David Morgan

Chief Journalist


Dirt Triple Crown shows NAR is riding the wave too

The JRA is in a strong position post-Covid but the NAR is also buoyant as Japan’s dirt track stars step out for a big night at Oí.

Wednesday night’s NAR-JRA combo fixture at Oí will feature the Teio Sho, the spring season’s climactic dirt-track major, and the Tokyo City Keiba crowd is in for a treat with the big-hitters T O Keynes, Omega Perfume and Chuwa Wizard slated to clash.

The race comes hot on the heels of the JRA’s final turf major of its spring programme, last Sunday’s Takarazuka Kinen. That all-star race emphasised the booming health of the JRA as it exits the Covid era, and the NAR, the local government circuit, is riding the same prosperous wave as its centrally-governed big brother.    

In fact, the NAR has revealed a lucrative new initiative set to launch in 2024, the Dirt Triple Crown for three-year-olds. Oí will host the first two legs in the spring, the Haneda Hai (1800 metres) and the Tokyo Derby (2000 metres), while the Japan Dirt Derby – currently held at Oí in mid-July – will switch to October and be renamed.


Japanese racing was forced to pivot after COVID meant it could no longer rely on its typically huge crowds. (Japan Cup crowd photo by Koichi Kamoshida / Getty Images)

All three races will receive significant prize money boosts and the Tokyo Derby will become the NAR’s first ¥100,000,000 (AU$1,066,994) win purse; the Japan Dirt Derby, which, like the Teio Sho, is open to JRA horses, will increase in worth from ¥102,000,000 (AU$1,088,334) to ¥119,000,000 (AU$1,269,723).

The JRA administers 10 racetracks and had 288 race fixtures in 2021; the NAR, traditionally fulfilling the role of lower grade betting fare, has 15 courses, all being dirt surfaces, and had 1,106 thoroughbred fixtures last year (the NAR also stages Ban-ei draught horse races and Anglo-Arab races).

While other sports shut down through much of the pandemic, racing on the JRA and NAR circuits continued behind closed doors and that has been to its benefit.

The JRA’s successful marketing campaigns that emphasise the sport’s heroes have, since reopening, helped draw more young people to the racecourse, including women. Fans, unable to attend on-course and off-course betting facilities through the worst of the pandemic, turned on their TVs to watch and more of them switched to telephone and online betting.

In a recent and rare interview with Japanese media, the JRA chairman Masayuki Goto spoke of the sport’s current vitality.

“Japanese racing successfully grasped the situation and this enabled horseracing to establish an important position in society during the pandemic and this has contributed to the continuation of the cycle. I believe the popularity of Japanese racing will definitely take it to the next level,” he said.

In that vein, Titleholder’s crowd-pleasing win in the Takarazuka Kinen was a feelgood performance in keeping with the current buoyancy of Japanese racing as a whole. More than 2,000,000 fans voted for which horses they wanted in the race and the event drew 43,297 attendees to Nakayama, producing betting turnover on the day of ¥32,365,717,800 (approx. AU$345,340,546). 

The JRA’s total annual turnover has been climbing year-on-year since 2011. It has risen from ¥2,299,063,821,000 (AU$24.5 billion) that year to ¥3,100,065,804,000 (AU$33 1 billion) in 2021. Its total yearly prize money has increased in tandem: having dipped to ¥98,556,075,940 (AU$1.05 billion) in 2012, it was back to turn-of-the-century levels in 2021 at ¥119,783,222,350 (AU$1.28 billion).

The booming trend is mirrored in the NAR statistics which had total flat racing turnover in 2011 of ¥314,884,315,200 (AU$3.3 billion), rising year-on-year to ¥913,217,242,120 (AU$9.7 billion) in 2021.

Total prize money for NAR thoroughbred races increased as a result, being ¥14,435,962,000 (AU$154 million) in 2014 and rising to ¥25,104,703,000 (AU$268 million) in 2021. Average prize money per NAR race is relatively healthy at ¥1,787,504 (AU$19,072).

Chuwa Wizard takes out the 2020 Champions Cup. (Photo by JRA)

The Teio Sho fixture should conform to Japanese racing’s present upbeat mood, with this year’s contest being a quality affair. T O Keynes won last year’s race en route to victory in the end-of-year Group One Champions Cup and was on the mark last month in the Group Three Heian Stakes; Omega Perfume is a cult hero with four wins on the bounce in the Group One Tokyo Daishoten at Oi and also won the Teio Sho in 2019; Chuwa Wizard, the 2020 Champions Cup hero, has been placed in the latest two editions of the Dubai World Cup.

Japanese horses have sealed a number of significant victories around the world in the past 12 months, from Longchamp to Meydan, via Del Mar, Sha Tin and Riyadh, and each of those successes is rooted in the ongoing health of the sport domestically.

The NAR having the wherewithal and the confidence to improve the quality of its offering via an initiative like the Dirt Triple Crown is just as much a measure of Japanese racing’s rude health as is Titleholder’s likely attempt at achieving immortality in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris in October. 



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