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The JRA’s northernmost track’s spacious surrounds, local delicacies and playgrounds on the infield have kept families coming back for generations.
It costs 100 yen – less than one US dollar – for an adult to get into Sapporo Racecourse. Kids are free.
A quick scan shows the families sharing picnic blankets – newspaper form guides spread out beside them – on the grass in front of the grandstand, others scattered around on fold-out camping chairs. And then on the infield park benches and picnic tables, children running free on the various playgrounds.
Take time to chat to a few of the adult racegoers who are bringing those kids to the track and you realise just how important it really is that children can enjoy a day at the races.
Hideaki started bringing his son Hiroki to Sapporo Racecourse early, before he was ten.
Today, Hiroki is bringing another generation with him: Hideaki’s three grandchildren Haru, Rin and Kou.
“We are just glad to be out in the open spaces,” Hideaki said. “Covid meant we couldn’t come to the races or be together as much as we would like for these last couple of years.”
Hiroki adds: “I usually bet on my phone, or online at home, but the weather is nice and this is a great place for the children to play.”
Over the years Hiroki, through coming to the races, became a race fan, and punter, but once he was just like youngest son Kou, five, and six-year-old daughter Rin, who are more engrossed in the sight of an ant crawling by than the horses galloping past.
Ten-year-old Haru is more engaged with the action on the track: “It isn’t that unusual for us to see horses because there are many in Hokkaido, but I like seeing them run,” she says.
Kou is unsuccessful in his attempt to corral the ant, but Haru has managed to get it to crawl on to her hand and places it gently on the grass nearby. Kou has a question: “What is your favourite type of insect?”
Many racetracks around the world try a jumping castle or pony rides once in a while to entertain the kids, but the JRA goes above and beyond and builds actual space into the course for them to enjoy. Even Tokyo Racecourse, with a capacity of beyond 100,000 as opposed to Sapporo’s 30,000, has two full-sized pirate ship playgrounds and infield featuring food trucks, picnic tables and a permanent jumping castle in the likeness of Turfy, the JRA’s omnipresent mascot.
Picnic time on the lush lawn in front of Sapporo Racecourse grandstand.
— Asian Racing Report (@AsianRacingRep) August 28, 2022
The infield at Sapporo, dubbed Turf Park, features permanent fixtures; a large section for pony rides, a permanent jumping castle and various playground sections that make full use of the large space.
There is also a raised platform on the infield, around halfway up the straight, that provides a close up view of the track, particularly the inner dirt circuit just metres away. As the horses fly past a toddler on his father’s shoulders waves his hands in excitement: they are much larger and moving quite a bit faster than the local ants.
Next to the viewing platform, and with clear sight lines to the finish line, is the ‘Queen’s Terrace’, a covered cafe section that is part of the JRA’s ‘Umajo’ promotion aimed at providing a comfortable space for women racegoers.
The JRA’s efforts to lift the percentage of females at racetracks have been successful, but nowhere more than Sapporo, which boasts the highest percentage of women racing fans in the country. According to JRA statistics, of the 13,009 fans at Sapporo on Sunday, 24.9% were female.
One of the women on course is Yuka, with her husband Naoki and their one-year-old daughter Sana.
When Naoki was in elementary school his older friends took him night racing at Monbetsu.
It had all of the rugged appeal of NAR’s predominantly dirt track racing, he can recall the lights, movement of the horses and buzz of the crowd, but it is the food that he remembers most.
Now 39, he is enjoying the second last weekend of Sapporo’s seven-weekend summer season, and still loving the food at the course.
Sapporo is rural enough that you can see, just out past the back straight, the distinctive black-and-white Holstein Fresian cattle on bright green pastures, next to the corn fields of the Hokkaido Univeristy’s School of Agriculture.
Everybody you meet will tell you Hokkaido is famous for a certain food, it is just that they all tell you about different food that the island is famous for: lamb, seafood, beef, dairy, melons, berries … Beer is another outstanding feature at the on-course restaurants and kiosks, always bolstered by a variety of food trucks.
The best tip of the day is the Zangi (ザンギ) – Hokkaido-Style Fried Chicken – and a melon parfait a little later. While many racecourses elsewhere in the world seem to see a willing fanbase and large crowd as an opportunity for extortion when it comes to food and beverage prices, the JRA keeps things in check.
Then, of course, there is the racing. The track at Sapporo is unremarkable. Just a 2000-metre round, right-handed flat course reminiscent of Rosehill in Sydney. The parade ring is at the back of the 12,000 seat grandstand and features a walkthrough level of the third floor for viewing the spacious parade ring at rear.
At every JRA track there is a shrine for fallen racehorses which is visited by fans before, during and after the races, many of them with offerings.
This week there is an extra memorial set up nearby: an area has been set aside for fans to come and pay respect to Japan’s great, trailblazing miler Taiki Shuttle.
They have left carrots and flowers in front of large-framed photos of the chestnut, and signed memorial books.
Saika and her 17-year-old son Yuta have just signed and spent a quiet moment reading through Taiki Shuttle’s record – which included a ground breaking performance in the 1998 G1 Prix Jacques le Marois in France.
“We thought it was important to pay our respects,” she says.
Saika and her husband have been bringing Yuta to the racecourse for many years and even though he isn’t old enough to bet yet, he is now an ardent fan, as are many of his friends at school.
Earlier I asked Naoki and Yuka whether or not they wanted their daughter to take an interest in racing; ‘of course’.
If Sana is to become a race fan, it will be a natural progress that is sparked by her wonder and curiosity, and memorable first visits to the track. Judging by this particular day among the families at Sapporo, the sport here is in safe hands.
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