The fanfare from the trumpets. The rising platform with the starter and that red flag. The pan-and-scan camera that wanders away from the horse in the lead. And odds that are not the same there as they are here.
At first glance racing from Japan appears to horseplayers to be a complicated, intimidating world of its own. But once a few user-friendly resources are put to use by serious handicappers and even $2 players, it becomes a very comfortable place to make a bet from America. Even familiar. And when the sport’s most enthusiastic fans are allowed to return to the grandstands, more than a little thrilling.
The next major race – the twice-a-year Grade 1 Tennō Shō – will not be run until May 3. So there is time for a primer. With the help of two respected racing journalists based in Japan – American Kate Hunter (@KeibaKate on Twitter) and Australian Graham Pavey (@LongBallToNoOne) – what follows is a how-to for newcomers.
The first thing to know is that the odds you see on the direct track feed are not the odds that you get here in North America at ADWs such as TwinSpires.com. The pools are separate. Since there is less money coming in on this side of the Pacific, odds are prone to sudden changes in the U.S. minutes before each race. Comparing the two sets of prices, though, is one way to spot potential value – and underlays.
“The win bet is easiest to hit as the top three favorites usually make the cut,” said Hunter, who lived in Nashville before her move overseas more than a decade ago. “But the show pool in Japan is a pretty fair way to go as you get a decent return on some placed horses.”
Which brings to mind an important distinction. American options for Japanese races includes win, place and show, even though the tote board over there indicates only what we would call win and show. There is also exacta, trifecta and superfecta vertical wagering here as well as some horizontal options including doubles, pick 3s and pick 5s.
Noteworthy similarities between American and Japanese racing include saddle-cloth numbers that match the post positions. Races are also conducted on turf and dirt, although more heavily on turf. As such, horseplayers in America may be better suited to handicapping the distinction between the surfaces.
“The market (in Japan) underrates the difficulty for a horse switching,” said Pavey, an Australian who like Hunter moved to Japan to become one of that nation’s most respected handicappers. “Switching from turf to dirt and vice-versa, from flat turf or dirt to jumps, from stayer to sprinter or vice-versa, from Japan Racing Association to the (smaller) circuit, etc. The market regularly over-bets these ‘switching’ horses.”
So where does an American bettor go to find out about each horse and each race? Fortunately, the JRA website has a complete section in English that offers a lot of the basics, including past performances on the eve of a day’s racing at http://japanracing.jp/en/racing/result/programme/2020.html. While they do not have quite as much information as Americans are used to – notably missing fractions – the programs read a lot like the PPs published by Brisnet.
“One of the great things about betting in Japan is the wealth of information, most of which is free to all bettors,” Hunter said.
The PPs also show two sets of numbers expressed in kilograms (1 kg = 2.2 pounds) for each horse’s race – the amount it carried followed by its own weight. Pavey warns against putting too much stock in the animal’s size, which is updated publicly right around saddling time. “Body weights are overrated,” he said. “Critical information to have for sure, however not the holy grail many believe they are. Big body-weight fluctuations spook the market more than they should.”
The upper right column on the PPs – the “SMILEs” – may look mysterious until knowing that the letters stand for a horse’s record at sprint (up to 6 1/2 furlongs), middle (6 1/2-9 1/2), intermediate (9 1/2-10 1/2), long (10 1/2-13 1/2) and extended distances (more than 13 1/2 furlongs).
It is also important to know that when handicapping race times, the clock starts the moment the gates open, not after a run-up. The final times and the placings at each call, all available in the JRA PPs, also enter into what Pavey said may be the most valuable trait in handicapping Japanese races.
“Stamina and toughness,” he said. “The way the races are run, usually at a brutal pace, means horses need to be tough and have a lot of stamina to win. Squibs (cheap speed horses) quickly get found out.”
Detailed videos of workouts the week of Grade 1 races are available free at http://www.jra.go.jp/keiba/thisweek/. Although that site is only in Japanese, translation software makes it straightforward. When watching the workouts, be aware of the surface, which may not be turf or dirt.
“The uphill, straight, wood-chip courses at (training) centers are widely used for getting horses fit and ready to race,” Pavey said. “This is unusual and also believed to be a major contributor to the toughness JRA horses possess.”
As is the case anywhere, Japanese tracks have their idiosyncrasies. It takes a little research or just plain, local knowledge to be aware, for instance, that the Nakayama Racecourse that hosted last week’s Satsuki Shō goes uphill from the top of the stretch to the finish. With the differences in layout come biases.
“Some tracks like Kokura and Kyoto favor speed,” Hunter said. “Others being smaller like Hakodate or Sapporo mean that long-stride horses would have a disadvantage. Nakayama has a short stretch with a sharp incline, while Tokyo’s incline starts early on a very long stretch.”
Pedigree, Trainers, and Jockeys
After all that, other factors familiar to American bettors are no different in Japan. Certain bloodlines are gold. It seems like every successful sire traces his bloodlines to dual U.S. classic winner Sunday Silence, Japan’s top stallion from 1995 to 2008 – yes, six years after he died. And certain connections are consistently successful. Christophe Lemaire and Yoichi Fukunaga have been among Japan’s top five jockeys and Noriyuki Hori among Japan’s top five trainers, all since 2015.
“They try to even it up somewhat by limiting how many horses one trainer can have under his care,” Pavey said. “Yet the same names keep appearing at the top of the rankings. The market is aware of these guys. Cream rises.”
Hunter added that “what jockey is on a horse makes a huge difference in their odds. The top jockeys will be on the top horses. That will shave a lot of value on a horse as will visiting foreign jockeys.”
After all that it is simply a matter of picking winners. No sweat, right? Except in Japan, they do not race as often as Americans do – under normal circumstances. The JRA only races on weekends – and not as often on dirt. So sample sizes are smaller.
“That is why the JRA teams up with the NAR,” Hunter said, referring to the National Association of Racing – www.goracing.jp/english/ – that oversees smaller tracks with live racing on weekdays. “It gives dirt horses more of a program. That is when you see horses like Hokko Tarumae or Smart Falcon cleaning up in the NAR. The more particular a horse you have, the more complicated it is to run them in Japan. Bettors should be looking at that, especially with older horses who have plenty of form to study.”
It is evident that there is no shortage of angles to betting on Japanese races. The research tools are there – and in English. It is just a matter of getting into the pool. Whether it is by wading or by jumping into the deep end, well, to each his own.