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The race is not always to the swift, as the old saying goes. At the Ban-Ei courses in Hokkaido, Japan, the race is never to the swift. This is firstly because the horses that compete are enormous shires, bred for strength rather than speed, and secondly because they are further hampered by the heavy iron sleds they pull behind them - each sled can weigh three times as much as the horse itself. The racecourses are sand, and include two hillocks over which the horses must drag their sleds, so it's not surprising they tend to stop for rests on the way round. The standard 200m race takes several minutes; a well-conditioned flat- racer could take as little as 12 seconds to cover the same distance.

Hokkaido is the northernmost and most inhospitable of Japan's islands, and settlers there brought in strong European horses to replace the smaller Japanese breeds for heavy work. Betting on the strength of the animals, mostly French Percheron crosses, was one of the few pleasures in a difficult life, and formalised Ban-Ei racing developed from this. The government began subsidising the sport during the post-Second World War food shortages: not through any altruistic concern for hungry Ban-Ei breeders, but because the Japanese eat horse meat - and incompetent or elderly Ban-Ei horses inevitably end up on the dinner table.

Trained colts are tested at three, four or five years old to see if they have an aptitude for Ban-Ei (which translates as "pulling"); a small percentage pass, and the rest are sold for meat. This is a sad time for their owners and trainers: the northern Japanese are by no means sentimental, but horses have been an important part of the peoples' lives for so long that they are loved as well as respected. Perhaps that explains why it's so rare to find horse meat in a Hokkaido supermarket - and why many older residents have a small shrine to Bato-kannon, the god who looks after horses, in a corner of their garden.