Japanese Racing Suffers Business Declines Again in 2000

Like its ailing economy, racing in Japan is slumping. The Japan Racing Association reported a third consecutive year of declines in 2000 in both on-track attendance and total handle. With government-sanctioned wagering on soccer set to begin in Japan this year, 2001 promises to be a major challenge for the JRA.

Compared to American racing statistics, the numbers remain mind-boggling: average daily on-track attendance of 38,300 for the JRA's 288 days of racing, and average combined daily handle of 11.9 billion yen That converts to approximately $104 million each racing day, a figure that has been exceeded only one time in the United States, when $107 million was wagered on the 2000 Breeders' Cup program.

The JRA was down 4.3% in average daily attendance from 1999, and average handle declined by 7.1%. Since 1997, when the JRA achieved all-time highs in the two key areas, daily average attendance has fallen by an aggregate 15.2% and wagering has dropped 14.5%.

More worrisome to JRA president Masayuki Takahashi is the larger drop in business on major racing days. On all but one of the racing programs when a grade I race was run, declines in betting handle exceeded 10%. Handle on the popular year-end race, the Arima Kinen (Jpn-I), the JRA's biggest day of the year, was down 19.0% from 1999 and 27.2% from 1998.

Barbara Bayer, Japan correspondent for The Blood-Horse, interviewed Takahashi for an article in the Japan Racing Journal, quoting him as saying the JRA's prime concern in the coming year will be the fans. "We plan to give the fans the best possible service we can," Takahashi said. He also stressed the importance of marketing the JRA's biggest races. "We look at these races because we believe this is where the newcomer to racing gets his or her start," he said. "A 'casual fan' will give it a go and place a bet because it's a big race. This is where the new blood comes from and these are the fans we want to cultivate."

Takahashi said the JRA will market racing to areas of the country that have no racetracks or off-track wagering outlets. He is hoping potential fans in those areas will want to sign up for telephone wagering accounts or bet via computer on the JRA's Personal Access Terminal system. Also, Takahashi said, the JRA is planning a new wagering system using the Internet and wireless communications. The JRA marketing strategy, which in 2000 invited fans to vote for their favorite horses of the century, will shift. "This year we have 'Go JRA Jockey,' which will spotlight the riders, and will familiarize people with the jockeys and bring them closer to them," Takahashi said.

Racing in Japan is also conducted on the local level at 30 tracks through the National Association of Racing, and it, too, suffered in comparison to previous years. Average daily attendance for the 2,283 racing days at NAR tracks was 4,203, a decline of 7.6% from 1999. Daily average wagering of 245 million yen ($2.1 million) was down 6.3%.