Photo/Illutration A "banei keiba" horse race held in Obihiro, Hokkaido, on Feb. 23. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

"Banei keiba" is a form of traditional Japanese horse racing whereby jockeys stand on heavy iron sleds pulled by draft horses up sandy ramps.

As it is more about strength than speed, the horses are allowed to crouch down or stop to catch their breath while struggling up a ramp, so spectators can walk along the course and keep pace with the horses.

This year's banei keiba season is in full swing in Obihiro, Hokkaido.

The racing has its origin in a Meiji Era (1868-1912) festival, during which farm horses were tested for strength.

The word "banei" denotes a horse hauling a sled.

Shortly after World War II, banei keiba came under local government management and grew popular, and a horse breeder was quoted as saying, "I'm much happier watching my horse run than going to see my grandchildren on their school sports day."

In Obihiro, horses have always been family. "We needed horses to haul felled trees, plow the fields, and even to go shopping," said Tomoe Tsujimaru, 60, a director of nonprofit organization Tokachi Uma Bunka wo Sasaeryu Kai (Group to support Tokachi's horse culture). "Banei sleds served as a bridal conveyance, too," Tsujimaru added.

During World War II, the equines were conscripted and shipped to the front as war horses. After the war, the mechanization of agriculture and the popularization of passenger cars rendered draft horses redundant. Many were sold for meat, and their population plummeted.

The only place where they could shine was at the racecourse, but even that almost disappeared after the asset-inflated economy collapsed in the early 1990s.

But in recent years, online betting ticket sales have been brisk, and more spectators have attended the races.

Tsujimaru's NPO is now exploring various non-racing "professions" for the horses, such as pulling tourist carriages and working on organic farms. At the same time, there are concerns about the future, given the steady aging of horse breeders and an anticipated decline in the birthrate of horses.

I visited the Obihiro racecourse in mid-November when local temperatures fell below freezing. Young women and families with small children seemed to dominate the crowd, and they cheered heartily even for horses that lagged way behind their competitors.

There definitely was a kind of warmth that made the race much more than just a gambling experience.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 16

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.