Gambling is big business in Japan, and one of the more novel ways in which you can throw your money away is by betting on keirin. Until Sir Chris of Hoy did his stuff at the Beijing Olympics, hardly anyone outside Japan knew what keirin was, and now hardly anyone outside Japan and the UK knows what keirin is, but anyway, while gambling isn’t really my thing, bicycles certainly are, so when Mrs M and I were here for our Christmas holidays a few months ago, onii-san gave us a lift to the Toridé keirin stadium just outside Tokyo.
‘When we get there,’ he said, ‘it’ll be full of old guys with pencils behind their ears, smoking cigarettes and holding folded-up newspapers in their hands,’ and he was spot-on. Admittedly, part of the stadium was closed for renovations, but even allowing for this, it had the same tatty appearance and seedy atmosphere as Wimbledon dog track. Like Wimbledon, you can either pay more money and sit behind a glass-fronted section of the stands to watch the action, or pay less money and brave whatever the weather throws at you in the cheap seats.
We opted for the latter, and were soon poring over a list of the day’s races, three or four of which we had already missed. It took onii-san a good ten minutes to explain the complexities of the betting system, and even then I was still having trouble with the simplicities, although from what I could make out, it isn’t possible to just back the winner of a race. Rather, you bet on the first two or three finishers, or two of the first three, in the exact order in which they finish or in no particular order, so the odds aren’t so much on individuals as on combinations of individuals. This, I assume, is designed to make it more difficult for a race to be fixed, and because the riders are human, and therefore more susceptible to a bribe, a backhander or a bung than, say, horses or dogs, the environment in which they work is strictly regulated: from the moment the day’s race order has been decided, for example, the riders are confined to their changing rooms, and no one is allowed to use computers or mobile phones.
What this also means is that rather than odds, the likelihood of your bet being successful is displayed on the many monitors and TV screens around the stadium not as a ratio – 3-1, 11-4 or whatever – but in terms of how much you would win from a hundred-yen stake. The list that you are given as part of the fifty-yen entrance fee has basic statistics detailing how the riders have fared in recent races, and for the more dedicated punter there are keirin newspapers, but for beginners like us, the best thing to do is to take a wild guess and bet small.
When a race has finished, the riders in the next emerge from a tunnel beneath the track for a single practice lap, rather like horses being led around the paddock. If any of them has his leg strapped up or looks a bit peaky, now is the time to change your mind about backing him, as not long after this a bell rings to signal that betting on the race is officially closed. About ten officials will by now have emerged from the same tunnel on a fleet of shopping bikes, and positioned themselves at various points around the track. One of them is there to ring a bell that signals the last lap of the race (for extra drama, rather than a cursory couple of rings, the bell is sounded about ten times, starting slowly and building up speed), a couple more roll out the starting gates, and the rest spread out to face the stands, presumably to ensure that no one is trying to use any kind of covert sign language to communicate with the riders. There is also an integral perspex screen in the track’s perimeter fence to prevent rider / spectator subterfuge, and I was even told to stop taking photographs by a steward in the stands, although he didn’t go so far as to confiscate our camera, so the shots that you see here must be something of a rarity.
The riders then emerge from the tunnel once more and slot themselves in to their starting gates in numerical order. Each wears a simple outfit in white, black, red, blue, yellow, green, orange, pink or purple, numbered from one to nine in that order for every race. There is no branding or sponsorship on these outfits, and even the riders’ helmets are concealed beneath a plain, numbered cover. The pacemaker at some keirin races rides an old-fashioned-looking motorbike, but here a cyclist in a numberless outfit was positioned in his own starting gate about ten metres ahead of the competitors.
Once the starting gun has sounded, the pacemaker hits the front and frankly, nothing much happens for the first couple of laps. At Toridé the riders do five laps of a 400-metre track, and at some point towards the end of the fourth lap, everything will suddenly come to life. After another twenty seconds or so of jostling for position, overtaking, undertaking and frantic pedalling, the lead will change hands at least once or twice, and most of the people in the stadium will let out groans of disappointment as the winner crosses the line. There was some fairly colourful language flying around when we arrived – a couple of people shouted ‘You fucking idiot!’ at a rider who had failed to win them a fortune – but other than that, the crowd was quite well behaved. In among the old guys with cigarettes and pencils behind their ears, there were even some women, children and younger couples, although Mrs M wondered aloud what sort of message it would send to your girlfriend or boyfriend if you invited them on a date to a place like this – ‘They might worry about your future,’ she said, which is a fair point.
For lunch we headed for a one-storey, shack-like building with sliding glass doors and formica tables, where the food was significantly better than the kind of thing you get at a British dog track or football stadium: I had a set meal of tempura, rice, miso soup and pickles for a few hundred yen, and water, green tea and some kind of herb tea were available free from a nearby vending machine.
Either at the bar-like counters with their stacks of betting slips and pots of little plastic golf pencils, or at the windows where you handed over your stake, the staff were keen to help, and would show us how to fill in our betting slips or suggest who to bet on. Rumour had it that earlier in the day, someone had won a lot of money on an unexpected result, and after a fruitless few races, I finally struck it lucky myself. Unfortunately, because I a) bet on the most favoured riders and b) didn’t guess the exact order in which they finished, it wasn’t so much winning as losing a little less – I recouped 240 yen on a 300-yen bet, which was dispensed without fanfare from an anonymous vending machine.
Between the three of us we had invested about two thousand yen (ten or fifteen pounds) for a return of just sixty, which didn’t bode well for a career as a professional punter, so we called it a day at about four in the afternoon. On the way out I noticed a smoking tent beside the entrance to the enclosed stand, which was something of a surprise (if they ever banned smoking from the rest of the stadium, they would lose about two thirds of their clientele in one fell swoop) and a large satellite truck.
‘If you don’t want to come all the way to Toridé,’ said onii-san, ‘there’s a betting shop near Mito that shows live broadcasts.’ At this point, Mrs M looked as if she might have started to worry about our future, so I said to onii-san that when it came to keirin, once was probably enough.