Horseracing in South Korea: A Global Vision

Horseracing in South Korea:    A GLOBAL VISION       On the evening of January 19, 2017, something special happened in Dubai. To the casual spectator it might have seemed like any other horse race, but to viewers in the Republic of Korea, the 1200m District One Handicap at Meydan was a watershed moment in their nation’s sporting history. The winner of this race was Main Stay, a four-year-old colt trained by Kim Young Kwan and the first Korean-trained horse to win at a significant international meeting since Thoroughbred horse racing was established in South Korea almost 100 years ago. What is more, the winner carried the (KOR) suffix in the racecard, underlining the fact that the country is now capable of producing internationally competitive Thoroughbreds.       Yet as Main Stay crossed the line on that fateful night, even switched-on racing enthusiasts and professionals with a broad international perspective may have asked, “So they race in Korea?”       Indeed, this otherwise significant nation’s racing industry remains relatively unknown across the globe. Recent developments have brought Korean racing into the spotlight however, and notable domestic and international expansion projects put in place by the Korea Racing Authority (KRA) could soon see it established as an influential player on the global racing scene.       CONTEXT    In sporting terms, South Korea would most commonly be associated with taekwondo, baseball, soccer, or even figure skating. Yet horseracing is in fact the country’s second most popular spectator sport after baseball, with annual attendance of over 15 million. What is more, betting turnover stands at around $6.5 billion USD per annum, the seventh-highest in the world, meaning that horseracing in Korea already boasts figures that some of the most celebrated racing nations can only dream of.       Despite massive obstacles such as Japanese occupation (1910-1945), partition (1945), the Korean War (1950-53), and an ongoing state of tension with the North, horseracing in Korea has succeeded in following the same upward trajectory taken by Korean society as a whole through the second half of the 20th Century. Admittedly, it remains relatively underdeveloped compared to other jurisdictions in certain respects, such as horsemanship and welfare, but has come a long way in a short period and continues to develop at a rapid rate.       With formalized racing having first begun in Korea in 1922, it was only in the 1980s that races were limited to Thoroughbreds and subject to regulation of an international standard. Today, Korean racing runs like a well-oiled machine, with a highly developed administration harnessing advanced infrastructure so as to offer an attractive sporting product. There are serious challenges facing the sport in Korea, too, although difficulties overcome so far suggest that these in turn will be surmounted given time.       CURRENT STATE    Only flat racing takes place in the country and there are three racecourses: one in the Seoul suburb of Gwacheon, another in the southern city of Busan, and a final track based on the volcanic island of Jeju, some 50 miles to the southwest of the Korean peninsula. Racing takes place year-round, with regular fixtures at Seoul on Saturdays and Sundays, Busan on Fridays and Sundays, and Jeju on Fridays and Saturdays.       Races in Jeju are limited to an indigenous breed of pony. These stocky beasts may cause some amusement when urged to a full gallop by their seemingly over-sized riders, but pony racing in Jeju is no joke, with serious betting turnover registered and an important specialized breeding sector supporting the on-track action.     The Thoroughbreds race at Seoul and Busan and are stabled and trained at the tracks, which are both sand-based ovals. Horses are limited to racing at their home track, except when it comes to some of the season’s most significant races, and there is a healthy rivalry between the two cities’ racing people.       The number of horses in training currently stands at around 3,000, with 112 registered jockeys and 86 trainers. Trainers apply for boxes with the KRA, and 18 is a standard initial allocation. Success is rewarded with more stalls, while trainers who struggle or fall foul of regulations can see their license stripped. With the KRA holding a monopoly over Korean horseracing and all licensed trainers having to comply with strict rules, training fees must fall within a bracket set by the governing authority. This ranges from around $1,000 per month to around $2,000, with trainers left to fix their own rate within this bracket based on their own business model.       Korean racing in fact offers the world’s third-highest prize money per race. With an average of over $77,000 up for grabs in each contest, only the U.A.E. and Hong Kong are more generous. Like many racing nations, Korea has its own ‘Triple Crown’ series, consisting of the KRA Cup Mile (1600m, Busan, April), the Korean Derby (1800m, Seoul, May), and the Minister’s Cup (2000m, Seoul, July). The most prestigious race of the Korean calendar has historically been December’s 2300m Grand Prix at Seoul, though the establishment of richly endowed international races could see this change in coming years.       INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT    One of the most significant recent developments in Korean racing has been the advent of international races. Since 2013, a select number of races have been opened up first to Japanese, then Singaporean, and subsequently international entries. In 2016, the first Korea Autumn Racing Carnival was held at Seoul Racecourse, featuring the $1 million Keeneland Korea Cup (1800m) and the $700,000 Keeneland Korea Sprint (1200m). These flagship contests, which have Grade 1 status in Korea, carry increasing weight due to the country’s 2016 promotion by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities to Part II of the global pattern. The Sprint is now one of six Korean races recognized with black type in international catalogues. Four of these races are open to foreign-bred horses.       Horses from seven foreign nations took part in 2016’s inaugural Korea Autumn Racing Carnival, including runners from France, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, the U.A.E., the U.K., and Singapore.        In 2017, a new quarantine protocol allowed U.S.-trained runners to compete in Korea for the first time. Linda Rice’s Papa Shot lined up in the 2017 Korea Cup and the Kenny McPeek-trained The Truth or Else took his chance in the Korea Sprint. Neither could match the efforts of the Japanese contenders in the end, with the Sprint falling to Graceful Leap and Yutaka Take and the Cup to London Town and Yasunari Iwata, but both ran with credit and will hopefully encourage further American participation in future.       As Korea has sought to expand and enhance its racing industry, increasing numbers of foreign professionals have come to play a role in the sport in the country. Farriers, vets, jockey coaches, handicappers, stewards, commentators, trainers, and jockeys from around the world now contribute their skills and expertise to the betterment of the sport in Korea.       Trainers and jockeys from diverse nations including the U.K., France, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Sweden, Brazil, Serbia, and more have plied their trade in Korea in recent years. Standard protocol is to apply for an initial short-term license, which will be awarded or denied based on past performance. This can then be renewed or extended depending on KRA approval.       BREEDING & SALES    Having previously relied heavily on the importation of racehorses, the KRA set up its own breeding program in the early ’90s with the aim of producing Korean-bred stock of sufficient quality and quantity to reduce the requirement for imports. It was also hoped that a vibrant domestic market could be established to increase the sport’s contribution to the economy as a whole, while also generating employment. Significant progress has since been made, particularly in the past decade, and Korean-bred horses now represent approximately 80% of the racehorses in the country.       In an effort to protect the Korean bloodstock industry, there is a $50,000 limit on the price that can be paid for an individual colt or gelding imported into Korea. This does not apply to fillies however, with the hope being that better quality females can be raced in Korea and then go on to contribute to the standard of Korean stock as broodmares. There is also no limit on the price that can be paid for stallions and broodmares imported into Korea.       When it comes to domestic horse sales, private trading between individuals has historically been the most common practice in Korea. Auctions for Thoroughbred horses commenced in 1998 and there are now five two-year-old sales (including two in-training sales) and two sales for yearlings, two-year-olds, and three-year-olds held annually. The vast majority of racehorses in Korea that are purchased abroad will be signed for by the Owners’ Association of either Seoul or Busan racecourse. They will subsequently be resold at auction in Korea, often for a much higher price than that originally paid.       Thoroughbred breeding centers around the previously mentioned island of Jeju, where flatter terrain and a less extreme climate allow for better pasture than on the mainland. Of the 205 breeding farms in the country, 155 are located on Jeju Island. There are 110 active stallions in Korea and the KRA has, since 2004, been importing proven stallions of international caliber, often from the U.S. Grade 1 winners such as 2011 champion two-year-old Hansen and 1999 Haskell Invitational victor Menifee are two names of international repute that have made a strong impact on Korean breeding. Menifee has in fact been the leading sire in Korea for the past six seasons.       As was demonstrated by Main Stay in Dubai, Korean-bred horses are now capable of competing at international level and, with continued investment being made in stock, infrastructure, and educational programs aimed at improving standards of horsemanship, we can only imagine that the (KOR) suffix will soon be less of a curiosity in international racecards. There has even been a Korean-bred yearling, sired by the imported Grade 1 winner Rock Hard Ten, sell at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Sale in New York. That filly, Rock Sapphire, was a winner at three at Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania last year.       CHALLENGES    From the outside looking in, the entire population of South Korea appears to be under constant threat of catastrophe due to their belligerent northern neighbor. Horseracing is of course not immune to these geopolitical circumstances, and such an ominous presence cannot but affect the KRA’s attempts at both domestic and international expansion. Thankfully, no cataclysm has yet occurred and South Koreans always assure foreigners that, even when the rhetoric is flying, life tends to go on as normal in Korea. Let’s hope this continues to be the case.        A more pressing concern for those at the KRA is the public perception of horseracing in the country. One of the peculiarities of Korean racing is that many owners choose not to take their own colors. This is due to an image problem that racing in Korea (and other countries, particularly in Asia) has suffered from. In fact, horseracing, gambling, and therefore racehorse ownership are seen as degenerate by a significant section of the Korean population, meaning that a substantial number of owners do not wish to be too clearly associated with goings-on at the track. This reluctance does seem to be changing due to careful image curation and positive PR from the KRA, but the majority of horses still run with jockeys sporting their own signature colors.       One means of combating this negative image is the international racing that has become such an integral part of KRA strategy. Koreans are a proud people, and the success of their athletes abroad generally has a strong impact at home. Yuna Kim, 2010 Olympic figure skating gold medallist, and Son Heung-Min, a regular starter for English Premier League soccer club Tottenham Hotspur, are heroes in their homeland and admired by a majority of the domestic population for their achievements. Via international racing and the promotion of horseracing as a sport rather than solely a betting medium, the KRA hope to improve racing’s image and therefore reach a larger and more diverse public. Only time will tell if this shift in perception can be achieved, but current policy appears to be moving in a positive direction.       On a much more practical level, before international racing can truly take off in Korea it will be necessary to install a grass track at Seoul to replace the current sand surface, which can be a challenge for overseas competitors not accustomed to its unique characteristics. Just such a plan was announced in 2016 and, despite concerns over how a grass track will fare in Korea’s extreme climate (very hot in summer, very cold in winter, not much in between), it is hoped that it will be completed in 2019. The laying down of a turf track will entail its own set of issues, such as the need to breed and import turf-bred horses, as well as questions over how and where to train horses for the turf, but the KRA is nothing if not ambitious and previously defied the doubters when first announcing the planned establishment of international races.       LOOKING FORWARD    Korea will host the 37th Asian Racing Conference (ARC) in Seoul in May 2018, welcoming thousands of delegates from across Asia and the globe. Aimed at enhancing the sport through international cooperation and the exchange of knowledge and skills, the ARC will find a most appropriate setting in Seoul, where such endeavors have become a constant concern.       From humble origins and through great adversity, Korean racing now stands on the threshold of a bright new dawn. With proper management and the hard work that seemingly comes easily to the Korean people, the remaining challenges to its efforts to establish itself as a racing nation of international significance can surely be overcome.       It was little more than 30 years ago that horseracing in Korea was brought up to international standards of administration and regulation. Imagine where it might be 30 years from now…        END       Alex Cairns is a horseracing writer and photographer. He previously worked for the Korean Racing Authority as English editor and international liaison and is now based in his native Northern Ireland.       Email:  alex.cairns1@gmail.com     Website:  www.winningpost.net     Twitter: @ACHorseRacing    Instagram: @the_winning_post
By Alex Cairns

On the evening of January 19, 2017, something special happened in Dubai. To the casual spectator it might have seemed like any other horse race, but to viewers in the Republic of Korea, the 1200m District One Handicap at Meydan was a watershed moment in their nation’s sporting history. The winner of this race was Main Stay, a four-year-old colt trained by Kim Young Kwan and the first Korean-trained horse to win at a significant international meeting since Thoroughbred horse racing was established in South Korea almost 100 years ago. What is more, the winner carried the (KOR) suffix in the racecard, underlining the fact that the country is now capable of producing internationally competitive Thoroughbreds.

Yet as Main Stay crossed the line on that fateful night, even switched-on racing enthusiasts and professionals with a broad international perspective may have asked, “So they race in Korea?”

Indeed, this otherwise significant nation’s racing industry remains relatively unknown across the globe. Recent developments have brought Korean racing into the spotlight however, and notable domestic and international expansion projects put in place by the Korea Racing Authority (KRA) could soon see it established as an influential player on the global racing scene.

CONTEXT

In sporting terms, South Korea would most commonly be associated with taekwondo, baseball, soccer, or even figure skating. Yet horseracing is in fact the country’s second most popular spectator sport after baseball, with annual attendance of over 15 million. What is more, betting turnover stands at around $6.5 billion USD per annum, the seventh-highest in the world, meaning that horseracing in Korea already boasts figures that some of the most celebrated racing nations can only dream of.

Despite massive obstacles such as Japanese occupation (1910-1945), partition (1945), the Korean War (1950-53), and an ongoing state of tension with the North, horseracing in Korea has succeeded in following the same upward trajectory taken by Korean society as a whole through the second half of the 20th Century. Admittedly, it remains relatively underdeveloped compared to other jurisdictions in certain respects, such as horsemanship and welfare, but has come a long way in a short period and continues to develop at a rapid rate.

With formalized racing having first begun in Korea in 1922, it was only in the 1980s that races were limited to Thoroughbreds and subject to regulation of an international standard. Today, Korean racing runs like a well-oiled machine, with a highly developed administration harnessing advanced infrastructure so as to offer an attractive sporting product. There are serious challenges facing the sport in Korea, too, although difficulties overcome so far suggest that these in turn will be surmounted given time.

CURRENT STATE

Only flat racing takes place in the country and there are three racecourses: one in the Seoul suburb of Gwacheon, another in the southern city of Busan, and a final track based on the volcanic island of Jeju, some 50 miles to the southwest of the Korean peninsula. Racing takes place year-round, with regular fixtures at Seoul on Saturdays and Sundays, Busan on Fridays and Sundays, and Jeju on Fridays and Saturdays.

Races in Jeju are limited to an indigenous breed of pony. These stocky beasts may cause some amusement when urged to a full gallop by their seemingly over-sized riders, but pony racing in Jeju is no joke, with serious betting turnover registered and an important specialized breeding sector supporting the on-track action.


The Thoroughbreds race at Seoul and Busan and are stabled and trained at the tracks, which are both sand-based ovals. Horses are limited to racing at their home track, except when it comes to some of the season’s most significant races, and there is a healthy rivalry between the two cities’ racing people.

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