If you’re looking for something a little different to do one evening, why not try your luck at the races? There are two racetracks in Tokyo: Tokyo Racecourse in Fuchu and Tokyo Oi Racecourse in Shinagawa, also known as Tokyo City Keiba. Tokyo City Keiba is the more famous of the two and by far the easiest to access from central Tokyo.

There are two horse racing leagues in Japan: the Japan Racing Association (JRA) and Chihou-Keiba (“Regional Horseracing”). Tokyo City Keiba belongs to the latter, along with the racecourses in Urawa, Kawasaki, and Funabashi (among others). The race calendar switches between these venues during the season meaning that races are held at Tokyo City Keiba about once every two to three weeks. But it is the night time “Twinkle Races” between April and December which draw the biggest crowds. For these events the gates typically open just after 2pm with the first race held at 2:50pm, the main race at 8:10pm and the final race at 8:50pm. There are 12 races in total, and each is about 30 minutes apart giving you plenty of time to head back to the betting machines or grab a beer before the next. There are plenty of food stalls and beer stands around the plaza and inside the main buildings (think yakitori, fried chicken, burger, ramen, etc.).

In front of the main building 10 minutes before the race begins

It doesn’t have to be an expense evening. Entrance to the grounds is ¥100 and this is also the minimum bet. Of course, there is also reserved seating available for up to ¥3,500 (which gets you your own little television on which to watch the action), but if you’re heading there for the atmosphere and a bit of fun then the ¥100 entrance ticket and a spot on the platform near the racetrack is all you need.

The restaurants in the grounds
Filling in betting slips

It is also surprisingly foreigner-friendly with information booklets in English, Chinese, and Korean available from the ticket office at the main entrance. There is even an English website that tries to explain how to visit Oi Racecourse, but in truth knowing how to bet requires a little more detail than they provide, especially if you can’t read kanji and/or don’t know the first thing about betting. I definitely fall into the latter category so I’ll explain the basics of making a bet and (hopefully) collecting your winnings.

There are four different betting slips which are laid out on the tables near the betting machines, but if you’re just heading to the racetrack for a bit of fun then all you really need is the “Light Card” (ライトカード).

The light betting slip
  1. The racecourse name. If you’re at Oi then you need to put a mark in 大井
  2. Race number. You can see from the screens the number of the current race. Betting for each race ends a few minutes before the start (the end of betting for the Twinkle races is announced with the familiar jingle of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”)
  3. Bet type… We’ll get to that below

The strips below are for each individual bet (of which you can make 5 per Light Card: 2 strips on the front, 3 on the back). Each betting strip consists of three sections:

  1. The horse or bracket number with the numbers above being the finishing place (1st, 2nd, or 3rd)
  2. The money multiplier
  3. The denomination of your bet: ¥10,000, ¥1,000, or ¥100. Thus (6) x (5) is the amount of money you wish to bet

The final bar to the right (取消) is to void that particular bet.

All sections of the card are pretty self-explanatory apart from the top-right section (3): the type of bet. If (like me) you’re not familiar with the type of bets you can make on horses then this is worth knowing beforehand—and even if you are it seems that some of the betting types are unique to the Japan circuit. Here’s a quick run-down:

単勝WinYour horse must finish 1st
複勝ShowYour horse must finish 1st, 2nd, or 3rd
枠連複???There are two types of numbers for each horse: the horse number (each horse has one number) and the bracket number (assuming there are more than 7 horses competing). For the bracket number, the horses are paired up in order so horse numbers 1 and 2 are in bracket 1, horse numbers 3 and 4 are in bracket 2, and so forth. Each bracket has its own colour and the jockey’s helmet will match the colour of their bracket. The bet is that the two bracket numbers (so four horses) you select will place 1st and 2nd in any order.
枠連単???The same as above but this time the order of the two bracket numbers matter
普馬複QuinellaYour horses must finish 1st and 2nd in either order
普馬単ExactaYour horses must finish 1st and 2nd in the exact order you specified
ワイドWideYou choose 2 horses and they must both place within the top 3
3連複???Your choose 3 horses to come 1st, 2nd, and 3rd and they must win in any order
3連単TrifectaYour choose 3 horses to come 1st, 2nd, and 3rd and they must win in the order you specified

Incidentally, this site has the most detailed explanation (including helpful examples of the betting slips filled in for each type of bet), but it’s only in Japanese.

Which brings us to the odds. Maybe it’s because I’m a horse betting novice, but the screens showing the odds seemed to change before I had time to make any sense of them, so it might be worth checking out this site which has live odds for each race beforehand. At least that way you can go there with an idea of the horse numbers on which you’re going to place your hard-earned cash.

The horses at the gates
A procession beforehand

Once you’ve filled out your betting slip, take it to one of the many machines. Insert your money, insert the slip, press “清算” (assuming you didn’t put in the exact amount of change), and out pops your betting ticket. Claiming your winnings is even easier: go back to the machine, insert your ticket, press “清算”, and out comes your winnings.

I went there after work one evening on the day of one of the “Important Prize Races” (重賞レース), but any night of the Twinkle Races would be fine (you can see the schedule on the official website). If you can get to the racecourse by 6:30pm you’ll be able to bet on and watch the last four races. Otherwise get there in the afternoon and make a day of it!

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