A guide to Japan’s biggest horse racing tournaments

When it comes to horse racing, Japan has the best and biggest horse racing tournaments. In fact, horse racing is so popular in the country that it has embedded its place in Japan's culture. Over the past decades, horse racing and betting have continuously risen to success in the country.

Due to the Japanese love for horse racing, the country ranks among the top three countries where horse racing is the most popular sport. Since horse racing is a widely known sport, Japan hosts over 21,000 races annually. Since horse racing is a prominent spectacle sport in the country, many online betting platforms have also risen to prominence in Japan. 

Looking back to where it started

Bettors in Japan can now watch horse races and place wagers from their devices, making horse racing among the country's most popular betting sports. It began as a religious ceremony for the Imperial Court in Japan. In the eighth century, races between samurai were held yearly in May at the Kamigamo Shrine in Kyoto.

Even though Japan went from a noble to a feudal society and had many other changes over the next nine centuries, horse racing remained unchanged. Although it has been largely Westernised, horse racing remains a popular Japanese pastime.

Due to U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry and the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854, Japan was finally opened to the rest of the globe. Today, Yokohama is widely recognised as where modern horse racing in Japan began. Even so, the Japanese horse racing industry still adheres to European traditions and employs dirt tracks more similar to those in Europe than those in the United States.

Japan's top horse racing events

With horse racing's influence on Japanese culture, thousands of fans watch and bet on these horse racing events. As a country that loves horse racing, Japan boasts some of the world's biggest and most popular horse racing tournaments. Some of these events include:

Japan Cup

Japan Cup is one of the country's biggest and most prestigious horse racing events that is held annually in November. Even though the Japan Racing Association (JRA) only created the Japan Cup in 1981, it already became a favourite event among horse racing experts and enthusiasts worldwide.

It was an invitation-only international event that promoted Japanese racing and brought international attention to the country. Years later, the inaugural Japan Cup race allowed competitors from the United States, Canada, India, Australia, and New Zealand. Since then, the race has welcomed competitors from all around the world.

Japan Cup covers a distance of 2,400 metres and takes place at the Tokyo Racecourse in Fuchu, Tokyo. The Japan Cup is one of the most prestigious horse races but also one of the top races in the world. 


Tenno Sho

The Tenno Sho race is held annually in two seasons: One in spring and one in fall. The Spring Tenno Sho is considered one of Japan's longest horse races at nearly 3,200 metres in length. Usually held in late April or early May at the Kyoto Racecourse in Fushimi-ku, the Spring Tenno Sho is Japan's longest Grade 1 race.

Tenno Sho's first leg of the Japanese Autumn Triple Crown is the Autumn Tenno Sho, held at the Tokyo Racecourse in late October. In Japanese, the phrase tenno, which means 'Emperor of Japan', is where the Tenno Sho race got its name. 

Japanese Derby (Tokyo Yushun)

Like the Japan Cup, the Tokyo Yushun or Japanese Derby is a popular Grade 1 flat race held annually in late May or early June. This race is open to three-year-old Thoroughbred fillies and colts. 

The Japanese Derby runs over 2,400 metres at the Tokyo Racecourse in Fuchu, Tokyo. The Tokyo Yushun is an older and more historical event than the Japan Cup despite its reputation for being on a smaller scale. In fact, the first-ever derby was first held in Japan in 1932. 

The Japanese Derby was originally intended to be a purely domestic competition, but in 2010, it was open to horses from around the world. Out of the three events that make up the Japanese Triple Crown, the Tokyo Yushun is the most well-known because it is the equivalent of the English Derby. 

Yasuda Kinen

The Yasuda Sho was the name given to the race in 1951 in honour of Izaemon Yasuda, the founding chairman of the JRA. Years later, the event was then renamed Yasuda Kinen. The Tokyo Racecourse hosts the annual Yasuda Kinen, a 1600-meter event, every June. The Yasuda Kinen, like the other Japanese Grade 1 races, is only for Thoroughbreds aged three-year-olds and up. 

In 2005, after more than four decades since its inception, the Yasuda Kinen became the concluding leg of the Asian Mile Challenge, a four-race event that also takes place in Melbourne, Dubai, and Hong Kong. Due to this, it earned the title of an International Grade 1 horse racing tournament. 

NHK Mile Cup

The NHK Mile Cup is one of Japan's most popular and exciting races. The NHK Mile Cup is sponsored by most broadcasting companies and is held annually in May at the Tokyo Racecourse. The overall distance of the race is 1,600 metres.

The NHK Mile Cup was the only Japanese competition that accepted foreign-bred horses. As a result, the NHK Mile cup gained an ill reputation for accepting horses of foreign bloodlines. Nevertheless, equine import restrictions were lifted, allowing foreign horses to join. 

Now that internationally bred horses are granted access to most Japanese races, the NHK Mile Cup was able to bring back its honour. The NHK Mile Cup also secured a spot in Japan's list of biggest tournaments.


Popular racecourses in Japan

Japan is popular for its big and successful tournaments and the country's popular race courses. As one of the top countries that adore horse racing, Japan boasts many racecourses where some of the country's biggest events are held:

Tokyo racecourse

This racecourse is located in the Fuchu Tokyo Metropolitan area, which is the biggest track in Japan. Some well-known races held at Tokyo Racecourse each year are the Japanese Derby, Yasuda Kinen, February Stakes, and the Japan Cup. 

Although the course's construction started in 1933, it still underwent major adjustments in the following years. It can now accommodate up to 223,000 people. The Tokyo racecourse 218 feet wide by 37 feet high-definition TV screen, which underwent renovation in 2007, is notably one of the biggest in the world.

Hanshin racecourse

The site of the modern Hanshin Racecourse was once owned by the Kawanishi Aircraft Company, which built aircraft during World War II. Keihanshin Keiba KK began building racetracks in 1949. The JRA then took ownership in 1955.

The lovely city of Takarazuka in Western Japan, bordered by the Nagao and Rokko mountains and divided by the meandering Muko River, is home to Hanshin Racecourse. The track has a jump course, a dirt course, and two grass courses.

One of the reasons why Hanshin racecourse is so popular is because the renowned Japan Dirt Cup, now called the Champions Cup, was held at Hanshin Racecourse from 2008 until 2015. The racecourse also features a thrilling vibe and exciting horse racing events that you'll enjoy seeing if you get the chance to visit.

Nakayama racecourse

The Nakayama racecourse can seat an average of 165,676 people and is located in the Chiba Prefecture's coastal city of Funabashi. While the current track was only built in 1990, the site for horse racing dates back to the early 20th century.

The Grand Prix, Satsuki Sho, Nakayama Grand Jump, and Nakayama Diashogai are just a few of the prestigious races held on the Nakayama racecourse. The jump course is notable since it offers two of the hardest leaps on the course in addition to a variety of other intriguing alternatives. Those leaps are needed for short-term events like the Nakayama Daishogai races.

Kyoto racecourse

A jump course, a dirt course, and two turf courses are all part of the 1999-built Kyoto Racecourse. Many major events, including the Tenno Sho, the Mile Championship, the Kikuka Sho, and the Queen Elizabeth II Cup, are held at the famous racecourse, which can accommodate 120,000 spectators.

It's not surprising how many popular horse racing events are held in Japan annually. With horse racing being a huge part of the country's culture and tradition, there's no denying that horse racing will continuously be a successful and strong industry.