ASAHIKAWA, Hokkaido — Skirting a fresh pile of manure, I settle in behind the well-muscled, veiny flanks of a Banei racehorse.
The jockey helps me astride the dusty sled and tells me to brace myself. With the squeak of a horn, the gates fly open and the horse lurches forward. My body is snapped like a whip. Clouds of sand billow as we pass the horse in the next lane. The jockey encourages the animal, smacking its flanks with a leather switch, prodding it over and down two small hills.
This is Banei horse racing.
Imagine Ben Hur on a sled behind a plow horse — that captures the essence of Banei. It starts with a jolt and ends 200 dusty meters later, sometimes in a photo finish. Promoters bill it as a form of horse racing unique to Hokkaido.
Originally farmers would pit their plow horses against each other at local festivals, having them pull sleds to see who had the stronger animal. The gatherings became competitions and the competitions a full-fledged sport.
Today there is organized racing replete with qualifying tests for jockeys and horses. Throughout the year, races alternate between four tracks in Hokkaido.
The sport has a small, but loyal following. “I keep telling myself that when I get sick of Banei, I will find myself a wife,” said Banei fanatic Shinkichi Takamatsu. “But I don’t see myself getting sick of Banei . . . or finding myself a wife.”
Like myself, Takamatsu and three others have volunteered and been selected to “challenge Banei” — to race on the course on a sled with a jockey. It is something he has been yearning to do for years, he said giddily.
“Just watching is great fun, but to really understand it, you have to try it,” he says.
Banei is about strength, endurance and grit — the two kanji characters of the name mean “to pull.” Horses drag a sled weighing at least 480 kg over 200 meters of 30-cm deep sand while excited jockeys flog their rumps.
In his loud plaid shirt and big belt buckle depicting man, horse and sled, Takamatsu waxed on about the world of Banei.
“I like the history. I like the horses. I like to gamble. When I was a kid, my uncle kept two Banei horses. I just am tied to this sport,” the 53-year-old postal employee said, cigarette in one hand, beer in the other.
Takamatsu takes his leisure seriously. He drops up to 30,000 yen a day, two or three times a week. This is a lot, but down from the daily damage of 50,000 yen he used to routinely lose, he said.
Most spectators are near Takamatsu in age, but there are those who view Banei as wholesome family fun.
For the Takamoto family, the races are essentially a picnic. The three-generation family of seven sits on blankets on the lawn at the foot of the grandstand. Mizuki, 4, blows bubbles and eats yakitori while her 4-month-old sister drools herself silly in a stroller.
“This is our second time here this year,” said Yoshie Takamoto, the children’s mother. “I like it because there is a place for the kids to play and it is on a rise so it is cooler than the city.”
A tawdry recording of trumpets blares from the racetrack’s intercom system signaling the next race. Like a Pavlovian-conditioned horse-race junkie, Tadashi, the father, gets to his feet and heads for the betting booths.
The weather is warm and some 2,000 people have turned out, typical for a fair-weather day, Banei public relations man Hisao Kimura said. Over the last few years this has become standard, but during the bubble economy of the late 1980s, attendance would reach up to 5,000.
With attendance down, the racing circuit has been in the red for a few years. Events such as the day’s “challenge Banei” are designed to rekindle interest in the sport, Kimura said. The effort is reflected by his outfit: a royal blue happi coat — worn on festive occasions — emblazoned with big green letters on the back that read “Banei.”
The sport’s charm lies in its uniqueness and lack of speed, Kimura explained.
“The biggest difference between this and normal horse racing is speed. Here horses test their strength, pulling weight. It is a contest of power.”
Banei races are never won by a nose. Rather it is the rear edge of the sled passing across the finish line that signals victory.
“The horses don’t fly by, like in other horse races,” he said. “The speed is a little slower and spectators can follow along, cheering them on.”
Horses generally stop before the two inclines on the course, mustering strength to ascend, giving spectators plenty of time to cheer. From start to finish, races generally take about 1 minute and 50 seconds.
However, the sport does have its foes, Kimura admitted. Animal rights’ activists complain that switching the horses’ hindquarters is cruel.
But the animals’ meaty backsides mitigate any pain an overzealous jockey slapping away might cause, he said. “It doesn’t hurt as much as it looks like it might.”
“Banei has a 100 percent safety record,” he added. “No one has ever been hurt during a race, although about one horse a year dies of heart failure during competition.”
And while successful horses can earn their owners lots of money, and a spot on the stud farm for themselves, those that fail to make the grade are often sent to Kyushu for, well, culinary purposes.