horses for courses

The world's slowest horse races. By Peter Popham
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The Independent Culture
With its barns and grain hoppers and waving fields of wheat, the Japanese island of Hokkaido, most northerly of the main islands, looks as if it belongs in a different continent from the rest of the country. It was Japan's wild frontier until the late 19th century, when rugged pioneers blazed a trail for civilisation in the American way, exterminating large numbers of aboriginal Ainu in the process.

Too cold for rice cultivation, Hokkaido's farming developed along North American lines too, and on their days off these northern hayseeds liked to relax by hitching their huge ploughing horses up to sledges full of rocks and racing them.

Baneikeiba, "sledge racing", is the name of the sport, and since the end of the last War it has developed from being an amateur pastime and a carnival spectacle into a serious professional sport. Ten horses at a time compete, hauling loads weighing up to a ton across a sandy course 200 metres long. Races take place in four of the island's towns each month for nine months of the year, the close season being the snowy months of January to March. The forebears of the horses racing today all came from France and Belgium, but although it is a young sport, it has already developed both the arduous training programme and the gorgeous ceremony which mark it out as distinctively Japanese. On race days, training begins as early as 4am, the loads being steadily increased until the start of racing at 10am.

The ten horses racing are presented to the punters half an hour before each race, then, after a few laps without loads, the sledges are weighted according to each horse's handicap and hitched up. Harnessing is a delicate job as the horses begin to tug as soon as they feel the load. Finally, signalled by a claxon blast, the stalls open and the horses lumber forwards. The 200-metre track is broken by two mounds which slow the horses, the second so steep that it often requires several attempts for the horse to surmount it. By the finishing line, even the most powerful of the horses is reduced to an exhausted plod.

The real point of the sport, of course, is the gambling, and although baneikeiba is almost unknown outside Hokkaido, it is the heart of a huge betting industry within the island: some 800,000 people a year bet a total of about 30 billion yen (pounds 200 million) on the results.