Horse racing: The oldest sport in the world mastered in Japan
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Horse racing is one of the oldest sports in the world. Here’s a quick history lesson on how it persisted throughout the millennia.

Horse racing is one of the oldest sports in the world yet it prospered throughout the years as one of the most popular. It has a long history from when it was first conceptualized as a recreational activity until it is a full-fledged sport known today! Here’s a brief lesson on the long history of horse racing. Its story goes way back to the very beginning in Central Asia.


Speculated beginning of horse racing


In 4,500 BCE, the steppes of Central Asia were home to nomadic tribesmen. It is unclear which group it was that started the idea but many families during those days started domesticating the local wildlife. It includes cattle, goats, and sheep for different resources. Horses, on the other hand, are domesticated as companions to aid with cargo and transportation. Riding through the glen was one of their means of entertainment.


Horse racing in Ancient Greece


Horse domestication continued as a practice to aid merchants and warriors for other communities. During the Bronze Age (1,600 - 1,100 BCE), horses were trained to pull chariots of high-ranked military men and high-ranking politicians of Ancient Greece. This practice was shared across its neighbours such as Ancient Egyptians and Scotland at a later date. 


It wasn’t clear when it started but the Ancient Greek military soon started riding horses, not for transportation but war. These are the early examples of the cavalry which became very influential in hoplite warfare. In those days, horse racing beginners aren’t jockeys but soldiers training for war.


Chariot racing started as a funeral game for influential people of Ancient Greece. Each chariot is pulled by four horses and the credit of the victory goes to the driver of the vehicle. It was soon recognized as a sport for the Olympiad in 664 BCE. Other sources stated that it was during 680 BCE. 


From chariot racing to horseback riding


Just a couple of decades after chariot racing became popular was the dawn of what most people consider as the standard equestrian sport, horseback riding! This sport made it possible to have more contestants per race. It also made it possible to assess individual horses and riders apart. 


Just like with modern horse racing, the racehorse is credited for its performance as an athlete. The winnings of the prizes are given to the horse while the rider is paid for its talent depending on what he and the horse owner agreed on! This is a very similar format to Japan Racing Association’s style! 


Horses are auctioned for their earnings as a racer. Its foals are also priced accordingly. This became a good standard for breeding horses that would eventually serve the ever-expanding military might of Ancient Greece. This method was later adopted by the Roman Empire.


Polishing of the horse racing sport in ancient Europe


The expansion of the Roman Empire was credited for the spread of horse racing across Europe. It became one of the means of entertainment for many of the major cities. The conquest around the Mediterranean solidified it as a part of the culture of Italy, Germany, and England. 


Great Britain was one of the biggest enthusiasts of this sport which is what led them to also being the most influential of its growth. Flat racing started in England during the 1100s. It continued to grow popular during the 1500s where it is considered a sport for the lords’ entertainment throughout the middle ages.


Horse racing in Ancient Japan


While horse racing is prospering in the Mediterranean, Japan has also independently started horse racing as an activity as early as the 6th to 7th century! Just like in Ancient Greece, the cavalry is an integral part of the country’s military as early as the 4th century. However, these horses used are imported from China and Korea. There were endemic horse breeds in Japan but they are not suited for mounted warfare. 


Horse races in Ancient Japan were done as religious ceremonies. They are events that are only held for important holidays in honour of a lord or deity. Thus, they are always held near a shrine or at the Imperial Court. Chariots were present in the country as they are frequently used by lords and the military, but horseback riding has always been the standard. 


Breeding of the Thoroughbreds


Jumping back to Europe because it is time to talk about the Thoroughbreds, the standard breed of horse racing around the world. King Charles II of Scotland and Queen Anne of England sponsored a project to breed a new breed of racehorses in the 1700s. This involves crossbreeding local mares with stallions from Arabian, Barb, and Turkoman breeds. 


The result is the Thoroughbred, a warm-blooded big horse perfectly bred for speed. Endurance racing is also popular but not as much as flat races on a maximum of the 2,800-metre track. This became the standard breed of horse racing across Europe which was later exported to English colonies such as the Americas, Africas, and Oceania. The breed also arrived in Japan at a later date not because the country was a colony but because of trade.


The arrival of Western-style horse racing in Japan


Although Japan had its own horse racing standards, it adopted the more polished style from the West. The rules of the sport known by the people today are the Western-style of horse racing. The racing format was first introduced at Yokohama in the 1860s but horses used then were still endemic to Japan. The sport soon spread to other cities such as Tokyo which established its own stadiums in the 1870s. Thoroughbreds arrived a bit later in 1895.


Horse racing for tradition, honour, and bets


Western-style horse racing was already polished in a way to support commercial use. The rules were set to make the events profitable for the horse owners, riders, organizers, and spectators. However, horse racing wasn't held for profit.


All horse races held in Japan during the early 1900s were dedicated to somebody. Oftentimes, it is for the deities. In other cases, it is for the honour of influential people, most notably the Emperor. For example, the Tenno Sho which is held during the spring and autumn is dedicated to the Emperor of Japan.


It wasn’t long until the government decided to support horse race betting for its spectators. A policy referred to as ‘Era of the Tacitly Approved Sale of Betting Tickets’ was granted in 1906. It is the introduction of the modern betting system that persists today! 


Two years after the policy was declared, a new policy was made that prohibited selling of betting tickets in 1908. Many citizens from businessmen to legislators sought to reverse this rule but they weren’t successful until 1923 which also resulted in a reformation of the racing industry. 11 horse racing clubs were established and they have the responsibility of managing how horse racing should be run in the country. 


Another major revision of the Horseracing Law happened in 1936. This urged the creation of the Japan Racing Society which usurped the authority of the 11 horse racing clubs. Thus, it became the country’s new head of horse racing laws. 


Founding of the JRA and NAR


The joy of horse racing lasted for a few years until World War II began in 1939. All horse races in Japan halted. Operations resumed in 1946, shortly after the war. Kyoto and Tokyo were among the first to start hosting race meetings. In 1947, the quinella betting system was introduced to horse race betting. 


The Horseracing Law was rewritten once again in 1948 which abolished the Japan Racing Society. The leadership was handed over to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry which is a part of the local government. It was soon called Government Horse Racing. It kept much of the established laws with the only major difference being that the revenue is used for the restoration of the country. 


A few years later the Horseracing Law was revised again. This time, it established what is now known as the Japan Racing Association (JRA) on September 16, 1954. It absorbed all of the functions and responsibilities of Government Horse Racing as well as the capability to organize public horse racing events. It is independent of the government but it continues to be one of Japan’s biggest taxpayers in the modern era!


The government-managed horse racing industry is not entirely gone. They established the National Association Racing on August 1, 1962. The NAR also has the same functions as the JRA but it doesn’t host premier tournaments. They offer training of jockeys and foals as well as the centralized registration process for anyone wishing to become a part of the local horse racing industry.


The JRA has a more privatized model of management which allows them to have an independent arrangement for partnerships. The JRA leads the country’s premier horse racing scene as well as being the country’s representative in international affairs. 


Development of local horse racing over the years


Japan finally took the horse racing scene very seriously since the founding of the JRA. However, there is one more step that they have to take to push the local industry to its full potential and that is by participating in international competitions. 


Since the establishment of modern horse racing rules in the country, Japan has remained isolated from the rest of the world. This is the case both before and after the war. All events held in the country consist only of local competitors. That changed in 1981 with the inauguration of the Japan Cup.


The Japan Cup is the JRA’s most prestigious event from the day it was formed until the present. It is the event that challenges other contestants from Australia, the United States, and all of Europe. Unfortunately, the representatives of the host country failed to impress in their own event. 


The JRA becomes the best breeders of racehorses in the world


The JRA is now known as the producer of the worlds’ most amazing Thoroughbreds in the entire industry of horse racing. The quest to achieve such status was inspired by their bitter defeat on the first running of the Japan Cup in 1981. The JRA began importing champions from different countries. Some of the most prominent sources are Ireland, the United States, and Great Britain. 


In 1989, the JRA successfully imported Sunday Silence, the champion of the Kentucky Derby from the United States. He is the leading sire of the JRA. His foals gained dominance in the local horse racing scene compared to local horses and those bred from other stallions. Soon, his foals dominated the Japan Cup and international events!


The blood of Sunday Silence still flows strongly in todays’ racehorses. His most famous foal is Deep Impact, JRA Hall of Fame indoctrinate, two-time Horse of the Year award winner, and the country’s lead sire until his untimely death in 2019! Sunday Silence’s other famous son is Black Tide, winner of Spring Stakes 2004! Both are foaled from the dam, Wind in Her Hair. 


Japan horse racing industry today


Today, Japan hosts some of the best horse racing events in the world next to the United Arab Emirates and France! It is also the country with the best breeding farms, sires, and dams in the industry! They are the producers of some of the most expensive foals! Each one easily fetches millions of euros at an auction!


Japan is also home to some of the most legendary horses in history. Some popular names include Almond Eye, Deep Impact, Ginteldonna, and Simboli Rudolf! Horse racing beginners don’t need to know much about history to appreciate the sport but it is fascinating to think about given its impact on the world today.