Ultimate Guide to Horse Racing in Japan

As in many other countries all over the globe, Horse Racing in Japan happens to be a famous and exciting event all across the country. Although the Japanese races differ a bit from those we’re used to in the Western world, they also happen to be among the strongest in the game worldwide. So whether you’re a big horse racing fan, or have never attended a single race in your life, you probably won’t want to skip the time-honored tradition of keiba while in Japan.

For more information on events, customs, or anything Japan, be sure to check out all of our Ultimate Guides to Japan.

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The History of Horse Racing in Japan

To date, horse racing happens to be the single most popular betting sport all across Japan, with betters able to watch the races and place their bets from the comfort of their smartphones, wherever they are. But how did this national obsession begin?

Although Western-style horse racing has only been “a thing” in Japan for some 150 years, the sport itself has a much older tradition. Originally a religious ceremony for the Imperial Court, horse racing dates all the way back to the eight century, when races between the samurai of the age were held annually (and continue to take place) in May, at the Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto. Down the years, as Japan transitioned from aristocratic to feudal, and saw about another million changes, the tradition of horse racing endured and remained intact for over 9 centuries.

Horse racing continues to be a Japanese tradition, though it has since become Westernized.

Although precious little is known about the early days of the sport, it’s believed that Western-style horse racing was first introduced to Japan by European settlers, all the way back in the 19th century. A quick look through the history books will show us that it was thanks to the United States that the rest of the world gained access to the island of Japan. More specifically, it was through the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854 and with the help of the world-renowned U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry, that Japan was opened to the rest of the world, and one of the most exciting and enduring customs to make its way across the ocean was horse racing.

But as we mentioned, this was carried through to Japan by the many Europeans who came to live in Yokohama, which is regarded as the birthplace of modern horse racing in Japan. This is why, even to this day, horse racing in Japan takes after European customs, and uses European-style dirt tracks, rather than American ones.

As with any other sport, horse racing saw its fair share of legal difficulties, because of the heavy betting it attracted. For a brief period at the beginning of the 20th century, the Japanese government adopted a policy that conveniently overlooked people’s betting, though the policy was revoked in 1908, in favor of much stricter regulations. This made betting illegal, and breeding for the races took a turn for the worse. It would be 15 years before the government passed a much-desired horse racing legislation, which allowed people to bet on the races once more, and vastly improved the racing conditions.

This led to the formation of 11 racing clubs, and subsequently of the Imperial Racing Society, which would determine the way races took place. In 1936, the clubs merged with the Imperial Racing Society, due to significant revisions to the Horseracing Law, and established the footing of modern horse racing, and saw the birth of major racing events, like the Japanese Derby.

Interested in other Japanese sports? Read our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Archery and Ultimate Guide to Sumo Wrestling!

Major Modern Day Horse Racing Events

foreigners watching horse racing in japan

Nowadays, all the top racing events in Japan are run by the National Association of Racing (NAR) and Japan Racing Association (JRA). There are three different types of racing: flat racing, jump racing, and ban’ei racing, which we’ll talk about in more detail a little later on.

Let us take you through some of the major horse racing events in Japan.

1.    Japan Cup

In first place, naturally, comes the prestigious Japan Cup, held annually in November. Although the Japan Cup was established rather recently (in 1981) by the JRA, it has garnered international acclaim, and is looked forward to by horse racing pros and jackys all over the world.

The Japan Cup also carries a bit of an interesting history. Back in 1981, the JRA established the Japan Cup as an invitational international event, so as to encourage collaboration and goodwill throughout the international racing community, but also to promote Japanese racing, inviting local winners to compete with top international horses.

Although during the initial race, participation was restricted to a handful of major countries, namely, USA, Canada, India, Australia and New Zealand, the Japan Cup has since opened its doors to participants worldwide.

It is held annually in Tokyo, at the Tokyo Racecourse in Fuchu, over a distance of 2,400 meters. The Japan Cup also happens to be among the richest horse races worldwide, with a purse of 476 million yen (just under $6 million).

2.    Japanese Derby (Tokyo Yushun)

The Tokyo Yushun, also known as the Japanese Derby, is a Grade-1 flat race, like the Japan Cup. It is also held at the Tokyo Racecourse in Fuchu, Tokyo, so it runs over the same 2,400 distance, and is usually open to three-year-old thoroughbred fillies and colts. The Japanese Derby is held annually either in late May or early June.

Although it’s considered a smaller scale event than the Japan Cup, the Tokyo Yushun has a much older tradition. The first race of the Japanese Derby was held all the way back in 1932. Initially, the Japanese Derby was meant as a national event only, but with the JRA’s inclusion in the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities' ICS Part I category in 2010, it was opened to international contestants, as well.

Although easily the most well-known, being the equivalent of the English Derby, the Tokyo Yushun is actually part of a three-event group, the Japanese Triple Crown. The Japanese Derby is preceded by the Satsuki Sho, the first stage of the event, held in the second half of April, and roughly the equivalent of the English 2,000 Guineas Race. It’s followed by the Kikuka Sho in October, the equivalent of the English St. Leger Stakes.

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3.    Tenno Sho

Next in line we’ve got the Tenno Sho race, held twice every year, once during the spring, and once in autumn. The Spring Tenno Sho is easily the longest horse race in our list so far, stretching over 3,200 meters. Traditionally taking place during late April or early May, the Spring Tenno Sho is usually held at the Kyoto Racecourse in Fushimi-ku, and is the longest Grade 1 race in the whole of Japan.

The Autumn Tenno Sho, on the other hand, typically takes place in late October, at the Tokyo Racecourse, and is considered the first leg of the Japanese Autumn Triple Crown. It’s typically followed by the Japan Cup in November, and the Arima Kinen in late December.

The Tenno Sho races take their name from the Japanese word tenno, which means “Emperor of Japan”. So Tenno Sho translates to The Emperor’s Prize, and is one of several horse races held in honor of the Imperial family.

4.    Yasuda Kinen

Originating in 1951 and originally named the Yasuda Sho, in honor of Izaemon Yasuda, the chairman of the JRA, the race was later renamed Yasuda Kinen, after the chairman’s passing.

Yasuda Kinen is a 1600 meter-long race held annually at the Tokyo Racecourse, in June. Like the others in this list, Yasuda Kinen is a Grade 1 race open to thoroughbreds (three-year-olds and up). After more than 40 years from its inaugural race, the Yasuda Kinen received International Grade 1 status, and in 2005, became the final leg of the Asian Mile Challenge (a four-race event that also takes place in Melbourne, Dubai and Hong Kong).

5.    NHK Mile Cup

The NHK Mile Cup is the fifth largest race in Japan and arguably one of the most interesting. Held annually in May, at the Tokyo Racecourse, and spanning a length of 1,600 meters in total, the NHK Mile Cup is sponsored by the majority of broadcasting organization.

Interestingly enough, however, Japanese standards do not recognize “sponsors” as someone who provides the money, but rather someone who supplies the cup itself, or prize, or trophy.

Prior to 2001, the NHK Mile Cup was the only Japanese race that permitted the participation of horses not bred in Japan. So, the NHK Mile cup became known for its inclusion of foreign-bred horses, and continues to be recognized for that, even though restrictions were lifted at the beginning of the century (so that now, internationally bred horses are granted access to most Japanese races).

Other than the above mentioned, Japan has a host of impressive horse racing events, among which the February Stakes, the Yushun Himba (also known as the Japanese Oaks, the equivalent of the English Epsom Oaks), or the Victoria Mile. You’ll notice that here, we’ve focused on flat races, as these are the easiest to understand and follow, particularly if you’re new to the whole horse racing world. Below, we’ll talk about some major events in other types of racing.

Interested in other events? Head over to our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Festivals and Ultimate Guide to Setsubun!

Types of Horse Races In Japan

As we mentioned earlier, Japan has not one but three separate types of racing, each with its own set of rules and styles.

1.    Flat Racing

Flat racing is by far the oldest, and most traditional type of keiba in Japanese culture. It’s what most of us imagine when we talk about horse racing, and it essentially involves a given number of jockeys, racing their horses across a flat race course. The rules are fairly cut and dry, with the first horse to cross the finish line with their nose being crowned the champion. Traditionally, the JRA handles most graded flat races in the country, with a few notable exceptions, among which the Tokyo Daishoten (the only Grade 1 race not organized by the JRA, in fact).

All of the above-mentioned races are Grade 1 flat races, with other notable mentions including the Osaka Hai, the Queen Elizabeth II Cup, and the Sprinters Stakes.

Typically, flat racing is considered the perfect introduction for everyone who doesn’t have any previous knowledge of horse racing. It’s easy to follow, which also makes it easier to bet on, though don’t be fooled - you’ll still need a nose for these things, if you’re going to win big!

2.    Jump Racing

As its name suggests, jump racing is basically an obstacle race, which makes it that much more exciting for the seasoned horse race aficionado. However, since jump races are a tad trickier to bet on, they tend to be less popular than flat races in Japan. Still, jump racing has its fair share of major racing events.

By far the largest race in this category is the Nakayama Grand Jump, held at the eponymous Nakayama Racecourse every year in April. It spans a truly impressive 4,250 metre length, and is open to thoroughbreds four years and older.

It is a traditional steeplechase (a type of horse race in which the participants must jump over various ditch and fence obstacles), and easily one of the richest, worldwide, with a purse of roughly 142,660,000 yen, (US$1.3 million). Inaugurated in 1999, the Nakayama Grand Jump is open to international contestants, as well.

3.    Ban’ei Racing

Also referred to as the “power race” of Japanese horse racing, ban’ei racing definitely takes an interesting turn, and is definitely the most complex type of horse race in the country. Unlike the other two, ban’ei racing doesn’t involve the jockey riding the horse directly, but rather guiding it on from a sleigh, which the draft horses must pull up and down sand ramps, usually.

Ban’ei racing is also very localised, as it’s only held at the Hokkaido Racecourse in the northern island of Obihiro. Situated in the Tokachi region, Obihiro is known for its impossibly low temperatures, which only adds to the race difficulty, with horses having to run in temperatures as low as -20 C. Races are typically held most weeks, and differ largely from flat and jump racing, focusing more on endurance than speed or accuracy.

Ban’ei racing horses tend to be massive, often twice the size of regular racing horses, and usually run a very short distance, by comparison, of only 200 m. However, they must haul massive, heavy sleighs across this distance.

Because of the low temperatures, ban’ei racing is also less popular among gamblers (which is why many ban’ei racecourses were forced to close down over the years).

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So, where can you catch the next horse race?

family watching horse racing at home in japan

Horse racing is a huge sport in Japan and the options for spectating or even betting are numerous.

Your first option, if you’re in Japan, is to go to the racecourse itself to enjoy a unique experience. One of the best places for spectating horse races in Japan is the Tokyo Racecourse, which hosts a wide array of cups and tournaments year round, leading up to the Japan Cup, during the last week of November. The Tokyo Racecourse is a great option, complete with food, gift shops, exhibitions, horse previewing facilities  and other utilities. It’s also a fairly inexpensive option, with entry costing just 200 yen (roughly $1.80).

Please note that, the Tokyo Racecourse is a full-day experience, even if you only really spectate one or two races.

Another excellent racecourse that you can check out while in Japan is the Kyoto Racecourse, which also hosts a range of competitions, starting with the Spring Tenno Sho. The entry here is also 200 yen, so very accessible, though you may have to pay extra to use upper-floor facilities. The Kyoto Racecourse is easy to get to from the city center, and offers great entertainment for the entire family. In fact, several racecourses in Japan only charge this small $2 entry fee.

And, of course, if you want to watch jump racing or are feeling adventurous and looking for some ban’ei action, you’ll have to go straight to the source. For example, if you’re keen on seeing ban’ei racing, you’ll have to go to the Hokkaido Racecourse, where the entry fee is even smaller, at just 100 yen (so roughly $1).

If you’re unable to attend the races in person, worry not, because you can either watch them on TV, on channels like NHK, TV Tokyo, or Fuji Television. You can also catch the races online, on websites like Japan Racing.

Thinking of exploring after the race? Head over to Tokyo and read our Ultimate Guide to Planning a Day Trip From Tokyo!

Japanese Horse Race Betting

co-workers gambling on horse racing in japan

Finally, to the juiciest topic of all - gambling. If you’re keen on betting on any horse race in Japan, you’ve got quite a few options. The most obvious is betting at the racecourse itself, but you’ll need to know the following steps:

  1. Do a bit of research on the odds, and ideally with the horses’ condition (if the racecourse offers a previewing station, as does the Tokyo Racecourse). If you’re unfamiliar with odds, you can use the JRA’s official Introduction leaflet, to get a grip on things.
  2. Get a betting slip/ticket. There are different types of tickets, and most of them tend to be in Japanese. But don't worry, because most racecourses offer translated slips for foreigners. Once again, the JRA comes in handy with a “How to Bet” leaflet, explaining each section of your betting slip.
  3. Most racecourses nowadays use betting machines. Once you’ve completed your betting slip with the desired details, you’ll have to insert it and the money you want to bet into the machine.
  4. Enjoy the race, and hope the odds are in your favor!

If you’re not watching the race at an actual racecourse, you can bet online or through your smartphone, using one of the numerous betting apps out there. You can also visit your nearest JRA center, and place your bets, after which you can enjoy the race in one of the nearby bars, with other horse race fans.

Types of bets

To a beginner, the only betting option might seem “who’s gonna win?”. In truth, horse betting in Japan is way more complicated, and you’ve got several options to make your pics:

  1. Win - naturally, a “win” betting ticket means gambling on the horse you think most likely to win;
  2. Place - with the “place” ticket, you’re basically naming your picks for first, second and sometimes third place, in a race.
  3. Bracket Quinella - a uniquely Japanese type of betting, here you choose two brackets (each consisting of two jockeys with the same color hat), to come in either first or second, regardless of order.
  4. Quinella - here, you’ll pick two horses for the top two places, regardless of order.
  5. Quinella Place - again, picking two horses for various place combinations (first-second; first-third; second-third; first-fourth; and so on);
  6. Trio - as the name suggests, this is basically choosing three horses to take up the first three places, in any order;
  7. Exacta - like in “Place”, you’re picking two horses for the top 2 positions, but this time, you also have to guess the correct order;
  8. Trifecta - same as above, but for the top three positions.
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Prepare for a day at the races!

Horse racing is and always has been a huge thing in Japan, with the Japanese public averaging billions of dollars per year, gambling on the many horse racing events available. So really, it would be a shame to miss this major national event, so why not treat yourself to a day at the races?

Unlike the West, a day at the races in Japan tends to be cheap (with low entry fees and costs), and casual attire, but nevertheless a fun, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity which, with this guide, you’ll be able to enjoy!

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