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.
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.
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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August - October 2018, issue 49 (PRINT)
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