By Ju-min Park

OBIHIRO, Japan (Reuters) – At Obihiro racetrack, spectators walk alongside the course as fast as the big beasts they’ve backed to win, cheering as they go. There’s no sprinting in this contest: The adrenaline charge is all about power – pure, 1-tonne horse power.

The Obihiro track is for ‘ban’ei keiba’, traditional racing featuring giant farmhorses on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. Every Saturday, Sunday and Monday, the horses pull sleds that equal their own tonne in weight, guided by a jockey, along a 200-metre sand track – with two mounds to climb along the way.

This June, a new attraction is set to grace Obihiro. The Olympic torch is to be carried down the track by one of the heavy horses, as part of the flame’s relay tour of Japan before arriving in Tokyo for the Summer Games.

Tetsuya Satou, general manager of the racecourse, is counting on the arrival of the torch in June to bring new attention to the sport. “This is a real honor … The relay using an animal is not happening elsewhere in the whole country,” said Satou.

That attention could be much needed for an ageing sport in serious decline.

Ban’ei – meaning ‘pull’ – racing began around 1900 as contests among Hokkaido farmers showing off the strength of their horses. After World War II, it was turned into a sport, complete with rules, betting and four tracks.

But as popular tastes have changed, crowds have dwindled and Obihiro is now the last track in operation. The number of jockeys fell to 19 in 2018 from 28 in 2013, data show.

Still, supporters say the unique nature of the sport offers a key to its survival.

“Climbing up obstacles is something different from regular horse races,” said Kouhei Kaneta, a 26-year-old fan explaining the attraction on a recent visit to Obihiro.

Sakae Katsumata, a 72-year-old retired carpenter from Obihiro, has been coming to the races for 50 years.

“This is the only race of its kind in the world, there’s a chance to attract people from overseas,” Katsumata said, adding that he had seen Chinese and Korean tourists at the track despite recent declines in visitor due to the coronavirus epidemic.

The virus has hit Hokkaido particularly hard, with the number of infected people the highest in Japan. Authorities have asked ask residents to avoid outdoor activities.

Tours of the track’s backyard and early morning training sessions have been suspended for weeks. Races without spectators will continue until March 24, when the track takes an annual one-month break, although online betting is still possible.

Looking ahead to June, Takumi Fujimoto, a 58-year-old jockey, said he would jump at the chance to carry the Olympic torch on a sled pulled by a star of the Obihiro track.

“Nothing specific has been decided yet, but if I’m chosen, then, yes, I will do it,” said Fujimoto.

“This may never happen again.”

(Reporting by Ju-min Park; Editing by Antoni Slodkowski and Kenneth Maxwell)

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