokyo Racecourse. Unlike the relatively newer Japan Cup, the Japanese Derby has a rich history dating back to 1932. It became an international event in 2010 and is part of the Japanese Triple Crown series.

3. Tenno Sho

The Tenno Sho races are held twice a year and are among the longest in Japan. Named after the Emperor of Japan, these races are a tribute to the Imperial family.

4. Yasuda Kinen

This race, initially called the Yasuda Sho, was renamed Yasuda Kinen in honor of Izaemon Yasuda, the founding chairman of the JRA. It's a 1,600-meter race held annually in June at the Tokyo Racecourse.

5. NHK Mile Cup

The NHK Mile Cup is unique for its early openness to foreign-bred horses. Held every May, this race is a 1,600-meter spectacle sponsored by broadcasting organizations.

6.Arima Kinen

It is the year-end G1 race that concludes the Japanese racing season, held every December at Nakayama Racecourse. Horses of different age groups compete, and it offers a substantial purse.

7.Oka Sho & Satsuki Sho

These are classic races for 3-year-old fillies and colts, respectively, and are considered important races leading up to the Japanese Derby.

8.Takarazuka Kinen

A race over 2200 meters on turf, this is one of the top middle-distance races in Japanese horse racing.

Different Styles of Horse Racing in Japan

Japan offers a variety of horse racing styles, each with its unique set of rules and excitement levels.

1. Flat Racing

Flat racing is the most traditional form of keiba and is the easiest for newcomers to understand. The JRA oversees most of the Grade 1 flat races in Japan.

2. Jump Racing

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Jump racing involves obstacles and is a favorite among seasoned horse racing enthusiasts. The Nakayama Grand Jump is the most significant event in this category.

3. Ban'ei Racing

Ban'ei racing, also known as the "power race," is unique to Japan and focuses more on endurance than speed. It's mainly held at the Hokkaido Racecourse and involves draft horses pulling heavy sleighs.

How to Bet on Japanese Horse Racing

Start by picking up a race program from the information desk. About half an hour before each race, the horses are showcased in the paddock, giving you a chance to evaluate them. They then head to the track for a warm-up, offering you a final moment to make your choice.

Betting is simple. Just mark your desired bet type on the betting slip. The complexity of bets can vary, from simply picking a horse to finish in the top three to forecasting the exact finishing position.

Type of Betting

If you're keen on wagering on horse races in Japan, you've got several avenues. You can place bets at the racecourse, online, or through mobile apps. Here's a rundown of the types of bets you can make.

1. Win (単勝)

Simply put, bet on the horse you believe will take first place. If your horse wins, you'll be rewarded accordingly.

2. Place (複勝)

Select horses you think will finish in top spots. This bet will yield returns if your horse finishes third or better, albeit with smaller winnings.

3. Bracket Quinella (枠連)

This is a distinctively Japanese way to bet on horse racing.

4. Quinella (馬連)

Choose two horses you think will finish first and second. The order doesn't matter, so if you're torn between two horses, this is a good option.

5. Exacta (馬単)

This is a more specific version of the Quinella. You'll need to accurately predict the first and second place horses, and in that exact sequence.

6. Trio (3連複)

Pick three horses you believe will finish in the top three spots. The order is not important.

7. Trifecta (3連単)

This is a high-risk, high-reward bet where you predict the first, second, and third place finishers in their exact order.

Quick Guide to Betting at Horse Racecourse

Getting Started

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  • Preparation: If you're new or don't speak Japanese, don't worry. Start by picking up a racing program at the information center to get acquainted with the day's races.
  • Observation: About 30 minutes before each race, the horses are paraded for spectators. Use this time to assess the horses and make your selection.

Placing Your Bet

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  • Betting Slip: Decide on the type of bet you want to make, ranging from simple top-three finishes to more specific placements. Fill out the betting slip accordingly.
  • Language Help: If you're not fluent in Japanese, the "Go! Racing" guide is available in English, Chinese, and Korean to help you understand the betting slip.
  • Ticket Machine: Once your slip is filled out, insert it along with your money into the ticket machine to receive your betting ticket.

Timing and Monitoring

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  • Last-Minute Bets: You can place your bets up to two minutes before the race starts.
  • Odds and Popularity: Keep an eye on the horses that continually update the odds and the popularity rankings of the horses.

Collecting Winnings

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  • Payout: If your horse wins, simply insert your ticket back into the ticket machine to collect your winnings. It's as straightforward as that.

Additional Tips

  • Budget: Always set a budget for how much you're willing to bet and stick to it.
  • Odds: Pay attention to the odds for each horse as they can give you an idea of the horse's chances of winning.
  • Responsibility: Remember to gamble responsibly and consider it a form of entertainment rather than a guaranteed way to make money.

By following these steps and tips, you'll not only enjoy the thrill of the race but also participate in the betting aspect responsibly and effectively.

Different Tickets, Different Payout Rates

1: Decoding Horse Racing Returns

When you buy a horse racing ticket and it wins, you get a return. The amount shown is based on a base ticket price of 100 yen. So, if the return is 500 yen, a 100 yen ticket gets you that amount. Spend 1,000 yen, and you get 5,000 yen back. A 10,000 yen ticket? That's a 50,000 yen return. Remember, the amount shown is for a 100 yen ticket. So, if you've spent 10,000 yen, you'll get 100 times the displayed amount.

2.How Returns Work

In Japan, the horse racing return system works by distributing the amount to winning tickets after taking out the organizer's (JRA) cut from the total, not counting refunds. The odds, or multipliers, are calculated by dividing the return rate by the percentage of winning tickets.

Return Rate ÷ Percentage of Winning Tickets = Odds

Popular horses have lower odds, while the underdogs have higher ones. The race organizer takes their share in two parts. The first chunk is a fixed 18% of the total.

The second part is legally 10% of the remaining 82% profit. For JRA's straight win and place bets, they give back 5% of the total at the end. So, the organizer's cut is essentially 18% (or 13% for straight win and place bets) plus a bit extra.

Take a ticket that represents 10% of the total sales for a horse exacta. The payout comes from 82% of the total sales initially. This 82% is split into 10% (base return) and 72% (profit). So, 7.2% is taken out in the second part, leaving 74.8%.

100% - 18% (organizer's first cut) - 7.2% (organizer's second cut) = 74.8%

The odds then are 74.8% ÷ 10% = 7.48, which gets rounded down to 7.4 times (or 740 yen).

Popular Horses Mean Lower Returns

Let's say a ticket is super popular, making up 50%:

100% - 18% (organizer's first cut) - 3.2% (organizer's second cut) = 78.8%

The odds? 78.8% ÷ 50% = 1.576, rounded down to 1.5 times (or 150 yen).

Higher Returns for the Underdogs

For a longshot ticket that's just 0.1%:

100% - 18% (organizer's first cut) - 8.19 (organizer's second cut) = 73.81%

The odds? A whopping 73.81% ÷ 0.1% = 738.1 times (or 73,810 yen).

The Wilder the Race, the More the Organizer Earns

Basically, the more upsets there are, the more the organizer earns in the second stage. On the flip side, in a predictable race where the favorites dominate and it goes over 82%, the organizer doesn't get that extra bit. They might even dip into the 18% from the first stage (since the law says the minimum return is 100 yen), making it a less profitable race for them. So, organizers love a good upset.

Returns for Place and Combo Bets

For place and combo bets, there are three winning tickets. So, the total is split three ways, and each part is calculated separately. Say the support rates for combo bets are 25% (A), 10% (B), and 5% (C). The sales from non-winning tickets would be:

  • 100% - 25% - 10% - 5% = 60%

This 60% is split into three 20% parts for each winning ticket. So, you get 45% (A), 30% (B), and 25% (C) of the total sales. Using the previous calculations, the odds for A are 1.4 times (or 140 yen), for B are 2.3 times (or 230 yen), and for C are 3.7 times (or 370 yen).

3.Different Tickets, Different Return Rates

In horse racing, there's a "deduction rate" that the JRA takes, and this varies by ticket type. Here's a breakdown.

  • Win: 80%
  • Place: 80%
  • Bracket Quinella: 77.5%
  • Quinella: 77.5%
  • Combo: 77.5%
  • Exacta: 75%
  • Trio: 75%
  • Trifecta: 72.5%
  • WIN5: 70%

For those new to horse racing, it's wise to go for tickets with a high success rate and return rate, like "Win", "Place", "Quinella", and "Combo".

Some people have also obtained such dividends.

  1. Method and Type of Ticket Purchase:
  • I placed bets on a 3-box trifecta with 4 horses, each bet costing 100 yen. I made four such bets, totaling 400 yen.

Race Results:

  • In the race, the horses ranked 10th, 2nd, and 4th were in the top positions, and the trifecta dividend was 28,140 yen.

  1. Method and Type of Ticket Purchase:
  • I used a two-horse combination as the key in a trifecta and added other horses to it. Each combination cost 300 yen, and I made ten such combinations, totaling 3,000 yen.

Race Results:

  • The dividend amount was 141,100 yen, and since I had placed a 300 yen bet, I won. With this ticket, I won a dividend of 423,300 yen.

In summary, with the first ticket, I selected 4 horses and correctly predicted the top 3 in the race, winning a dividend of 28,140 yen. With the second ticket, I used a two-horse combination as the key and covered various combinations, spending 3,000 yen. I correctly predicted the trifecta, which had a dividend of 141,100 yen, and won a total of 423,300 yen.

Prominent Horse Racing Tracks in Japan

1.Oi Racecourse(Tokyo)

Oi Racecourse isn't just a venue for horse racing; it's a full-fledged entertainment hub located in the heart of Tokyo. Perfect for romantic evenings, the racecourse is a hot spot for couples and is also family-friendly. Beyond the adrenaline-pumping races, the venue hosts grand food festivals and equestrian events, making it a versatile destination for friends, families, and couples alike.

Also known as TCK (Tokyo City Horse Racing), the racecourse is famous for pioneering Twinkle Races, Japan's inaugural nighttime horse racing event, which kicked off in 1986.

When it comes to amenities, the racecourse doesn't disappoint. The "Diamond Turn" restaurant offers a luxurious dining experience, complete with a buffet of authentic dishes, all while you enjoy the races. The expansive "UMILE SQUARE" serves as a multi-purpose event space, and don't miss the "TOKYO MEGA ILLUMINATION," one of the most spectacular light displays in the Kanto region.

Whether you're planning a family outing, a date night, or a girls' day out, Oi Racecourse promises a day full of enjoyment.

Website:Oi Racecourse(English)

2.Hanshin Racecourse(Hyogo)

Hanshin Racecourse, located in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, is renowned for its butterfly-wing-shaped roof. It hosts prestigious races like the Oka Sho (Japanese 1000 Guineas) and the Takarazuka Kinen, along with various events for both horse racing enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts. The expansive grounds include a forested amusement park and gardens, open for free on non-race days.

Easily accessible from Incheon Station on the Hankyu Imazu Line, it's a key racecourse in the Kansai region. The course features an "onigiri-shaped" design, with inner and outer tracks. Distances vary, and the straight stretches demand stamina. Notable races include the Takarazuka Kinen and the Oka Sho, known for cherry blossoms.

The renovation in 2006 resolved starting gate issues and extended the straight, promoting fairer races. Hanshin Racecourse offers a unique experience with rich racing history and diverse attractions.

Website:Hanshin Racecourse(English)

3.Obihiro Racecourse:Banei Tokachi(Hokkaido)

Obihiro Racecourse distinguishes itself as a unique gem in Hokkaido's local horse racing scene. Far from being just another track, Obihiro is a must-visit tourist attraction in the Tokachi area, offering an unparalleled racing spectacle.

The venue is renowned for hosting "Banei Horse Racing," an exclusive Japanese event featuring horses that weigh over a ton pulling heavy iron sleds. This contemporary race has its roots in age-old agricultural traditions and serves as a testament to the horses' incredible strength and agility.

But the race is more than a simple dash; it incorporates two steep hill challenges that introduce an unexpected twist, often leading to surprising outcomes.

As a cherished part of Hokkaido's rich cultural tapestry, the excitement of these races reaches its peak when experienced from the vibrant area near the finish line.

Website:Obihiro Racecourse:Banei Tokachi(English)

4.Tokyo Racecourse(Tokyo)

Tokyo Racecourse, also known as "Fuchu," is a leading racetrack in Japan, hosting prestigious events like the Japan Derby and Japan Cup. Located in Fuchu City and easily accessible via the Keio Line, the venue is a hub for horse racing enthusiasts.

Not just a racetrack, it's a full-fledged entertainment center. The JRA Horse Racing Museum offers insights into the sport's 150-year history, while interactive exhibits let visitors feel the thrill of being a jockey.

The venue boasts the Guinness-record-holding Turf Vision screen, providing live race updates on a massive 2,651-inch display. The track itself is known for its high-quality turf and challenging features designed to test a horse's stamina.

Popular among families and newcomers, the racecourse is more than just a betting venue; it's a recreational space with amenities rivaling top amusement parks.

Website:Tokyo Racecourse(Japanese)

5.Kyoto Racecourse(Kyoto)

Kyoto Racecourse, established in the 40th year of the Meiji era, used to host major races like the Emperor's Cup in spring and the Shuka Sho. However, in April 2023, it reopened as the Centennial Park Kyoto Racecourse. Notably, there's a relaxation space for women called "UMAJYO SPOT," making it enjoyable even for those not interested in horse racing. Access is convenient, just a 2-minute walk from Yodo Station on the Keihan Electric Railway, and it's one of the key racecourses for racing enthusiasts.

Kyoto Racecourse features both inner and outer turf tracks with distances of 1,783 meters and 1,894 meters for one lap, along with straight stretches of 328 meters and 404 meters. The inner track offers an advantage in positioning, while the dirt course has a lap distance of 1,608 meters and a straight stretch of 329 meters. Referred to as "Yodo," it hosts various racing events. Key races include the Emperor's Cup in spring (3,200 meters) and the Shuka Sho (3,000 meters).

Website:Kyoto Racecourse(Japanese)

6.Chukyo Racecourse(Aichi)

Chukyo Racecourse, in Toyohashi City, Aichi Prefecture, is strategically located between Kanto and Kansai regions. It underwent a major renovation in 2012, becoming a left-handed JRA track like Tokyo and Niigata. It's a 10-minute walk from Chukyo Racecourse-mae Station.

Chukyo Racecourse's renovation extended the turf course and made the layout fairer. The stands offer diverse food options, and a historic train car is on display at the Panorama Station.

Chukyo Racecourse features two stands: "Pegasus" (floors 1-4) and "Twin Hut" (floors 4-5), both housing their own restaurants and fast-food joints. Visitors can savor regional specialties like kishimen noodles and fried shrimp bowls, a range of noodles including ramen and udon, curry, beef bowls, and sushi. Additionally, there's a diverse selection of casual fare such as hamburgers, takoyaki, frankfurters, and a variety of beverages. Many of these eateries offer takeout, making it convenient for racegoers to grab a bite during intermissions or after the races.

Website:Chukyo Racecourse(Japanese)

Indulge in Authentic Betting at Japanese Racecourses

In conclusion, horse racing holds a prominent place in Japan's gambling scene, with racetracks spread across different regions. Attending races in person allows you to witness the exhilarating spectacle of horses in action and immerse yourself in the authentic atmosphere. Moreover, modern racetracks also offer a delightful array of gourmet food options. If you're intrigued, consider paying a visit and savoring both the excitement and culinary delights they have to offer.

PIJ Writer
PIJ Writer
PIJ Writer, a seasoned connoisseur in his 40s based in Japan, boasts an unparalleled depth of knowledge and experience within the vibrant landscapes of both drinking and gambling, alongside his well-documented ventures into various red-light districts. This extensive exploration encompasses not just the nocturnal delights of Japan's red-light areas but also its myriad of bars, horse racing, pachinko, and many others. Drawing on his firsthand experiences, he conveys the appeal and characteristics of Japan's diverse adult entertainment districts and his enjoyment of the nightlife scene through his writing for PIJ.

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