Are local tracks up against the odds?

by Rob Gilhooly

There is little glamor at Kawasaki Racetrack. Under grubby baseball caps, cigarettes and pencil stubs are jammed behind the ears of tense punters. The odor of ramen wafts along the betting slip-littered corridors and stairways under the stands.

The racetrack terraces host a variety of customers: An elderly man curses his bad luck in the previous race; a teenage boy busily scribbles down a request from someone calling his cellphone; and a young couple get racy on their own.

There’s no nonsense here, no horsing around. “Oi, foreigner!” bellows a rotund punter from the back of the line as I try to make sense of the automatic betting machines. “We haven’t got all %*$#ing day!”

I turn to smile an apology, only to be met by a sea of frowning faces. That my bet was a miserly 100 yen — the minimum wager — is something I decide to keep to myself.

It soon transpires, however, that I need not have worried. According to one elderly visitor the wild and reckless betting days of the bubble years are long gone. “Take a look,” he says pointing to the discarded betting slips on the terraces. “It’ll take you a while to find one that’s more than 100 yen.”

Japan’s recession has dealt a heavy blow to the likes of this track, one of 27 in Japan operated by local governments. According to a recent Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries report, each of the 24 local governments that run the racecourses were in the red in 2000.

Financial woes have already forced the closure of three local tracks in the last 12 months — Niigata and Sanjo racecourses in Niigata Prefecture and Nakatsu in Oita Prefecture. Meanwhile, the Saitama-run Urawa Racing Association, which oversees Urawa Racecourse, posted debts of 460 million yen last year, and officials announced that it may face closure after this year. Tracks in Yamagata and Aichi prefectures reportedly face a similar plight.

While horse racing has a long history in Japan, it wasn’t until after the war that local government racing was established, independent from the national system, to provide a boost to local economies.

Today, some 23 percent of the total turnover from races is used by local governments to maintain the tracks and support educational and cultural projects. Overall guidance is provided by the National Association of Racing, a government-affiliated body set up in 1962. (National racing — which offers a higher standard of racing, prestige and prize money — is administered by the Japan Racing Association.)

According to NAR data, while betting at regional tracks peaked at almost 1 trillion yen in 1991, it has been downhill since. In 2001, sales were 520 billion yen, just half that of a decade earlier.

Falling attendances and betting stakes, as well as a disinterested younger generation, are cited as the main contributing factors. An additional factor that helped seal the fate of Niigata’s tracks — which closed in March with a 6.7 billion yen deficit — has been a change in lifestyles, according to prefectural official Toshiyuki Uematsu.

“There are more leisure options available these days, and in this harsh economy, people have to make a choice,” Uematsu commented. “Unfortunately, in Niigata they weren’t choosing racing.”

Since sales began to fall in the mid-1990s, organizers, guided by the NAR, have been searching for ways to reverse the downward spiral. Among them is a reduction of the number of race days and increased automation at racetracks. Another was the introduction of night racing at the Kawasaki and Oi racetracks.

Meanwhile, the NAR and JRA have joined forces to introduce a number of annual races that assemble local- and national-level horses. These events appeal to racing fans because an unknown dark horse could easily upset a favorite.

Off-course betting was also introduced. Now punters can bet at their local racetrack, designated betting facilities or over the telephone on races being held at other local government tracks. Off-course betting now accounts for more than 50 percent of total betting, according to NAR official Toshiyuki Takahashi, adding that this fall NAR plans to introduce betting via the Internet and DoCoMo’s i-mode.

Local racetracks have also started to cooperate with others nearby to rotate race days and cut costs. In the south Kanto region, Kawasaki, Urawa and Funabashi in Chiba Prefecture and Oi in Shinagawa Ward now operate on this basis, offering off-course betting for each other’s race days.

Are the new NAR policies producing results? While overall betting revenues are currently at a 28-year low, Takahashi is quick to point out that average daily revenues actually rose 2.2 percent in 2001 over the previous year. “Granted, there has been a decrease, caused by closures, in the overall number of race days, but our primary concern is to ensure no more tracks suffer the same fate.”

For some enthusiasts, however, such moves to make racing more accessible only highlight the inferior status of regional racing.

“There is zero romance in local racing,” says Akira Naoi, a veteran tipster. “It’s purely an outlet for gambling. That’s half the problem.”

His sentiments were echoed by several visitors to the Oi track one rainy afternoon this month, when a few hundred punters huddled under the stands and peered out through the driving rain at a huge video screen providing live coverage of the day’s races in nearby Funabashi. When one race finished, they rushed to the betting machines to bet on the next.

“I admit this is not fun in the Disneyland sense,” says one punter, a businessman in his mid-50s who lives in the area. “National racing is an event, a place where horse racing becomes a sport, not just betting. The Oi racetrack, though, is simply a convenient location.”

Asked about the pros and cons of regional over national races, one visitor in his 30s commented that while the latter operates solely at weekends, the former is almost daily. “But there is no doubt that here, the glamor of racing is found in the national system.”

Tipster Naoi believes that the remedies offered by the NAR are purely short term, and that unless the NAR and JRA cooperate more, at least half the remaining regional tracks will close in the next few years.

“The punters are mainly retirees placing 100 yen bets on mostly second-rate races,” he said. “If something isn’t done to change that, then regional racing’s days are surely numbered.”