‘Suspense’ of the slowest horse race wins new fans in Japan

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Speed ​​isn’t everything at one racetrack in Japan, where the unpredictable stop-and-start drama of the world’s slowest horse race has drawn new fans who love it bet on the favourites.

A fanfare plays, the gates swing open and they’re off – but at a plod rather than a gallop, pulling heavy sleighs in a tradition that goes back over a century.

The Banei Keiba races are held in Obihiro, a city in northern Japan’s Hokkaido, where spectators cheer on the muscular workhorses that move at breakneck speed. human

Eight competitors kicked up a horse dust on a recent afternoon as they powered through the first of two holes on the 200-meter (220-yard) course.

But soon they began to stop, taking the first of several breaks to catch their breath, which flowed in the winter air.

The slow progress “raises a bit of suspense,” 24-year-old Australian tourist Esther McCourt told AFP, marveling at the size of the horses.

“No matter how good people or horses look at the start, the crucial part is the last 50 meters, so it can change at any time,” she said.

Banei Keiba’s popularity had waned until renewed marketing efforts coincided with a surge in interest during the pandemic, when people began watching the races and placing bets online.

These casual gamblers along with dedicated fans have boosted the event’s annual sales to 55.5 billion yen ($375 million) – a fivefold increase from its 2011 low.

– ‘Dynamic’ races –

Banei Keiba developed when Japanese settlers migrated to Hokkaido, a sparsely populated island with long, bitter winters.

They relied on horses called “banba” to clear fields, carry goods and work mines, and would compete against each other in tug-of-war games and other competitions at local festivals.

Banba are twice as heavy as racing breeds, and the sleighs they pull weigh more than 600 kilograms (1,300 pounds).

Jockeys stand on the sleighs shouting and whipping the horses with long reins to keep them going.

Trainers like Yoshiyuki Hattori deny allegations of cruelty, saying the strong creatures are handled with care and are not required to pull loads beyond their capacity.

“If thoroughbreds were bred to run, banba was bred to pull things,” said Hattori, whose horses have won many race prizes.

“They worked in fields. They worked for us. We want to continue this history.”

For Hattori, Banei racing is “more dynamic” than the “visual experience” of regular horse racing.

“This moves you physically as you cheer,” he said.

– ‘I can’t help but smile’ –

Three other cities in the region used to hold similar races, but all stopped under mountains of debt in 2006.

The long-stable Japanese economy had hit Banei Keiba hard, and the regular punters it kept were getting older.

Obihiro Racecourse, now the sole keeper of the tradition, made efforts to attract more young families and tourists by cleaning up the facility and making it smoke-free.

They set up a mini-zoo and launched marketing campaigns including tie-ins with popular smartphone games to renew their appeal.

Now around 750 horses take part in the races, maintained by 28 trainers, 150 caretakers and 21 jockeys.

One of the caretakers, 21-year-old Yuno Goto, was busy tying pale pink and blue bows and ribbons on Banba’s mane before the race.

She said she dreams of becoming a jockey one day, and called the event “a great opportunity to expose people to this culture, and provide a different experience from other horse races”.

Spectator Taichi Yamada, 27, who moved to the area last year, also said that knowing where the race came from adds to its appeal.

“This is a kind of interaction between humans and animals. I hope it continues as a piece of history,” he told AFP.

“It must be hard for the horses to pull this much weight. You can’t help but cheer for them.”

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