Japan's horse racing, or 'KEIBA', scene is one of the most well-developed in the world, with a day at the races providing not just a great spectacle and the chance to play the odds, but also an exhilarating equine experience for all the family. The JRA (Japan Racing Association) is Japanese horse racing's governing body and runs everything in the sport from the racecourses to the offsite betting facilities where one can bet if unable to make it to the course. Please refer to the end of this article to learn more about the JRA's free gift campaign.
There are a total of ten JRA racecourses across the country: Tokyo Racecourse, Nakayama Racecourse (Funabashi, near Tokyo), Kyoto Racecourse, Hanshin Racecourse (Takarazuka, near Osaka), Sapporo Racecourse, Hakodate Racecourse, Fukushima Racecourse, Niigata Racecourse, Chukyo Racecourse (Toyoake, near Nagoya) and Kokura Racecourse (Kitakyushu). The majority of these venues are located in or around big cities, and, well-served by public transport, have easy access to the tourist attractions in the surrounding area.
Races are held at 2-3 of the JRA racecourses every weekend throughout the year, and it is easy to find out where and when races are being hosted, as well as lots of other information, by consulting the JRA's comprehensive multilingual website available in English, Chinese, Korean and French.
Today spelled my initiation into the world of KEIBA, and it was going to take place at what is widely regarded as the home of the sport; Tokyo Racecourse. Located in Fuchu City, just 35 minutes by train from downtown Tokyo (Shinjuku), this 'racecourse of racecourses' was originally built in 1933 and more recently had a grand opening in 2007 after seven years of extensive renovations. A perfect option for a day trip from Japan's capital, Tokyo Racecourse hosts some of Japanese horse racing's most coveted events, including the Japan Cup and the Japanese Derby.
I arrived in the complex's main lobby and, after paying the 200 yen entry fee (entry fee varies from 100-200 yen depending on the racecourse), I received a welcome pack containing informative booklets with information in English on how to bet and a general introduction to the races. It is worth noting that there is no dress code in the JRA stadiums, although some of the more serious bettors tend towards smart casual. Feeling prepared, I decided there could be no better way to fuel my excitement for the upcoming action than by checking out some of the complex's facilities. First on my list was the racecourse's on-site museum to learn more about the sport.
The JRA Racing Museum contains exhibits that cover every aspect of KEIBA, from paintings recounting the sport's history, to exhibits on equipment and the biology of horses, to a hall of fame which documents the most outstanding figures (human and horse) to have graced the sport. Various interactive exhibits include a motorized 'horse' on which visitors virtually experience horse racing, and a game in which visitors can virtually race horses against each other. An in-depth English guide is given to all non-Japanese speakers which helps make the museum enjoyable and informative for everyone.
The racecourse also boasts a variety of family and children-oriented attractions. The Riding Center next to the museum provides the opportunity to ride, pet or just spend time with staff-accompanied ponies. There are also multiple kids' areas including one in the center of the tracks with a large bounce house and a mini Shinkansen ride that makes laps of the area. In addition to these attractions there are multiple souvenir shops in which visitors can purchase horse racing memorabilia from apparel to cute cuddly toys.
Exploring the complex's many attractions left me in the mood for food, and luckily Tokyo Racecourse had me more than covered with its plethora of eateries scattered around the complex. My biggest problem was choosing what to eat, but eventually I made my way to the food court area, which has the highest concentration of eateries, and sat down for some soba noodles. From western-style fast food to traditional Japanese cuisine, the food here is reasonably priced and delicious.
On race days the first of twelve races starts around 10:00, with the main race taking place around 15:30. The competing horses are led around the Parade Ring around half an hour before the race for spectators to size them up. As the introduction guide booklet included in the welcome pack explains, bettors should look for certain signs of strength in a horse, such as the tautness of its rear, the straightness of its neck and its general gait. Being a rookie, I wasn't fine-tuned to detecting the signs of a winner, but it was fun all the same to see the horses before an anticipant crowd.
Placing a bet at JRA racecourses has been made easy for first-timers and non-Japanese speakers. The betting card, which is also included in the welcome pack, is placed over the betting slip to translate it into English. After selecting the racecourse name, race number, bet type, the number(s) of horse(s) and the amount of money to bet, insert the money and betting slip into one of the automated betting machines around the complex and receive a printed betting ticket. The machines have an English option to make the process as easy as possible. Collecting winnings is equally easy; just insert your winning ticket into one of the automated payout machines and wait for your money!
At almost all races there are eight types of bets that can be made, with bets able to be placed up to two minutes before the race starts. The bet types are of varying difficulty, with the harder types tending to pay out more. Odds for each horse are displayed on monitors around the venues and a guide to understanding these displays is included in the welcome pack.
If you're unable to make it to a racecourse where the races are being held don't despair because all JRA racecourses are open for betting on race days regardless of whether races are being held there. Alternatively, the JRA operates WINS off-site betting shops in which you can check odds, watch and bet on races and receive payouts all in one place. There are about 40 WINS offices nationwide that open on race days and are free to enter.
It's now getting close to 15:30 and the atmosphere is electric as I make my way to the stand that overlooks the racetrack and find myself a good spot from which to watch the race. The horses have entered the track and have a few minutes to warm up before making their way to the start position. There are two types of seats in the stand; free, non-reserved seats, and reserved seats higher up in the stand which cost around 1000 to 3000 yen and can be booked at the ticket counter or from the Nippon Travel Agency website.
The race finally begins and the crowd roars as the horses bolt out of the gates and gallop down the track. When the horses run out of view, the huge screen facing the stand is the best way to keep track of the race. Within a few moments, the horses are thundering down the home stretch in front of the stand and the crowd goes wild and in a flash of horsehair and bright colors worn by the jockeys, the race is over and the winner has been declared in a photo finish. A thrilling climax of a thoroughly enjoyable day, I leave feeling that a day at the races has something for everyone.
JRA gift campaign - Get a gift for completing the survey! Once you have completed the survey, "Thank you page" will be displayed. Please take a screenshot and present it with a betting ticket of a value higher than 100 yen at the gift exchange counter to claim your gift.
*Gift availability subject to change without prior notification, with a limit of one gift per one screenshot.
**Coupon is valid only while stocks last.
***Valid until April 1, 2018