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27 Nov 2017

The Unlikely History of Japanese Horse Racing

The Japan Cup is one of the highlights of the racing calendar, but that still doesn’t change the average race fan’s impression that the Japanese are relative newcomers to the sport of horse racing. However, contrary to popular belief, the sport has a long and storied history in the “Land of the Rising Sun.” In fact, it’s a history as old as many of the more traditional horse racing nations.

Although the first inaugural Japan Cup took place in 1981, you’ll have to go back a lot further to learn more about how the “sport of kings” gained a foothold and became something of a national pastime in Japan. It all started way back in the 8th century when races held at the Imperial Court were the most heralded forms of entertainment in the country. Watching these races between the legendary Samurai was the most popular way for common folk and the gentry alike to spend their free time for over 900 years.

However, it wasn’t until 1862 that a group of foreign residents living in Yokohama introduced western-style racing. What began as entertainment for the local expats soon became a passion for the locals as they embraced this newer form of their national sport. Racecourses started to spring up everywhere all over the country, and by 1906, the government decided to regulate the races by legalizing (and taxing) betting.

The government intervention led to a massive boom in horse racing with business owners and entrepreneurs alike keen to take advantage of this increasingly popular way to make money. However, their taste of fortune only lasted two years when the government reversed their decision and cracked down on betting. And horse racing became all about the government approved purses.

Those who had invested heavily in the sport were losing out and thus tried to set about introducing horse racing laws. It took 11 years of concerted efforts, but by 1923, horse racing had its first legislation and there were 11 racing clubs. The industry enjoyed a time of growth and profit but understandably lulled during the 1940s.

In 1954, a new legislation was passed to establish the Japan Racing Association, which took over all horse racing administration from the government. Since then, we have also seen the introduction of the National Association of Racing, and between the two bodies, they manage some 21,000 horse races each year. Yes, that’s right, 21,000, and the Japan Cup is just one of them.

A look at BetStars sees that last year’s winner Kitasan Black is once again the favorite at odds of 11/8. He’s a popular horse, and there’s no doubt that the public will place massive bets on him to romp home. Interestingly, though, it’s not just the local races that the Japanese racing community bets on. As one of only four sports that you can legally bet on in Japan, horse racing is a huge draw for punters. In fact, Japanese punters placed more bets on last year’s Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe than local French racegoers did. If that doesn’t show a love of the sport, then we’re not sure what does.  

Japanese horses and jockeys now race all over the world and welcome horses to their homeland to compete in the most prestigious races. Although this is a relatively new development, for many years, there were limits on foreign horses joining the most important local races. There are no such limits on Japanese horses or jockeys abroad though, and with their industry booming and producing some of the finest racehorses in the world, perhaps it’s just a matter of time before we see the first Japanese winner at the Aintree. Now that would be some bet to make.