Running to the Japanese Derby

by Kate Hunter,

The 2009 Japanese Derby was just 5 days away when I got the call from my friends to meet them for dinner. At a small bar, they are pouring over a time table. “On Friday, I can be there by 5:00 p.m. to relieve you for the night.” I say. Another says, “Ok, can anyone relieve Kate the next morning?” One by one, the time table gets filled, ending with the volunteer who agreed to spend Saturday night out; I had agreed to spend the night on Friday. For 18 hours, it will be my job to ensure our spot is safe.

With nothing but my sleeping bag and book about Dr. Fager for company, I curl up and wait. This is the boring part, but there is a reason for it. I will wake up on Saturday and enjoy a day of racing before heading home to prepare for the Derby.

A GI Sunday for fans in Japan can start as early as 3:00 a.m., if they even bothered going to bed. I have to get up, shower, have a hearty breakfast to build my energy, and pack up my tarps, duct tape, locks, keys, bike locks, small stools, etc… and of course, my trusty camera. On the way to my station to catch the first train of the day, I buy some coffee and maybe a little more breakfast (I really will need all the energy I can get), and a racing form. Some people are luckier than I am. I live 2 hours away from Tokyo Racecourse in Fuchu City… but those 2 hours have never stopped me from going, especially not for a GI.

When I arrive at the station next to the track, it is about 6:00 a.m., and still a good 2 and a half hours before they open the gates. There are already hundreds of people here, all seated on the floor waiting patiently. I make my way towards the front of the line, which is 12 people wide and hundreds of feet long. I see my friends and join them in the same spot I had slept just the night before.

After 3 days of holding a spot, we are not the first people in line; some people have been waiting 5 or even 7 days to be in the first group. Even though we are not first,  we are happy with our location.

I’ve been here before, and I know what is coming. At 7:30 a.m. it will be time to put all of our baggage in the ‘safe’ area, where the friends who don’t want to participate will standby, watching our stuff. Those of us who were going to participate get back in line. This is where the anticipation mounts. For the next 30 minutes you wait, some people stretch, some chain smoke, and others sit calmly, but we all know what is coming. We prepare our tarps and duct tape for deployment. At 8:25 the guards call for everyone in line to stand up and walk towards the front. They scream at us to act civil, to not push each other. Everyone has been squeezed into a small tight pack, pushing and shoving to get closer to the front. I am not a fan of this part. I find the very intensity of the moment almost scary, but I have agreed to participate. The flag is up....

And They’re off...

At 8:30, the gates open, and race fans have their own race, but just like any race, this one has its dangers: several of my friends have had sprained ankles, ripped clothes, and one even once broke a wrist. A stream of hundreds of people make a mad dash to get a good seat for the Derby. People fall left and right, but you pay no attention to anything but the goal you seek most. You jump… you dodge… you hope no one gets in your way… And most of all, you don’t want to go down! Once at the spot of your choice you quickly throw down your tarp and secure it with tape, claiming that bit of land as your own for the day.

My friends and I take pictures of the races, so our ultimate goal is a place just past the finish line. One guy runs for the stands so we have a place to go if it rains; another heads for the clubhouse turn (called the 4th corner here), which is a good place for friends with long range lenses. The last two guys try to get a spot near the finish line: the most important one. I have been lucky this year: we have grown into a team that knows exactly where we want to go and the shortest and fastest way to get there.

We do this every time there is a GI, and so do most of the people who were in the pack with us. This is the intensity behind graded stakes races in Japan. It might seem crazy back in the US, and it was crazy to me at first... but that hasn’t stopped me from doing it 16 times so far. If you want a good seat at the track on a GI day, you’d better be ready to run for it.

After a year and a half as a loyal race fan here in Japan, I wanted to share with you what a typical GI day is like. In Japan, Sunday is stakes day, when all GI flat races are held. Only a rare GII or GIII race is ever held on a Saturday. Grade I stakes races in Japan have a level of pomp and circumstance that is rarely seen the US, aside for a few select GI events. In the United States, there are over 140 Grade I races spread out over about 38 states and well over 100 tracks; in Japan, there are only 10 Japan Racing Association (JRA) tracks and about 20 National Association of Racing (NAR) supervised locally run tracks. Fewer numbers in a smaller country make it pretty easy to keep track of the stakes races. There are only 24 GI races in the JRA, and they are held at only 5 of the JRA tracks: Tokyo, Kyoto, Hanshin, Nakayama, and Chukyo. NAR tracks have Grade I events too, they are usually labeled SI or JPNI depending on status, though they don’t pack the same fervor and insanity the morning of and days before like the JRA GI races do.
The races are spread out in such a way that catching them all isn’t too much of a challenge, and even with both divisions, I am still capable of making almost every race. This would be impossible in the US, where many Grade I races are held on the same weekend or same day on opposite sides of the country. Being a part of the Japanese racing circuit has been an amazing experience, and one that I am sure I will never forget.

Oh yeh... be sure to hit the bathroom before the 8th race. With almost 100,000 people or more at a GI event, going to the bathroom before the main event is like a salmon swimming up stream, and then having to wait in a really, really, really long line...

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