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INDEPENDENT HORSE RACING NEWS
The JRA’s on-track product - combined with initiatives and pop culture movements - is generating greater diversity in the grandstands.
While growing up, Maki, a 30-year-old salesperson from Tokyo, had heard all she needed to know about horse racing, the racecourse and especially its clientele.
“I thought it was a dirty place, a bit dangerous perhaps,” she says on another brilliant spring day at Tokyo Racecourse. “I did not grow up in a family that had any relationship with horse racing, so I thought gambling was bad too. Most young people I was around thought it was a sport for old men.”
In the last two years Maki’s attitude has obviously changed: she is now a regular racegoer, a keen punter and even the proud part owner of a colt. She has a bunch of friends involved in the sport too. A quick look around Tokyo Racecourse and it is obvious to see she isn’t alone in being a young woman in love with the sport.
And here’s what you won’t see when you look around: marquees or cover bands after the last to ‘bring the youngsters back to the track’, women teetering on heels, champagne glass in hand, and then, in the traditional end-of-day ritual of boozy western racetracks: carrying the high-heels home barefoot. There is no policy of ‘if you bring the girls, the boys will follow’, no fascinators or birdcage or ‘fashions on the field’.
It is T-shirt, shorts and sneakers weather in Tokyo but it is what the punters are carrying that counts most: form guides. Turnover keeps climbing, and as COVID restrictions slowly ease, so is attendance.
As the crowds grow they are increasingly taking on a diverse look. The Japan Racing Association has worked hard to attract more female fans to tracks over the last 10 years. Less than 14 per cent of spectators were women in 2012 and the Umajo Project (the name comes from “uma”, which means horse, and “josei”, women) was formed to correct that gender imbalance. The plan included women-only spaces like restaurants and cafes for females at tracks to feel safe in and to also welcome newcomers to the track.
Since then, the proportion of women at JRA courses has jumped by more than 200,000 spectators per year to 17 per cent of fans on racecourses.
But beyond the social marketing and on-course initiatives, there are also some pop culture movements that are seemingly driving more women to the track.
If you want to make friends fast at Tokyo, walk around with a Sodashi plushie – the ‘idol horse toy’ representing ‘the White Wonder’, the one that has sold out five times over and moved more than 87,000 units – but this is not a story about ‘kawaii (cuteness) culture’.
A coveted Sodashi plushie. (Photo by Asian Racing Report)
Of course, Sodashi is a hit with young women, “Many girls find her beautiful,” Maki says. “Sodashi is special and strong, so many fans love her.” But that’s the thing – everybody loves Sodashi, male and female.
The same goes for the influence of the hit anime series-turned-multimedia franchise Uma Musume Pretty Derby. In fact the series and game that features horse girls that represent great horses of the past might just be as big a hit with men, judging from the interest JRA trainers show in the franchise and heavily promoted mobile device game.
So, what is it bringing women like Maki to the track, and keeping them engaged? The answer might be more obvious than marketing types and western race clubs would care to admit: an incredible on-track product, with a memorable fan-first, on-track experience to match. All of it geared around what is happening on the track. Some western racecourses have public sections where the races cannot even be seen on a monitor let alone in the flesh, or the commentary heard. If raceclubs treat spectators to a music festival – how long before the punters realise they can just go to a music festival?
Maki’s first exposure to racing came through female work colleagues who had become interested in racing, but like many JRA fans, it was a big race experience and a trip to Contrail’s 2021 Japan Cup that got her hooked.
“I stood right there,” she says, pointing to a place in front of the winning post that would have needed to be secured hours before the big race. “I couldn’t get near the parade ring, there were too many fans, so I stood out here. The feeling I had when I heard the horses galloping was amazing. That is what got me.”
Contrail and Yuichi Fukunaga win the 2021 Japan Cup. (Photo by JRA)
To the question “do you gamble?” comes a definite “yes!” as if to say, “And why else would I be here?” Then there is the revelation that within two years of attending the races for the first time, Maki is already a horse owner.
The colt with three white socks, raced by small race club YGG, is nearing its debut. “The dam won at Hakodate so we think she will debut up there in Hokkaido,” she says with the air of a racing lifer. “It is only a small share, three out of 1000,” she says, scrolling through a Twitter feed full of updates from the pre-training farm.
When people get the racing bug, they learn fast. Towards the end of our interview, when trading stories about favourite racehorses, and in response to her glowing admiration of Almond Eye, this Australian reporter extolled the virtues of our own wonder mare, Winx; “She won 33 consecutive races, including 25 Group Ones in less than four years.”
“Wow, 25 G1s in four years, you must have a lot of Group Ones in Australia for her to do that.”
That isn’t to say that Maki or the new age Japanese racefan is down on Australian racing or parochial.
Damian Lane, the Australian, is her favourite jockey. “The Japanese fans trust and respect him. He is strong. When he is on a horse we disregard the horse’s form, we believe he can lift it. In the Yasuda Kinen, Salios was an outsider but he finished third,” she says.
As the Japanese fan base grows more diverse and looks to the world – watching its horses have an impact on track – maybe the impact will be felt in the way the west views racing.
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