Japan Horse Racing: A Relaxing Day at the Niigata Horse Races
What is your impression of horse racing in Japan? My stereotype of the horse racing crowd was of older men wreathed in clouds of cigarette smoke while muttering curses at horses.
A trip to the races this sunny Sunday completely erased these negative images, and I learned that horse racing in Niigata is a pleasant experience for everyone from toddlers to senior citizens. In fact, for many households, it is an economical family outing. And the Niigata Racecourse is a smoke-free environment, except for a few designated areas.
I paid just 100 yen to enter the grounds of the Niigata Racecourse, a stylish five-story building with a massive marquee that extends over a wide courtyard filled with attractions, and the surroundings are more like a park than a gambling establishment.
Besides watching horse race and betting on the horses, visitors can amuse themselves with the following recreations: picnicking, people watching, taking photographs, eating Japanese and foreign foods, playing in an amusement park, drinking with friends, relaxing in air-conditioned comfort inside or laying outside on green grass. Special shows by famous musicians or firework displays are common, too.
The first attraction under the marquee that caught my eye, though, was a display by a local sake company, Echigoshuzojo. President Kato welcomed me with a wide, warm smile. Then, he generously poured a free sample of his tokubetsujunmaishu, high grade pure sake made from finely ground rice kernels.
It was slightly sweet with a hint of fruit and rice flavors, truly one of the best sakes in the region, a tasty way to start my relaxing day at the race track. After two delicious samplings, I poured myself into the racecourse building.
The first attraction inside the racecourse building is watching the activity and listening to the hum of people on all five floors discussing the horses, making bets, scanning betting sheets, ordering drinks and foods, and wandering from inside to outside.
It is a very casual but energetic atmosphere. Many people have their eyes glued to the Ibis screen, a 200 inch screen that shows the races just outside and those that are taking place at horse racing courses across Japan.
Bets can be made both for the Niigata races and for races taking place almost simultaneously in Fukuoka, Sapporo, Tokyo and elsewhere. The hum and current of human activity visibly and audibly moves in waves as the Ibis screen and smaller displays throughout the building show horses nose to nose, straining with their massive muscles to pass one another.
Excited and anxious conversation picks up till the final nanosecond before the end of each race. Next, mutters of disappointment or exclamations of joy fill the air.
Moving towards the tracks, I passed through swirling currents of mingling people. The sun shone strongly on the green grass between the tracks and the stadium-like seating on the outside of the racecourse building.
A race had just finished, and the winning horse and jockey were presented to the audience. Visitors were allowed close enough to see the horse's rippling muscles and sunshine glinting off its shiny coat. The jockey, the trainer, and the owner each received a trophy while a multitude of professional and amateur photographers clicked their cameras.
Meanwhile on the other end of the track, preparations were being made before the next race. Races are separated by approximately thirty minute intervals. An outdoor screen, approximately ten meters wide and five high, showed the horses and their handlers walk up an underground ramp to the track.
Then, suddenly, the horses were at the top of the ramp just meters away from the viewers who had come close to the small fence that separated the audience and the racetrack. These horses are beautiful creatures with personality, grace, and perfectly defined muscles.
Some were young and nervous; most seemed experienced and calm, while a few seemed magically aloof from the commotion of thousands of watchers. The horses' legs were thickly muscular at top, but their legs tapered down to slender ankles, and the horses walked on their hooves like young ladies who are unaccustomed to wearing high heels. Yet, when they ran, they were like living locomotives.
Waiting for the next race to commence, I made myself comfortable on the verdant lawn. Meanwhile, all around me families and friends were busy with their picnics and the races. Many had brought their own folding chairs, parasols, food, and drinks.
One group of three purplish-red-sunburned men, who had obviously been enjoying themselves for many hours, had a large pile of empty beer cans and shochu bottles neatly bagged next to them. One was passed out. No one minded. People were relaxing in their own ways without bothering anyone else.
The horses had been brought to the starting gates, and the horses shot out of the gates like missiles on legs. Jockeys balanced with their feet in stirrups almost on top of the horses. The jockeys, looking like surfers, bobbed their bodies slightly up and down with the movement of each horse.
Watching from a distance one could feel the forward momentum of the pack as it hurtled around the track, horses separating slightly ahead or behind as the probable winners and losers became clearer, but the outcome would not be as it first seemed.
With incredible stamina and will power, horses gained and passed others. This living surging mass passed right in front of the audience. Standing as close as possible to the fence, you can hear the thumps of the horse's hooves pounding into the sod; you can feel the movement of the horses.
Race horses weigh well over 500 kilograms each. Being there was similar to riding a bicycle in the middle of a busy road while enormous trucks sped by just inches away. The crowd felt the excitement together. The finish of the race is projected onto the giant screen near the center of the track, and the image of racing horses passing themselves on the screen is surreal.
I was infected with betting fever. I had to make a bet, but I had absolutely no idea how to do it. I walked back into the building where bets are placed. Luckily, uniformed attendants gladly assist the ignorant. I explained that I wanted to bet five hundred yen on one of the horses that had caught my eye. The attendant helped me to fill out a form and make my payment, and I received my betting slip. The next race started. I lost, but it was all an adventure and screaming "go go go" for my horse was so much fun that I had no regrets when it came time to leave.
I walked through "Kid's Plaza," an amusement park that is part of the racecourse. Wet children in clothes, swimming suits, and underwear were playing with new friends in the outdoor water fountains. Other children were staring at pygmy ponies, which graze in a small enclosure. Some lucky children are actually allowed to ride ponies in the pony rink. Located next to the ponies is a new playground with swings, slides, a bouncy house, and other exercise facilities that will work the excess energy out of the kids and put smiles on their tired little faces. Many uniformed workers are always around to make sure that everyone is safe, so the parents can take a break.
Horse-related souvenirs might be just the thing to bring back to friends and family or to be kept as a personal memory of your trip to the racecourse. The souvenir shop has some unusual items that are not available elsewhere, for example, bracelets woven from silken horse hair.
Lovers of sweets were purchasing manju or Western cookies with horse images. I chose postcards of red-haired horses strolling along dry golden rice fields because I thought the image would surprise my friends while showing them an unusual aspect of Japan that I had just discovered and that I planned to enjoy even more in the future.
Japan Horse Racing Information
The Niigata Racecourse can be reached by bus or car from downtown Niigata City. For more information about the venue, click on japanracing.jp/en/go-racing/jra-racecourses/j07.html.
Horse races are held every month at many racecourses in Japan. The Japan Association for International Racing and Stud Book (JAIRS) has details about horse racing throughout Japan at japanracing.jp.
Read more about gambling and betting on horses in Japan.