Japan: it’s horse racing, but not as we know it – watch these wacky races

Japan World Cup game
Japan World Cup: runners and riders may be weirder than they appear

By Nicholas Godfrey

Japan: Japanese horse racing is the envy of the world – and it’s keeping the show on the road amid the current crisis – but let’s just say the sport also has its fund of weird and wonderful moments.

Under normal circumstances, these clips would have featured elsewhere on the site in our ‘Crazy Horses’ section – and they’ll probably end up there as well. For now, though, we need a bit of a laugh. It’s not big and probably not clever – and not even new, as we’ve pilfered them from years ago.

All we can say is this: Japan, thank you. We love you.

1. Mad virtual racing

While the virtual Grand National may have been a success, we can’t help thinking a trick has been missed by not attempting to emulate this popular DVD game ‘Japan World Cup’ from the Japan Racing Association via Cinema Keiba. Players bet on randomly generated results (after a suitably random race).

Make sure you watch until the finish as the real action starts in the straight. As the Attheraces video below suggests: Bonkers!


2. Mad TV

This TV hybrid, a prime-time sports/variety show that aired about three years ago on the TBS network, is a classic of the kind Japan excels in.

Yutaka Take proves that not only is he perfectly balanced on a racehorse, he is also pretty good on a bucking bronco while trying to balance a plate of ping-pong balls. According to the blurb, a team of four jockeys, also including Christophe Lemaire and Mirco Demuro, had a go at various activities.


3. Mad racing

Compared to the other two, this is positively mundane. Nevertheless, ban’ei racing is weird enough to western eyes to have earned a spot in our ‘Crazy Horses’ section. You can bet on it, there’s a starting gate and ‘jockeys’ wear conventional silks but nothing else about ban’ei racing can be described as conventional. 

Staged only at the suburban racetrack of Obihiro on ‘horse island’ Hokkaido, ban’ei (‘pull play’) resembles a bizarre equine take on the truck pull in World’s Strongest Man competitions. Played out in slow motion, the discipline has its origins in agricultural work and involves draft horses twice the weight of thoroughbreds pulling heavy iron sleds – weighing a tonne for the season-ending Ban’ei-Kinen in March – along a straight 200-metre sand track featuring a pair of inclines.

With spectators following alongside, they usually take a breather after the first obstacle before attempting the second steeper hill of about 1.7 metres, known as the Ban-ei Point. Sturdy draught horses, known as ‘banba’, are bred specially for the task, descended from the French Percheron breed.

And finally … here’s an anime version from the popular coming-of-age manga series Silver Spoon. Not to be taken as an instructive video for animal welfare purposes.


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