COMMENTARY : Japan Thoroughbred Industry Is Shortchanged by Inferior Horses


Cold, drizzly December weather doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm of Japan’s racing fans. More than 84,000 of them showed up at Nakayama Racecourse on the day of the Asahi Hai Sanasai Stakes for 2 year olds, and they were standing 20-deep at the rail to cheer a son of Sunday Silence as he won the $1 million event. Betting on the card--most of it from off-track outlets--totaled an astonishing $289 million.

Statistically, Japanese racing leads the world. Annual wagering at Japan’s tracks exceeds the combined total in the United States, Hong Kong, Britain, France and Australia. Japan offers the most purse money too. But while there usually is a close correlation between purses and the quality of racing, the thoroughbreds in Japan never have been in the same class with the major racing nations.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the hapless Japanese entrant was invariably the last-place finisher in the Washington, D.C. International. Then the Japan Racing Association, the sport’s governing body, made an effort to improve its horses by importing several good foreign stallions. As Japan has become a financial powerhouse, breeders have been able to buy more top-class thoroughbred stock--such as Kentucky Derby winner Sunday Silence. The improved quality of their horses was apparent last month when Japanese-bred Marvelous Crown beat America’s turf champion, Paradise Creek, in the Japan Cup, the world’s richest horse race.

Still, the quality of racing in Japan is not nearly what it could be, in view of the industry’s financial strength. And the reason is that the industry systemically excludes foreigners and other outsiders who could contribute to the sport. Its restrictive practices have raised protests from U.S. breeders and their allies in Congress, but horse racing remains a prime example of Japanese protectionism.


There is no racing body in the world with the all-encompassing powers of the Japan Racing Association: It operates the country’s major tracks and its off-track betting outlets; oversees the breeding industry; licenses owners, trainers and jockeys. It decides who gets to play the game.

Because Japanese thoroughbreds are inferior to those in Europe in America, foreign horses presumably could come here and win most of the purse money if they were allowed. Therefore, only the Japan Cup and one other race are open to horses that have raced abroad. If a Japanese owner buys a yearling overseas, that horse is eligible for only about half the races in the country.

“The biggest reason for this is to protect the weak or small breeder--just as we protect the rice product,” said Shuji Inada, an executive of the Japan Association for International Horse Racing. Those breeders, he said, are an effective pressure group and the JRA, as a semi-government organization, listens to their concerns.

But what if a foreign owner wished to play by the local rules, breed horses in Japan and race them? This is common around the world: Japanese owners breed horses in Kentucky; the Maktoum brothers of Dubai have established stud farms in England, greatly strengthening that country’s breeding industry.


But it can’t happen in Japan, where the JRA licenses owners and never has granted a license to a foreigner, even if his presence could benefit the industry.

“Sheikh Maktoum is so rich--he might monopolize the sport,” Inada explained.

The JRA also is very selective about the Japanese it licenses to own racehorses. “An owner must be a man of face and character, and rich enough to race horses,” Inada said. If he is not rich enough, the JRA believes he might be tempted to engage in larceny. One could only imagine how ossified the American racing industry would be if horse ownership were limited to members of the snooty Jockey Club and their peers.

The JRA’s conservatism touches its fans too. Although horseplayers everywhere relish exotic wagers and the large payoffs they produce, Japan’s tracks until recently offered only win and place betting, plus a ridiculous wager called the bracket quinella--a quinella with only eight betting interests. In races with more than eight horses, the excess is coupled, or “bracketed” as a single betting unit. (If one of the two bracketed horses was scratched, a bettor was stuck with the one that was left--even if he never wanted that horse in the first place.) The JRA’s rationale is that it prefers conservative, low-paying wagers so that its fans neither win nor lose too much.


The tracks here finally introduced a standard quinella, and bettors relished it, an indication they want more exotic wagers. Any entrepreneurial track owner would give his customers exactas, trifectas and pick sixes, but not the JRA: The quinella is as exotic as it wants to go.

The tame betting format isn’t the only drawback Japanese horseplayers face. The takeout from all wagers here is an onerous 25 percent--compared with roughly 20% in the United States, 17.5% in Hong Kong.

But playing the horses in Japan has some advantages too. Handicappers here have access to a vast amount of information. Every workout is timed precisely and reported in the press in great detail.

Japanese tracks weigh all their horses before every race, allowing bettors to ponder the significance in fluctuations of an animal’s size. The many racing newspapers routinely interview trainers and grooms before each race, soliciting information about the animal’s physical condition. (“Do trainers really tell the truth?” I asked a journalist. “No, of course not,” he said.)


The racetrack facilities here are excellent--"the best in the world,” Inada said. Nakayama is big and comfortable enough to handle crowds of more than 100,000, and it operates with typical Japanese efficiency. To speed the lines at the windows, the tracks here have automated cashiers; insert your winning ticket in a slot and, a couple of seconds later, a machine dispenses your yen.

But despite the many virtues and the undeniable success of Japanese racing, it is hard for a visitor to escape the conclusion that the sport here is not nearly as good as it could be.