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Business is booming in the Japan Racing Association (JRA) but the local government-run National Association of Racing (NAR) is also riding a new wave of popularity, led by Tokyo City Keiba. Michael Cox spent a night at Oi Racecourse to see what it is about.
From the moment you catch a glimpse of the carnival-like lights above the front gates at Oi Racecourse, you know you are about to experience Japanese horse racing done differently.
And maybe, if you didn’t know it was a racecourse you were approaching, you might see Tokyo City Keiba’s neon signage and think you were turning up to a theme park or casino resort.
In truth ‘TCK’ has touches of both – part gaming lounge, part night-time family festival – and the track near the Shinagawa Shinkansen station has become a hot spot for staff parties and date nights. Yet true to Japanese horse racing form – despite the light displays, food trucks, cheap beer and kitschy touches everywhere – the whole show revolves around big betting on some serious horse racing.
It is a sultry Wednesday evening, around two hours before the feature race: the Teio Sho. The Teio Sho is a JRA crossover race, in which the JRA’s ‘top tier horses and superstar riders battle with the NAR’s dirt track heroes and their sandblasted-tough jockeys.
They're off at Oi Racecourse, Tokyo City Keiba. (Source: Tokyo City Keiba)
Long before the horses stride into the pre-race parade for the Teio Sho there are signs that the NAR’s acclaimed ‘big brother’, the JRA, is in town for the night. The colourful banners, and the super fans that arrived hours earlier to unfurl them, line the outside fence. The blue with red sash of the three-time G1-placed Clincher, banners featuring the lady beetle logo of Italian jockey Mirco Demuro and another in bright pink for Demuro’s Teio Sho mount Omega Perfume, the big striding grey that has carved out legendary status at this course.
The crowd is 20 deep around the parade ring, including the dozens of amateur photographers that attend every JRA meeting, their long lenses peering out into the centre and bursting into a flurry of clicks every time Omega Perfume clocks a lap. But beyond the parade ring and the JRA fanaticism, there is a wide range of demographics – from hard-bitten old timers to fresh-faced newcomers. They show that the NAR has its own identity, and is riding its own wave of popularity alongside big brother.
“My first meeting was the Oaks earlier this year,” says a 22-year-old fan who has dragged her boyfriend along for a look. “It is my second time here. It’s a good mood, nice meetings … there are some unique things to do here. And it’s much closer to the action here than at Tokyo Racecourse.”
The new fan is right, the tracks are smaller (at 1600m, and 25m wide, Oi is by far the largest of the 14 NAR courses) but size of the tracks aren’t the only things that are different here.
Date night at Tokyo City Keiba (Photo: Asian Racing Report)
The jockeys carry their own colours here, not the owners’, and then there is the basic concept behind TCK’s ‘twinkle’ promotion, night racing under the stars, something the JRA has resisted.
Perhaps it is innovation born of necessity, a function of being little brother, but Tokyo City Keiba has been aggressive at exporting its product internationally. JRA horses travel to racetracks overseas, but TCK and other NAR courses have put their racing into Australian living rooms and retail betting spaces.
As a result, TCK has attracted something of a cult following overseas, and in the last five years has been particularly proactive in developing its English information and broadcast. NAR races are also being bet on in America, Canada, Singapore and New Zealand.
Maybe comparisons with the Japanese government-run JRA are unfair – NAR is overseen by local governments – but by world standards the NAR is big business.
The NAR’s annual turnover of ¥964 billion (AU$10.4 billion) accounts for around 30 percent of the JRA handle and 13 percent of Japan’s total parimutuel hold each year, but is monstrous when compared to some major racing jurisdictions: if the NAR were a country’s horse racing turnover, it would sit above Singapore and Canada in terms of turnover, and just behind France.
The grandstand at Tokyo City Keiba (Photo: Tokyo City Keiba Twitter)
Nestled between the parade ring and Starlight food and beer hall – and providing another colourful point of difference to the JRA – are the Batachi Yososhi (場立ち予想士) the on-course tipsters slinging trifecta selections from a stand for 100 yen (around AU$1) apiece.
It is the first night back from Covid restrictions for the Batachi. Dozens of punters stand in front of each stand as these master storytellers go to work. Form, speed maps, late mail and parade ring reports; the factors all form part of an entertaining pre-race monologue.
The frequent chuckles from the crowd make it feel like a cynical stand-up comic is trying to convince them to part with a 100 yen coin for a hand-stamped slip of paper with picks on it.
“We’ve been gone for three years so it’s good to be back but I am a little sad, there are five of us who had to go and get new jobs during Covid,” says a tipster dubbed ‘The Top’ who has been selling his selections here for 35 years.
Further down and the quinella specialist Takura has a bundle of tips in his hands – and a captivated clutch of followers eating out of his palm – as he delivers dry one-liners and casually stamps a slip between each.
'The Top' has been operating at Oi for 35 years. (Photo: Asian Racing Report)
The quinella king Takura (Photo: Asian Racing Report)
'The Top' is back at Oi after a Covid imposed break. (Photo: Asian Racing Report)
“The tipsters are so much fun,” says English language commentator Bob Werley. “I think people go to just watch them sometimes, they tell a story.”
To the NAR’s devoted Australian followers, Werley is ‘the Wizard of Oi’; the voice of Tokyo City Keiba. Little more than five years ago the American actor answered an advertisement, applied for the role of race caller and has been broadcasting here ever since.
Werley deals with horse names that range from funny – Pupu and Shita Bed, unrelated, are both favourites of TCK’s cult followers Down Under – to the absurd (Sexy Thank You) and the downright difficult; the nine-syllable Sumomomomomomomomo, which created one of a few viral moments on social media for Werley.“The one time she came in third, and I made a comment saying, ‘… and here comes Sumomomomomomomomo coming home strong, just to make my day a little bit harder.”
“When she won I was probably more excited than I would be for a G1,” Werley says.
You won't believe this horse's name… 🤣😮
Meet Japan's SUMOMOMOMOMOMOMOMO #スモモモモモモモモ#騎手 #競馬 🎥 @SkyRacingWorld pic.twitter.com/7vfGpu17xf
— World Horse Racing (@WHR) August 13, 2021
Racing here is clearly on the rise but Werley believes it is the NAR’s accessibility that makes it so refreshing.
“The NAR is like the more-relatable brother compared to the JRA … the JRA might seem a bit more out of reach for people, but the NAR has personality: it has wacky names, it has cute mascots and when you come to TCK there are things for kids and adults to do – it is like a theme park,” Werley says.
“There have been idol (pop star) shows at the track – it’s a cool feeling here – and it isn’t just focussed on the track. Horse racing is a big part of it, but a trip to TCK is an experience. It’s like a tourist attraction, somewhere where you can just come from another country and catch the racing. It has so much character.”
Horse racing is a big part of it, but a trip to TCK is an experience. It’s like a tourist attraction, somewhere where you can just come from another country and catch the racing.”
As the horses leave the yard for the next chapter of the arduously long pre-race parade (some things are just the same as the JRA), it is time to jostle for a spot in front of the grandstand.
It’s also time for the fanfare, and of course TCK does this differently, too. The group is called ‘The Twinkle Fanfare’, and five young ladies wearing knee-high white leather boots and skirts march in time to the presentation area near the winning post, offering coy waves to their devoted fans. It doesn’t take much time in Japan for the sight of a brass quintet in full marching girl regalia – feathered hats and all – for the pre-race ceremony of a dirt race to seem the most normal thing in the world.
The Twinkle Fanfare. (Photo: Tokyo City Keiba)
The members of The Twinkle Fanfare. (Photo: Tokyo City Keiba)
The extended Fanfare family. (Photo: Tokyo City Keiba)
After the fanfare, through the grandstand speakers comes a chimed sound of another familiar tune: Ok, things are getting a bit weird now.
“Is that the nursery rhyme Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star?” I ask the TCK official standing nearby.
“Yes, it means there is one minute before betting closes.”
And bet the crowd does. Turnover on the night from the near 10,000-person strong crowd is 5 billion yen (AUD$54.3m), with more than two thirds of that on the Teio Sho alone.
The feature race result leaves the crowd a touch deflated. The highly fancied Chuwa Wizard can’t close a gap to the outsider Meisho Hario and the old stager Omega Perfume grinds through his gears for a slow-closing third ahead of the race favourite T O Keynes.
For the punters who, like in the JRA, focus mostly on trios and trifectas, the favourite finishing fourth makes it a wipe out.
As the crowd begin to file past the neon lights, many stop for selfies in front of the glowing signage, while almost all of the tipsters have abandoned their stands after the blowout result in the second last. Only the quinella king Takura remains for the final event.
Meisho Hario holds out Chuwa Wizard (Photo: Tokyo City Keiba - Twitter)
What does the NAR share with the JRA? Climbing turnover, devoted fans and – despite the entertainment all around – a focus on the horses and betting. NAR appreciates its history too: sitting in the impeccably clean area near the eateries is a magnificently rendered statue of the 1970s NAR legend Haiseiko, for whom a song was written about in 1975.
And if Omega Perfume can somehow make it five Tokyo Daishotens in a row on December 29, it would give TCK another defining moment that would bring international recognition for what the club is really all about, racing.
For one, Werley can’t wait: “We only have one G1 race per year at TCK and that is the Tokyo Daishoten … even when you walk into the racetrack early in the day, it is buzzing already,” he says. “Even when Omega Perfume won it twice, it was cool, and when he won the third time then you could just see people thinking ‘what is going on?!’, nobody thought it was possible … but when he won for that fourth time in a row everybody went crazy.”
“The horse was meant to be retired but since they decided ‘we’re going to go for five in a row’, that is not only getting people in Japan excited, but people from around the world who follow TCK, they are saying ‘I gotta watch the Tokyo Daishoten this year to see if Omega Perfume can get five in a row’.”
Dirt Triple Crown shows NAR is riding the wave too
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