The land of the rising sun is undoubtedly one of the greats in international horse racing. For example, Japan ranks second in the world in terms of prize money, just behind the US. The betting sales achieved in Japan with horse races are not surpassed by any other country and the Japan Cup is one of the most highly endowed horse races in the world. It would not be wrong to say that Japanese prefer horse racing to playing at a casino.
The first horse races in Japan were organized in Yokohama in 1862 by foreigners based on the western model. It wasn’t long before the Japanese imported their first horses from Australia and became the leading nation in Asia. For a long time they were unable to achieve great international success, after all, Japanese horses recently took second place in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe three times. With the victory at the Dubai World Cup, Victoir Pisa finally achieved the long-awaited great triumph in 2011.
Every year in Japan around 18,000 horse races are held on 26 racetracks with over 130,000 starters. About half of all races are held on turf (grass), the other half on sand. The big races of Japan take place on the racetracks of the ‘big four’ in Tokyo, Nakayama, Kyoto and Hanshin. Some of these racetracks have gigantic grandstands. In Tokyo, for example, the grandstand has 13,500 seats and the entire facility has space for 233,000 spectators. The 16 regional NAR racetracks in Japan are smaller than the ten large JRA tracks and, with one exception, are all sand tracks, but their equipment still exceeds the standards of similar tracks in Europe or America.
The highlight of the year is the Japan Cup on the last Sunday in November, one of the most highly endowed races in the world, to which some of the best horses from all over the world come again and again. But although Americans and Europeans were able to enter the winners’ lists, no foreign horse has made it into the top three in this race since 2005.
In addition to the Champions Cup (formerly Japan Cup Dirt), which is held one week after the Japan Cup (Turf) on the sand track in Hanshin, there are many other highly endowed races, the Arima Kinen over 2500 meters in Nakayama and the extremely popular in Japan Takarazuka Kinen (1,800 meters), which takes place in Hanshin at the end of June, should be mentioned.
No, Christmas is not celebrated in Japan. The Japanese celebrate a completely different festival on Christmas Eve. There is no stopping them when the “Arima Kinen” is held at the Nakayama racecourse. The horse racing spectacle has been run over a distance of 2500 meters since 1956 and is called the “Race of the People” – ten of the 16 thoroughbred horses eligible to start are selected by a referendum. Hardly any other country is as enthusiastic about equestrian sports as Japan. Nowhere else in the world are comparable betting sales achieved, nowhere else are there so many spectators as at the Nakayama and Fuchu racecourses in the greater Tokyo area. The two most important horse races in Japan are held there: the Arima Kinen and the Japan Cup, which takes place four weeks earlier.
The Japan Cup, which has been held on the Sunday of the Dead since 1981, is primarily intended to motivate the best international horse riders and their owners to start. A maximum of ten guest horses compete against eight Japanese thoroughbred horses over the 2400 meter distance; the test is endowed with a total of 648 million yen, the equivalent of 4.9 million euros. And the chances of winning are tempting: Even the tenth place will receive a substantial amount of prize money. In addition, it is run as an invitation race – the guests do not have to pay anything, but can win a lot. In the meantime, however, it has to be formulated differently: the guests could win a lot. Like in the early years of this racing test, when the winners almost always came from Europe, the USA, Australia or New Zealand.
These are sales that are unmatched worldwide. On the other hand, the sums are rather normal by Japanese standards, not to say “modest”. When Lando was the only German horse to win the Japan Cup in 1995, 190,000 spectators were counted on the racetrack and the betting turnover was almost double that of almost 40 billion yen.
There are also obstacle races in Japan, but these are far less popular than flat races. Nevertheless, the Nakayama Grand Jump is one of the most highly endowed obstacle races in the world. This race, which is run every year in mid-April over 4250 meters, does not lead over a circular course as usual, but over a route across the inner part of the Nakayama racecourse, which also includes large parts of the dirt track. Japan’s second Group I obstacle race is the Nakayama Daishogai over 2,100 meters on the same course every year in late December.
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