While the COVID-19 pandemic has halted almost all sporting events in Japan, horse racing has been the rare exception. The races, of course, have been held under very strict guidelines, but the Japan Racing Association has thus far avoided any cancellations.
The JRA has held its events behind closed doors since Feb. 29. Even Grade I races such as the Spring Tenno Sho, NHK Mile Cup, Victoria Mile and the Oaks, all of which regularly draw thousands of fans, were run on empty racecourses. The Japanese Derby, another GI race, will join that group on Sunday.
“At first it felt weird to see the racecourses without any fans,’’ star jockey Yutaka Take was quoted as saying by Sports Nippon on Monday. “But as the pandemic continues, I appreciate more and more that we have races. I hope fans enjoy the races while staying home.’’
The JRA has kept the number of people involved in holding races to a minimum and limited access to racecourses. Not even horse owners are allowed in on racedays. Horses can only take part in designated races, determined by the area they belong to, and jockeys are prohibited from competing at more than one racecourse on the same weekend.
Despite holding races with no fans, the JRA’s earnings, 10 percent of which is returned to the national treasury, hasn’t taken a big hit. The JRA earned about ¥ 650 billion from Feb. 29 to May 17, down just 9 percent from the same period in 2019.
A major portion of the JRA’s earnings and revenue comes from betting, which can be done online. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, around 70 percent of bettors made their wagers online over the past two years.
That is likely the major reason earnings haven’t been affected by races without fans, as all 41 JRA outlets in Japan have been closed since Feb. 29.
Racing behind closed doors and taking bets online are becoming global trends. Hong Kong has been holding spectator-less races since Jan. 27 and Australia followed suit in mid-March.
South Korea, however, has yet to resume racing, mainly because it has not launched online or telephone betting systems.
In the United States, each of the Triple Crown races have been rescheduled. Currently, the Belmont Stakes is set to be run as the first leg behind closed doors at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, on June 20. It will be followed by the Kentucky Derby, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, on Sept. 5 and the Preakness States, at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, on Oct. 3.
In Europe, Germany and France (except for parts of Paris) saw has seen the races resume this month, while Britain and Ireland are hoping to resume in June.