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A Day at the Races–Japan's Ban'ei Heavy Pull Racing World

Virginia Kouyoumdjian

On the outskirts of the city of Obihiro, in Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island, lies a racetrack unlike any other in the world. It's where the draft horses of the Ban'ei heavy pull races continue to honor a great tradition steeped in Japanese agriculture.

Japan’s Ban'ei horse racing ("Ban’ei Keiba" in Japanese) is unique. First of all, it is the only type of horse racing in the world that involves draft horses. It is part of the Japan Racing Association (JRA) racing circuit and punters can place bets on the outcome both on and off-track. It is also unusual in that speed is not really the main point, but rather the ability to pull a heavily loaded sled over two mounds on a sand track.

Ban'ei has something of a mixed reputation outside Japan. Many people’s sole exposure to it has been through a few well (badly?) chosen YouTube videos that show horses struggling to get over the mounds, sometimes even on their knees. The finger has, therefore, been regularly pointed at what some describe as an abusive form of entertainment. But is it true? Are Ban'ei horses abused and should the entire industry be banned? As with most things Japanese, the language barrier makes entry difficult and obtaining information almost impossible. After two trips to Ban'ei, aided by a fluency in Japanese and a deep connection to the people of Ban'ei through the horses themselves, things look quite different.

Wherever there are draft horses, there are heavy horse pulls/competitions. It seems that draft horse owners simply cannot resist pitting their big guys against one another to see who can pull the most and the farthest. In some places, notably North America, the emphasis is on pulling very heavy weights over very short distances, predominantly using horses in pairs. In Europe, the weights are lesser, but the distances greater and single horses are more often used. In Japan, however, Ban'ei requires the horse to pull fairly heavy weights over a 200-meter (218 yards) course involving two mounds. Both horses and jockeys have huge fan-bases and the races attract a much wider audience than your typical heavy-pull competition in most western countries.

The day begins very early at Odds Park, the official name of the Obihiro Racetrack. About 600 horses, along with trainers, jockeys and grooms live on-site. Typically, they will rise between 3 and 4 a.m. and will be out for morning practice at 5 a.m., well before sun-up. Morning practice tends to be a fairly relaxed affair and the wooden sleds that are used weigh only a fraction of the heavy metal sleds used in the actual races. The atmosphere tends to be relaxed, sleepy almost, as both horses and trainers struggle to wake up. The training sleds often carry only marginal extra weight.

Coming Back From The Edge
The Ban'ei Racehorse Owners’ Association is currently comprised of over 300 members. At one time, when money was much more free-flowing in Japan, there were over 700 owners, spread across Hokkaido, as were the races. Until the end of 2006, Ban'ei races were held at four racetracks across Hokkaido (Obihiro, Asahikawa, Kitami and Iwamizawa), with each course having its own quirks. But a serious and long drawn slump in the economy led to a decision to regroup in Obihiro, always seen as the core of the sport. Ban'ei racing came very close to disappearing around that time as funds grew ever scarcer, but they were saved by an unlikely supporter. Softbank, a major Japanese Internet and cell phone operator, poured cash into the sport–but kept very quiet about it, probably because it did not really fit in with its hip image. In 2013, additional funds were injected when retail giant Rakuten announced it would contribute through its Rakuten Keiba (Rakuten Racing) subsidiary to the Obihiro’s Ban’ei Promotion Fund to spur regional development aimed at the growth of the city’s Ban'ei races. Aside from cash, Rakuten also provides large quantities of carrots for the horses! Cuteness aside, the Ban'ei horse racing world does seem to finally be turning itself around. In 2014, the number of race goers was up year-over-year for the fourth straight year

This Ban'ei horse, hitched to a typical training sled, is 15 years old. Coupled with his healthy condition, that is a pretty good response to accusations of abuse and poor care. These horses clearly have "it" very good.

A Long Career
The working life of a Ban'ei horse starts at the age of two and can last until the mid-teens. At two, the horses that appear to be likely candidates are brought to the racetrack and placed with trainers. They will then go through a series of aptitude tests which will determine whether they have the right abilities–both physical and mental–to pull the heavy sleds. Successful horses usually start racing at the age of three with pretty light sleds and don't get into serious racing until they are four years old. Trainer Ayumi Tani describes the young horses as being “the equivalent of a kindergartener. We don’t make them pull anything heavy enough to hurt them. This is the time when we can see their true potential. About a third of the horses don't make it past their first year.” The ones that do will generally race into their teens, a feat that would be difficult to accomplish if they were over-used or ill-used.

Horses here don’t, as a rule, race more than once every two weeks. Races are held each week on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, with a break of 2 to 3 weeks in late March/early April. A typical day’s racing will comprise ten to 12 races, starting in the early afternoon and running to around 9 p.m. Tani goes on to say, “When I first arrived, I thought that was a relatively heavy work schedule for the horses. But these are workhorses who would normally be asked to put in a full day’s work almost every day of the week. Racing every two weeks is a long way from over-burdening them.” Depending on the attitude of the owners and the performance of the horses, there can be periods of rest during the year when the horses are sent back to the country to be turned out.

The Track & The Races
All Ban'ei races are run over the same course which is 200 meters long and comes with two hurdles, the first mound at 0.70 meters high and the second at 1.6 m. What changes between races is the amount of weight being pulled on the sled. Horses are first paraded around a paddock, and are then ridden by the jockeys to the starting point where the sleds are attached. The track surface is sand and the mounds are carefully raked by hand before each race. The horses come flying out of the gates at a fairly fast clip and generally get over the first hurdle at speed and without any problem. Then something unexpected happens. As they approach the second, higher, mound, they draw to a stop and wait. Whatever the speed was out of the gates, most of the horses end up being aligned before the second mound. This is meant to rest up the horses and gear them up for the ultimate challenge of getting over the second mound. As the first jockey gets his horse going again, all the others follow and the gargantuan struggle over the second hurdle begins. Some horses get over smoothly, others struggle. Occasionally, a horse, usually a young beginner, will simply not do it and, in that case, the sled is detached and the horse is led away. Once the second hurdle is cleared, then it is a straight line to the finish, but it still has something of a slow-motion feel to it. With very few exceptions, the finish is more often at a walk than a trot. One interesting fact is that the winner is not the first past the post, but the one whose entire sled has gone past the post first.

It's not speed that distinguishes a successful Ban'ei contender, but power and coordination. The finish line is more often crossed at a walk than a trot!

A Wide Variety of Races
The races are divided into a number of categories. Three-year-olds race in what are known as C1 and C2 races. Ban'ei racehorses are almost always either stallions or mares; geldings are seldom ever seen. Aside from a few specific races, stallions and mares usually race against one another. From the age of four, the categories are divided into B1, B2, B3 and B4, A1, A2 and open. The amount of weight a horse is allowed to pull depends both on the horse’s age, the number of times it has run in that particular category and how much money it has earned to date. So, three-year-olds can pull between 480 and 590 kg (1,058 to 1,300 lbs). The weight can then be increased according to experience and age. Over age five, the weight varies from 660 to 740 kg (1,455 to 1,631 lbs.), but can be much higher, as high as a ton, for the major races bringing together the strongest horses. The season is peppered with major prizes which fall under the BG category and regroup the best horses. The top ones are the six BG1 races, most of which are held during the last part of the season, from December to March. The two top races, in the open category of horses four years and older, the Obihiro Kinen (Obihiro Memorial) which is held in early January and the Ban'ei Kinen (Ban'ei Memorial) which closes the season in late March are real clash-of-titans affairs. The horses who win the Ban'ei Kinen in which 1,000 kg (2,204 lbs.) is pulled are very rarely under seven and have regularly included ten or 11-year-olds. It is also not unusual for the same horse to win several times. Super Pegasus won four years in a row between 2003 and 2006. Fukuichi won three times in the 1990s, as did Tomoe Power between 2007 and 2009. In the late 1970s/early 1980s, the event was even won three times by a mare, Kiyohime. The only BG category race reserved strictly for mares is the Heroines’ Cup, which is run at the end of January. Champion mare Fukuizumi won it twice during her career, once at the age of six and again at the age of ten, proof of the stamina and staying power of Ban'ei horses.

Weather conditions play a major role in how fast the track is. Being in the far north of Japan, Hokkaido has harsh winters with temperatures easily dipping to -20°C (-4°F) and a great deal of snow. The track itself is heated to enable racing in all conditions. Rain and snow, however, tend to make the track faster. To give an idea of just how varied times can be, the Ban'ei Kinen race has, over the past 20 years been run at between 2’34” and 5’35”.

Ban'ei champion Fukuizumi and her groom prior to a race.

Is Ban'ei Racing Cruel?
Among the complaints that are most often leveled at the world of Ban'ei racing by YouTube watchers are the supposed excessive use of whips and the problems of horses going down on their knees on one of the mounds during a race. The first thing to point out is that Ban'ei jockeys do not actually have whips. All they have are their lines which they crack above the horse or on the side of the sled for encouragement. Walking through the Ban'ei stables on an average day, there is no sign of any horse with whip marks on it. As for the horses going down on their knees, which has been heavily featured on YouTube by animal activists, the problem tends to happen with younger horses who have not yet developed the skills to get over the mounds, something which is learned and which is achieved by positioning the body correctly. It is definitely not a regular sight at Ban'ei races.

In fact, Ban'ei horses appear to be exceptionally well cared for, perhaps a reflection of the horse’s traditional status in Japan. Horses are considered sacred in Japan’s indigenous religion, Shinto, and they are often found either as statues or for real, in the larger shrines. A white horse was supposed to stop rain, and a black one to bring it. To this day, most shrines have wooden votive tablets, often showing a horse, on which people can write their prayers. This veneration for horses was carried through into housing design in the northern part of Japan where traditionally, the short-end of an L-shaped farmhouse was the stable, and it was always the part with a southern exposure! Within the framework of Ban'ei racing, the horses live in stables on the ground floor and the trainers and grooms live above them. At the stables of trainer Toshihiro Nakajima, his wife Yuka says matter-of-factly, “I am always awake all night when the others sleep, just to make sure that everything is OK with the horses, and to be able to take care of any issue immediately. These horses have been entrusted to us by their owners and are precious to them and to us. My intuition works pretty well and if I think there might be a problem, I check on every one of them. Sometimes, I see one sweating when he shouldn’t be and I immediately call someone to check.” Her words are echoed by her husband, trainer Toshihiro Nakajima: “The fact that you’re used to horses doesn’t mean you can let up. You have to be even more vigilant for that very reason, because you might miss something important. The horses always come first.”

The quality of the care is obvious in many ways. Each horse has a roomy box stall that is completely cleaned out twice a day and spread with a deep layer of rice straw. Their hay is even cut into small pieces to reduce the risk of intestinal blockages. Horses are often given a mixture of garlic and soybean paste (ninniku miso) with their grain, which also ensures that intestinal function is smooth. There is a veterinary clinic on-site, as well as two farriers working full-time.

Ornate decorations characterize the racing bridles and collars of Ban'ei contestants.

A Feast of Pastels!
There is also a uniquely Japanese quality to how horses are turned out for Ban'ei races. In the west, we are used to seeing horses in heavy pulls or even hitch classes adorned in black collars, occasionally Havanna brown. The manes of show horses can be braided in various colors, but always using mane rolls and flowers. Japan, on the other hand, sees an explosion of creativity in both color and motifs. Harness, starting with collars, comes in a wide variety of colors, often pastels, which one would normally never associate with heavy horses. The bridles usually match. As for mane decorations, they often look like the work of some eccentric fairy, bringing together seasonal themes such as Halloween and a wide variety of colors, bows and ribbons. Trainer Toshihiro Nakajima’s wife, Yuka, describes herself laughingly as “in charge of hair and make-up for the horses” with a stash of boxes holding the most extraordinary variety of decorations. Needless to say, mares tend to get the most girly decorations.

In terms of bitting, most Japanese have never even seen a Liverpool or Butterfly bit–Ban'ei horses are mostly driven with plain snaffles.

Owners, Trainers & Jockeys
Just as is the case with other types of racing, the chain is divided into owners, trainers and jockeys. Being a racehorse owner in the Ban'ei does not bring with it the potential earnings of a Thoroughbred racehorse. The greatest winners in the history of Ban'ei were the stallions Kintaro and Fukuichi who both won around $930,000 during their careers. Successful horses will win anything between $100,000 and $300,000 during their careers, which is considered a decent return on the investment. So, owning Ban'ei racehorses is more often a labor of love than an actual for-profit investment. Tsuyoshi Ishibashi owns three Ban'ei horses, including one who is something of a star. “Pronger,” a grey stallion named after Canadian hockey player Chris Pronger, starred in “Silver Spoon,” a 2014 movie that featured Ban'ei racing quite heavily. Ishibashi’s approach to his horses is as follows: “I’ve owned Ban'ei racehorses for 20 years. Pronger is one of four greys I have had. He isn’t that strong, but he is very good-tempered and has lots of fans. He is loved both by his fans and by the people who work with him, so he’s a happy horse. Each of the three I currently own is different in character and that is fun. I think of them as my children. My dream is one day to have a horse race in the Ban'ei Kinen, and simply to continue being part of the Ban'ei racing world.”

Of the 30 trainers now working in Ban'ei horseracing, only one is a woman: Ayumi Tani who is currently training 17 horses (see sidebar on page 34). Suffice it to say, that as of October 2015, she ranked first in the percentage of wins for the year, having achieved 18% of first places, 16% of second places and 9% of third places out of 289 outings. She is also one of the youngest among the trainers. Her approach is “to work together with the horses to build trust. The horses understand that it is their job to pull the sleds and just like people who grow in the framework of a fulfilling job, the horses prosper as they learn and race. If they didn't want to pull the sleds, they just wouldn’t."

There are currently 26 jockeys competing in Ban'ei races, with just one female jockey. There is a very broad range in age and experience. The longest-serving jockey started competing in 1975 and the youngest ones have only two or three years’ experience. As of October 2015, the year’s leading position was in the hands of Takumi Fujimoto who has averaged 13% of wins a year in his 32-year career. Most jockeys tend to have close associations with particular trainers and so race their horses. One interesting fact is that in Ban'ei racing in Japan, jockeys wear their own colors rather than those of the horse’s owner. The training of a Ban'ei jockey used to take three years and include in-depth study of racing laws and the technical aspects of the races, but it has now been reduced to one year and the jockeys need to learn a great deal on their own.

A Steady Job For Draft Horses
Although the concept of using horses for pulling competitions is pretty universal, Japan is the only country that has turned it into a bona fide racing tradition that is part of the national Japan Racing Association circuit. The fact that most people outside Japan have never actually seen a Ban'ei race, nor visited a stable, nor spoken to a trainer, makes for a great deal of misinformation and misunderstanding. Intrinsically, all racing puts demands on horses that go well beyond a life spent munching grass in a paddock. The key lies in how much of an onus the racing actually puts on the horse in terms of overall health, both physical and mental. Over the years, Ban'ei horses have been bred specifically for what they do and the fact that many race into their teens shows that they are more than capable of giving what is asked of them. The attention to detail and level of care that is prevalent among training stables is outstanding, and the sheer physical proximity of horses and people in the racetrack means that ill-treatment of any kind would be noticed very quickly. In a world where everyone is looking for ways to ensure the survival of draft horses as part of a modern society, Ban'ei has been playing and will, hopefully, continue to play that role in Japan. In the words of Naoko Tokuda of Ban'ei Tokachi PR: “One of the reasons we have seen attendance figures rise regularly over the past four years is that, aside from locals, we are seeing more and more tourists. Ban'ei racing is an integral part of Hokkaido’s culture and so attracts people, even from overseas. In 2016, we will be celebrating 70 years of Ban'ei racing, and at the same time it will be ten years since the consolidation to Obihiro. We will be hosting many events, and working hard to make Ban'ei racing into something that attracts young people and families, and deepens their understanding of our equine culture.”

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