Going to a Horse Race in Japan (Keiba)
Japan is a country where you can always discover new things to do. Recently, I discovered horse racing. Horse racing (競馬 –keiba) is big in Japan, really big. There are about 20,000 active race horses, with dozens of races held every Saturday and Sunday even on major holidays. The big-ticket races, known as “G1” races, dole out prize money comparable to the Kentucky derby (about $1.3 million USD) for the winner, but instead of one or two such races in a year there are almost two dozen. Many jockeys such as Yutaka Take are hugely famous, almost-but-maybe-not-quite household names.
And gambling? Who said gambling is illegal in Japan? Betting on horse races is not only legal, it is fully machine-automated. The Japan Racing Association (JRA) which runs it all is overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. You can bet either at the tracks, or remotely from a local Wins facility (http://jra.jp/facilities/wins.html) or even on a mobile app. The legal age to buy a ticket is 20, but with betting done on anonymous, automated machines I suspect the enforcement rate is less than perfect.
Horse racing has the heart of its popularity with men over age forty. That much is clear from the very, very racy adult-video and adult-services ads found near the back of the horse racing “sports” newspapers sold at every single convenience store in the country. But that doesn’t stop groups of young girls, old ladies or even whole families from enjoying a day at the racetracks. Like going to a concert or baseball game, horse racing is a legitimate weekend excursion and if you don’t get carried away with betting, it’s also easily one of the most affordable all-day activities in the country (admission to a racetrack is a nominal 100 or 200 yen, depending on the location).
So, how accessible is keiba for foreigners? Obviously if you just want to enjoy the atmosphere and the races you don’t need to know a thing, but most people will want to bet at least a couple hundred yen.
Don’t expect much in the way of English signage or instructions, but to fill out the betting card, you’ll only need to recognize the sections of the betting card and a few key kanji terms, which I’ll explain here. There are a few different kinds of betting cards; I’ll introduce the easy one.
You must specify which racetrack’s race you want to bet on. This is necessary because on a given weekend, either two or three of these locations will be having races. You’re not limited to betting on the races at your current course and there are plentiful monitors with constant live coverage of any other locations running races. The locations as listed are:
- 中山 – Nakayama (Funabashi, Chiba prefecture)
- 東京 – Tokyo
- 京都 – Kyoto
- 阪神 – Hanshin (near Kobe)
- 福島 – Fukushima
- 新潟 – Niigata
- 中京 – Chukyo (near Nagoya)
- 小倉 – Kokura (northern Kyuushu)
- 札幌 – Sapporo
- 函館 – Hakodate
There are also many “local” (地方 – chihou) race courses scattered around Japan, but they’re quite a bit smaller-scale than the major courses listed above. Horses that do well in the local races have a chance to move up to the major locations, so it’s kind of like the minor league of horse racing. In some cases you can bet remotely from the local courses but not vice versa.
A day of racing consists of 12 races, starting at about 9am and ending at about 4pm. Races 1~6 are typically for younger horses and not a particularly big deal. The big races start after lunch. Race 11 is usually reserved for the day’s finest horses and biggest prize.
Here you specify the type of bet that you are making, which will apply to all bets made on the same side of the card (on the back of the card you can specify the same type again or a different one). If you’re new to betting the types can be quite confusing, but you’re certainly not required to know all of them. Just pick a one or two types that you like.
- 単勝 – tanshou – Win (choose the horse to finish in 1st place)
- 複勝 – fukushou – Place/Show (choose a horse to finish 2nd or 3rd )
- 単+複 – tanpuku – Win, Place or Show (choose a horse to finish 1st, 2nd or 3rd )
- This is a convenience option to buy both 単勝 and 複勝 at the same time. It is still considered two bets so if your bet amount is 100 yen, it’ll cost 200.
- 枠連 – wakuren – A “frame” bet. Chose the frames of the 1st and 2nd place horses in any order.
- Horses in a race are divided into “frames”, typically of two horses, and they share a color. So for example frame 1 would usually mean horse 1 and 2, frame 2 would be horse 3 and 4 and so on. This option is not particularly popular.
- 馬連 – baren – Choose the two horses to finish in 1st and 2nd place. (Quinella)
- 馬単 – batan – Choose the two horses to finish in 1st and 2nd place, in order. (Exacta)
- ワイド – “Wide” – Choose two horses to finish in the top three.
- ３連複 – sanrenpuku – Choose the top three horses in any order. (Trio)
- ３連単 – sanrentan – Choose the top three horses in order. (Trifecta)
Of course, the specificity of the bet and the odds of the particular horse determine the payout. 100 yen on a 複勝 of a popular (low odds) horse is very likely to win, but you’ll barely get your money back. On the other hand, a ３連単 of high odds horses could turn your 100 yen into 100,000 or more (lottery-like returns mean lottery-like chances).
This is where you choose horses to bet on. Depending on your bet type, you will mark up to 3 horses per row. Because this is the simple card, you can only make one bet in each of the four rows on this side, and they must all be the same bet type.
Be very careful not to make a mistake here. Choose a number and then a factor.
万円 – 10,000 yen
千円 – 1,000 yen
百円 – 100 yen
So to bet 300 yen you would fill in the 3 and the 百円 box.
If you made a mistake or changed your mind and want to cancel a specific bet but still use the card, check this box.
Here’s an example of a completed betting card:
This card would bet a total of 300 yen, 200 on horse #5 to win, and 100 on horse #15. Notice how the 200 yen bet on horse #15 is canceled.
Once you’ve finished your betting card, using the machine is a breeze. It might look a little confusing but here’s the breakdown (machines can vary slightly from location to location):
Insert money → Insert betting card → Machine does the rest
The only caveat is that if you don’t give it exactly the right amount of money, you need to press that green 精算 button to let the machine know you’re done and want your change.
If you made a mistake on your betting card, the machine will beep and spit it back out at you, which can be confusing. However, worry not because helpful attendants are quick to come to your rescue even if you don’t press the call button.
If everything worked correctly, your betting card will disappear forever but that’s okay because you can’t claim with it anyway. Just don’t forget to take your ticket! Which will look something like this ↓
If you win, you can insert your ticket into the appropriately-sized slot of any machine marked for 払い戻し (haraimodoshi – “payout”) to get your winnings.
Other considerations when visiting the racetracks
There will be a food court, maybe some in-facility restaurants and probably outdoor food trucks/stalls or bento vendors, but prices are above average (not gouging, though) and the food is not particularly mouth-watering, so consider bringing food or drink from the outside (race courses allow you to bring in whatever you want, even beer).
Similar to doing hanami in the park, it’s common to bring a small tarp to sit on, especially on crowded days (= days with G1 races). Once you’re set up, you may come and go from your tarp freely and can reasonably expect other spectators to respect the area as taken–hooray for Japanese courtesy. You’ll notice that almost all actual seats are either in use or have some newspaper or something on them; a seat with anything on it (usually an unattended keiba newspaper) is considered taken.
Speaking of newspapers, if you can read some Japanese and are not adverse to a few nipples, consider picking up one of the horse racing newspapers from a convenience store before you go. The cheaper papers run about 140 yen and contain lots of information on the horses and predictions from “experts”. You’ll get the most out of this if you have someone with you to explain what all the data means, though.
Although about as reliable as spinning a cucumber to decide which horse will win, newcomers to horse racing generally take notice of the expert’s marks in the newspaper, which include:
◎ : favored to win
○ : also has a good chance to win
Any other symbol (△▲×☆, etc) basically means the same thing: the horse could conceivably win, but is seen as less likely than the horses marked with ◎ or ○. There is no bad mark, so any mark is better than none at all.
JRA homepage: http://japanracing.jp/en/go-racing/jra-racecourses/index.html
JRA official english betting guide: http://japanracing.jp/en/go-racing/jra-howtobet/pdf/how_to_bet_en.pdf
And that’s all you need to know to become a Japanese horse racing addict!
I’m joking, of course. Just like going to a casino you should play to have fun, not to make money and keep yourself under control.