Photo/Illutration The north gate of the Tokyo City Keiba racecourse in the capital’s Shinagawa Ward on July 22 (Eishi Kado)

Local authorities that promote horse racing seem unable to keep a tight rein on their stock, judging by a spate of runaway incidents over the past decade.

In May, a racehorse escaped from the Tokyo City Keiba racecourse in the capital’s Shinagawa Ward. Another did the same in June. A racecourse in Iwate Prefecture experienced a similar occurrence in July.

They were among 19 cases where horses broke loose around the country over the past decade. All of the incidents occurred at racecourses that host horse racing operated by local governments.


“I heard something splash into the water. It was too loud for a human to make, so I looked around and was amazed to see a horse,” said a stunned angler of what he encountered while fishing on the banks of a waterway facing the Tokyo City Keiba.

“I must admit the horse swam well with a bit of snort,” the 76-year-old man said.

According to the racecourse, a 6-year-old mare named Sardana suddenly began acting unruly after exercising on the morning of June 20, jumped over a barrier and dived into the nearby waterway.

The horse was rounded up about 15 minutes later while it was swimming.

On May 25, a 13-year-old gelding named Saint Memory, a lead horse that walks in front of racehorses from the paddock to the racecourse, also escaped from the facility by leaping over the fence as Sardana did. The horse hit a car on a nearby national road, injuring two men, including the driver.

The thoroughbred was also injured and found crouched down near the car, according to the racecourse.

The fence Saint Memory jumped over is 1.6 meters high, the same height as the highest hurdle used in Olympic equestrian events and other international competitions.

“It was totally unexpected. We didn’t expect a lead horse would leap over the fence,” said a staff member.

The racecourse is taking measures to prevent a recurrence. The staff member said the horses in both cases apparently got spooked by a sound and ran off in fright.

Races hosted by local governments are held at 15 racecourses nationwide, according to the farm ministry’s Horse Race Supervision Division.

Of runaway horse incidents that occurred in or after 2011, all 19 cases where horses escaped from facilities involved one of the racecourses, stables or related facilities.

Similar incidents have not occurred at racecourses that host races organized by the Japan Racing Association (JRA) since one in 2007 at the Hanshin Racecourse in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, the division said.


“It’s not really surprising that these sorts of incidents are occurring more frequently at racecourses operated by local governments,” said Takahiro Otsuki, a folklorist who is well-versed in horse racing.

For races organized by the JRA, racehorses are basically trained at two training centers, one each in Ibaraki and Shiga prefectures, and transported to racecourses across the nation before races are held on weekends.

“A racecourse and stable are often built as one facility,” Otsuki noted, referring to races operated by local governments. “Encroaching urbanization around such traditional style racecourses has created an environment where horses can easily come into contact with ordinary people going about their daily lives.”

Eleven of the 19 runaway horse incidents occurred at racecourses where horses need to walk on public roads to be taken to and from stables or other facilities, according to the National Association of Racing, the Tokyo-based organization for horse racing hosted by local governments, and other sources.

Seven of the cases involved the Kasamatsu Racecourse in Kasamatsu, Gifu Prefecture, where one of the related facilities is located 1.5 kilometers away.

In 2013, a male driver died after his car hit a horse that had bolted from the racecourse. The racecourse said it is considering keeping its horses at one adjacent facility, but that is proving difficult due mainly to high costs.


Many other runaway horse incidents apparently stem from the decrepit state of facilities that led to horses knocking down a barrier and breaking loose. Repairs to such facilities tend to be delayed due to a shortage of funds.

“What needs to be improved needs to be improved,” said Otsuki. “At the heart of this issue is the growth of sprawling urbanization. Japanese society is no longer able to coexist with horses as it used to in olden days.”

Otsuki also noted that unlike other countries, horse riding is not an outdoor pursuit enjoyed by many people.

“Unlike other countries with advanced ‘horse culture,’ where horse riding is as common as cycling, these large creatures have long disappeared from people’s daily lives in Japan and only horse racing now thrives here. This is, in a sense, an unusual and strange situation. It's time for people to think about how they can coexist with horses.”

Recent runaway horse incidents

October 2013
A racehorse bolted from an open gate of a racecourse and hit a moving car nearby, causing it to collide with an oncoming vehicle. The accident killed the horse and a man in the first car. The racecourse installed more barriers inside the facility to prevent a recurrence.

August 2018
A racehorse escaped from its stable through a side entrance. The bar of the entrance was replaced with a gate.

December 2018
A racehorse knocked down a wire fence and escaped from a racecourse. It jumped onto a car that stopped suddenly, damaging the vehicle. The fence was replaced with new one.

(Based on interviews with racecourses and other sources)