Unlike most home versions of horse racing games, Stakes Winner doesn't weigh you down with horse breeding or gambling, which makes sense considering this is first and foremost an arcade game. Unsurprisingly, you play as a jockey, choosing your horse from a varied lot with three different skills (speed, strength and stamina) and you compete in Japanese G1 horse racing circuit while trying to gather as much money as possible. Monetary prizes are only awarded to the top three finishing positions, so even if you come on fourth just by a nudge, the game demands you use another virtual coin to be able to continue.
Controls are very simple. You dictate your horse's movement with the left analog stick or digital D-Pad, tapping 'A' triggers the reins for a small increase of speed consuming a bit of stamina and doing the same with 'B' will bring out the whip, causing your horse to get a great burst of speed at the expense of a large chunk of stamina. Double-tapping forward will make your horse jostle for position if there's another horse on its way, with the effectiveness of this move determined by your steed’s strength value. You can also double-tap 'back' to slow down and conserve stamina.
While the first few races are short affairs and freely allow you to whip up your horse to first place, you will need to find discipline in the longer courses since stamina management is the key to victory. Mixing things up are pickups at certain spots on the track but not all of them are actually helpful – the same way a dashing pickup can win you a race, a poison one will prevent you from whipping your horse on the final stretch so you need to be extra cautious when moving to pick these up.
Your horse stats are not locked to their initial values, and every few races you get to pick a training turf that will enhance its original stats. To do so, you need to race the clock while bizarrely avoiding moles along the way. If you do manage to clear these, you might even get bonus stars for your other attributes instead of just the one you were training for. You should always strive to train your steed to have no discernible weaknesses if you wish to finish on the top three spots at the later, much longer races.
While fun and addictive for the lonesome jockey, it's when you add a second human player to the game that things get kicked up a notch. While CPU opponents provide more than an adequate challenge, having another human jockey to compete against is the game changer. Just like in real world horse racing, positioning is everything and having to fight a second player for the inner railing position without getting pinned to it or moving into first place to grab the race-deciding power-up proves to elevate the excitement considerably. In fact, it wouldn’t be too far off to compare Stakes Winner to any of the numerous one-on-one fighting games that Neo Geo is well known for. It's true that at about half an hour the game might prove to be a bit short for some, but considering it’s arcade game roots it proves to be a very exciting 30 minutes.
Saurus was never shy when it came to presentation and this game certainly shows this off with lovely sprite art and animations for both horses and jockeys coupled with full-screen bitmap images for the interludes. Music is suitably 'horse racing'-esque and those final stretch horns do their job. HAMSTER’s outstanding emulation wrapper once again provides all the bells and whistles needed enabling players to fully customize the experience to their liking and as always you can compete against the world in the Caravan Mode leaderboards.
Stakes Winner is a horse worth riding. By doing away with the more complex aspects of horse racing simulation games, it delivers instant arcade excitement for one or two virtual jockey and their virtual steeds. Very easy to pick up, but not so easy to master, its refreshing uniqueness might just surprise and convert you to this niche type of game. So feel free to look at this gift horse in the mouth, you might just find yourself a surprisingly brilliant new/old favourite. Giddy up!