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INTERVIEW | New President Masayoshi Yoshida Outlines His Vision for the JRA

As the JRA's new president, Masayoshi Yoshida shares insights on how horse racing can grow and thrive, including utilizing newer technologies for wagering.

Masayoshi Yoshida assumed the presidency of the Japan Racing Association (JRA) on September 12. JAPAN Forward is delighted to present this two-part exclusive interview offering insights into his perspectives. At the age of 65, Yoshida now leads the JRA, representing the pinnacle of horse racing in Japan. 

First of two parts

Yoshida shares his vision for Japan's global role, considering the world's highest betting turnover and the increasing prominence of Japanese racehorses in prestigious international events. 

In the interview, he explores the unique features that define Japan's esteemed horse racing event system. His responses delve into his career and his thoughts on the past, present, and future of the JRA and Japanese horse racing. 

Excerpts follow. 

Japan Racing Association President Masayoshi Yoshida in an interview on November 15, 2023, in Tokyo. (© Sankei by Kazuya Kamogawa)

'A Profound Sense of Responsibility'

Assuming the presidency, you follow the legacy of Mr Kenji Tsuchikawa and Mr Masayuki Goto, becoming the third consecutive president who has grown within the organization since the beginning of their careers.

In the current horse racing scene, Japanese-bred horses are triumphing on the global stage, and the offspring of Japanese stallions are gaining international acclaim. While horse racing is inherently associated with gambling, I keenly observe that people's expectations for it as a form of sports entertainment are evolving beyond a mere gamble. Considering these heightened expectations from our audience, I feel a profound sense of responsibility. 

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During Mr Tsuchikawa's term, horse racing in East Japan faced interruptions due to the Great East Japan Earthquake. Also, Mr Goto's tenure grappled with races conducted without spectators amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the challenges, sales experienced an upswing. You've now taken the reins in September 2023, entering a post-COVID era.

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the total sales for 2022 soared to around ¥3.26 trillion JPY ($22.9 million USD), reflecting a remarkable growth of 105.5% compared to the previous year. This surge was likely fueled by what we term a "stay-at-home demand." However, this momentum has slowed noticeably this year. By the conclusion of the Tenno Sho (Autumn) in September (spanning January to October), sales stood at 99.9%, slightly below the previous year.

From the peak of ¥4 trillion JPY in 1997, sales steadily declined until the year of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. The year before the earthquake saw operating losses, and the year of the earthquake incurred net losses. Sales started to recover from 2012. And during Mr Goto's presidency, they were on an upward trajectory. The situation began to show a slight decline around the time I assumed the presidency.

Challenge and Strategies to Achieving a Stable Income

It appears you faced a challenging beginning.

The growth of the horse racing industry is intricately tied to betting turnover. Both the sales of the Japan Racing Association and local horse racing play a role in racehorse production and stable operations. 

Betting turnover serves as the bedrock supporting the entire horse racing industry. A decline in betting turnover translates to a loss of stable income, a factor I deem crucial for the overall sustainability of the industry.

There was a period during the COVID-19 pandemic when cash betting was not available. How much did online betting grow?

Online betting increased by approximately ¥750 billion JPY ($5.2 billion USD) compared to the pre-COVID year of 2019. However, there was a negative impact of ¥380 billion JPY ($2.6 billion USD) due to the suspension of cash betting during that period. Roughly half of the upswing in online sales was mitigated by the decrease in cash sales. 

Moreover, the surge in the share of online betting during the COVID-19 pandemic wasn't abrupt. Even before COVID, it maintained around a 70% share. The JRA has been implementing telephone betting since 1974, and I genuinely appreciate the efforts of my predecessors, which proved invaluable during the challenges of the pandemic.

The JRA Smartphone App (Provided by the JRA)

What specific strategies are you considering to boost revenue?

Key areas of focus include enhancing access to information and betting services through smartphones, reinforcing video content, and encouraging the return to racetracks. Primarily, improvements in communication infrastructure, such as Wi-Fi at racetracks, are deemed essential. Among users of online betting, 78% make purchases via smartphones. The release of the JRA app in 2023 is part of this initiative. And we have also introduced live streaming of races through the website and app. 

Furthermore, in a landscape characterized by the polarization of "buying bets on smartphones" and "watching horse racing as a sports spectacle," we believe it's crucial to offer outstanding races. We must motivate customers to come to the racetrack and experience the excitement of live races.

We recognize that Japan's horse racing event system is something to be proud of. Is Japan's betting turnover the world's number one?

According to the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities' 2019 statistics, Japan's turnover stands at €29.4 billion EUR (nearly ¥4.6 trillion JPY). This encompasses both central and local races. 

Following Japan are Australia with €18.2 billion EUR (¥2.8 trillion JPY), the United Kingdom with €17.9 billion EUR (nearly ¥2.8 trillion JPY), Hong Kong with €13.8 billion EUR (¥2.1 trillion JPY), and the United States with €9.8 billion EUR (¥1.5 trillion JPY). 

While Hong Kong is expected to have experienced increased turnover recently, Japan remains unparalleled.

JRA President Masayoshi Yoshida (© Sankei by Kazuya Kamogawa)

The Importance of Revenue Sharing

Is the revenue share going to organizers also the highest in Japan?

Absolutely. Unlike most other places, which rely on delegated betting sales, Japan and Hong Kong stand out for their joint operation of organizers and distributors. This collaborative approach ensures the circulation of funds through various sectors of the horse racing industry. The strength, I believe, lies in the racing associations' handling everything, including licensing, in a unified manner.

How was the distinctive Japanese horse racing event system developed?

The introduction of the Totalizator system, a computerized solution for processing sales and refunds of winning horse betting tickets, played a significant role. Japan took a pioneering step by implementing this system in 1966. That enables the efficient handling of a large volume of bets.

Another significant factor is the expansion of telephone betting. The first telephone betting facility was established in 1974. It laid the groundwork for the current online and smartphone betting systems. Additionally, the introduction of betting cards in 1991, around the same time as the Quinella system, provided additional momentum. 

In terms of cash sales, the widespread establishment of small-scale sales outlets like J-PLACE in facilities related to local horse racing has also been crucial.

Insights on a Big Increase in Prize Money for Arima Kinen and Japan Cup

In the years 2022 and 2023, major race prize money experienced a remarkable upswing for two consecutive years. The first-place prize money for both the Arima Kinen and Japan Cup surged from ¥300 million JPY ($2.1 million USD) in the preceding year to ¥400 million JPY ($2.8 million USD) in 2022. It escalated to an impressive ¥500 million JPY ($3.5 million USD) in 2023. 

What is the purpose behind this rapid and substantial increase in prize money?

As the organizers, we aim to encourage star horses affiliated with our organization (JRA) to compete domestically rather than partake in races abroad. It is our responsibility as organizers to have Japan's star horses compete against international star horses in the Japan Cup. Both the Japan Cup and Arima Kinen stand out by offering the highest prize money globally for turf races.

JRA President Masayoshi Yoshida (© Sankei by Kazuya Kamogawa)

About Masayoshi Yoshida 

Masayoshi Yoshida was born on November 17, 1958, in Gunma Prefecture. He graduated from Takasaki High School and Waseda University's Faculty of Letters. In 1983, he joined the Japan Racing Association (JRA) and has since held various positions, including Chief of the Comprehensive Planning Department's Business Planning Office, Director of the Chukyo Racecourse, and Director of the Racing Department. Yoshida became a Director in 2016, assumed the role of Managing Director in 2021, and served as Vice President from March 2023 until becoming the President in September.

Continues in INTERVIEW | New JRA President Masayoshi Yoshida on the Mark Being Made by Japanese Stallions

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(Read the interview in Japanese.)

Interview by: Manabu Suzuki, for JAPAN Forward

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