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Michael Cox spent Arima Kinen weekend finding out what makes Japanese fans tick as they endured a freezing night for a front row chance to see their heroes.
Approach the main gates for feature horse racing fixtures in many parts of the western world, especially ahead of a day featuring jumps events, and you are met by a murderer’s row of protesters, or rather, a row of protesters calling you a murderer.
It was a refreshing change then, on a brisk Arima Kinen-eve at Nakayama, to be met with a row of fans camping out 48-hours before gates opened for the next day’s big race. More on the campers later – they have a long night ahead in near-freezing temperatures on the asphalt – but those heading into the racecourse are there to say goodbye to legendary jumper Oju Chosan.
Here’s another sight rarely seen in other parts of the world, but commonplace here: just through the turnstiles, a 22-year-old Oju Chosan fan named Koi is getting her mother Ai to take her photo in front of images of past Arima Kinen winners.
She carries the obligatory ‘plushie’ in the likeness of the champion 11-year-old jumps champion and a beach towel-sized banner featuring her blue-hooded hero. Hanging from a lanyard on her neck is a plastic envelope, containing betting tickets, pen and a small stack of crisp 1000 Yen (US$7.50) notes.
Oju Chosan was winning jumps races here at Nakayama long before Koi or many of his young fans were legally allowed to bet, but he has kept jumping and winning long enough that a generation of race fans have fallen in love with him.
Six Nakayama Grand Jump wins ensure Oju Chosan will never be forgotten and today he is aiming for a fourth Nakayama Daishogai, to go with wins in 2016, 2017 and 2021. He is coming off a disappointing ninth in the G2 Tokyo High Jump but will start favourite on sentiment alone, and regardless of the result will be honoured with a post-race retirement ceremony.
Oju Chosan starts 2.3 favourite – punters are placing 1000 yen win bets just for the souvenir, but also in the hope he can muster one final Christmas miracle. But by the middle stages of the race it is clear that this iron-legged warrior is running on heart and memory: the speed that propelled him to a race record in 2017 is gone.
Each time the field clears a jump successfully there is a round of applause from the crowd of 27,663. Oju Chosan finishes a brave sixth, and a new Nakayama king is crowned – six-year-old Nishino Daisy runs away with his first ‘J-G1’ at just his fourth jumps start.
After the last race of the day, the sun sets fast and the temperature is dropping faster. The official crowd is 27,000 and it seems like every one of them has stayed behind, crammed in front of the grandstand to say goodbye.
A lot is made about how loud a Japanese racing crowd can be but it is just as amazing how quiet they are when it is time to observe and honour the horse. On big Group 1 days, there can be 5000-plus people packed around a parade ring and the loudest noises are the cameras clicking and traffic from a faraway suburban street.
The crowd watch Oju Chosan’s every move. Connections have brought him out in his hood and side winkers and every now and then the warrior’s well-worn muscle memory kicks in. Each time he startles there is a collective, but quiet, “ooh” from the crowd.
One fan stands out at the presentation: Naho, 23, has fashioned a blue headband into side-winkers reminiscent of her hero’s and carries a hand-stitched, homemade banner in tribute to him.
“When I had a hard time in my life, I watched him jump and I got power,” she says. “I fell in love with him.”
Naho is clearly not alone on that score – this horse is adored – but will she remain a racing fan now that her favourite horse has retired? “Of course, I also love Melody Lane,” referring to the pint-sized mare that has contested Group 1s.
As the jumps fans file out, the Arima Kinen campers are just settling in. By 10pm there are 25 here but another 70 spaces staked out, an informal reservation ‘honour’ system that involves taping some newspaper or tarpaulin to the ground. Fans can go to a nearby Sento, or public bathhouse, for a freshen up without losing their place.
Tickets are limited under a ballot system due to Covid restrictions, so the fans sleeping here already have tickets – so why are they risking hypothermia?
“It is even more important to try and get the best spot now,” says Zaki, a 20-something-year-old, first-time camper wearing a fleece-lined jacket and sitting on a small fold out camping chair. “I want to see Titleholder make up for his Arc loss. And I want to be right on the gate the moment I can get in.”
To mention that it is Christmas Eve is beside the point, really. In largely non-religious Japan, Christmas Day is not a public holiday and ordering takeout from Kentucky Fried Chicken or Pizza Hut is more of a tradition than mistletoe, presents under trees or pudding. When the final Sunday of the year is the 25th, then it is Arima Kinen day.
Next to Zaki in the line are Yoshikawa, 30, and Ardachi, 20, who informs us that yes, “it’s cold”, as if the steam plumes that billow from his mouth with each breath isn’t evidence enough.
These two aren’t even here for the horses. In a stroke of marketing genius by the JRA, the voiceover artists from the wildly popular anime series and mobile phone game Uma Musume Pretty Derby are here to present trophies.
Yoshikawa admits he is a “Uma Musume fan first, keiba second” but the nods to real world history and character development in the show have drawn him in to the sport.
“I remember my grandfather used to love racing, maybe I will end up like him,” he says.
Twentieth in line is Kohei. It’s nearing midnight now and five degrees. He is wrapped in a sleeping bag bought especially for this and sits up on his rubber mat to speak. The fan next to him is sleeping on a piece of cardboard in the fetal position, and to the other side a better prepared camper sleeps under a hard foil, body-length makeshift canopy – the type of thing you would use if lost in the snow and hoping for a rescue helicopter to find you.
Kohei is a regular. He also made the pilgrimage to Longchamp in October, the prolific amateur photographer hauling his 400mm lens and camera with him. He also wants Titleholder to make amends for that high profile flop, even if he is forgiving of the effort. “The conditions are completely different in France,” he says, as he flicks through thousands of horse racing photos on his phone.
He settles on a frame of incredible detail and pinches to zoom in. It is Titleholder’s front foot enveloped by the soft Longchamp ground. “See,” Kohei says. “In Japan the turf is almost man made, or in Dubai or Hong Kong, but in Europe they sink into it, so I didn’t feel disappointed in his performance there.”
The next challenge for those who care enough to camp out is to run to their favourite spots once the gates actually open at 7.30am. “I just want to be right on that fence, and I want Titleholder to win,” Kohei says.
As two more young fans arrive to claim their spots in line, rolling out suitcases which seem full of mostly crisps and candy, Kohei has a question for me before I leave, “Do fans line up like this in Australia?”
My mind turns to the handful of protesters at racetracks in Australia, but I don’t mention it and reply “no, it isn’t like this.”
Come 7am, the campers have been joined by thousands more for the gates to be open. They charge to preferred spots: the parade ring, front row at winning post and – for the Uma Musume fans – near the presentation area to see their idols.
The goosebump-inducing ‘hype reel’ played on the infield big screen before the Arima Kinen features everyday people – a salaryman on his way to work, a mother with her kids at the playground – and cuts to a close up of tears welling in their eyes as they remember Arima Kinens of the past. It is why the fans line up in the cold, to have a memory of their own.
Sometimes there is the idea that sentiment and sports fandom can’t coexist with the sport’s need for wagering, but the turnover figures for the Arima Kinen are proof that sentiment sits at the heart of it. In the packed betting auditoriums before the race, fans are filling out betting tickets against walls because the desks are all packed. ¥ 52,155,046,600 (US$390m) is bet on the Arima Kinen alone out of ¥65,536,144,300 (US$490m) on the day.
Another number sums up the fans dedication to the race: 4,137,049. That is how many votes were placed to help decide the field.
As restrictions ease, next year there will be even more fans, and another Arima Kinen memory.
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