South Korea is small — only about the size of Maine or Ireland — but it is home to some 50 million people. Of course, 75% of these people live in the 25% of the country that is not covered in mountains.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]o look at it another way, close to 40 million people live in an area the size of New York City. Still there is no chaos – just the opposite.
This is a country where everything runs on time, people bow politely, and efficiency is the mantra. It is also a country where horse racing has an annual attendance of more than 16 million people. Follow us as we expose the horse racing world’s best kept secret: Racing in South Korea.
It’s a hot Saturday on the outskirts of Seoul. Racing is just about to start at the city’s racecourse, but the enormous grandstands seem empty. The only people you see in the open areas between the structures and the track are cleaners and guards.
To us Westerners, the sight is not abnormal. This is what it often looks like in Europe and North America. These days, people watch the races from computers or on TV instead of going to the track.
“There’s only about 30,000 people here today,” says T.I. Jung of the Korean Racing Authority, who guides us.
That is a crowd size that most major race days in the West would be proud of. But where are all of these people? It turns out the grandstand is so enormous the crowd just barely fills it halfway up.
The seated capacity is about 80,000, but on this summer day most of the 30,000 in attendance stay inside because of the scorching subtropical heat. Except, of course, for the die hard fans who watch the horses in the subterranean parade ring.
Watching racing here is like watching a gigantic, precision mechanism at work. What else could be expected in a country wherehigh school kids learn algebra at the university level and subway stations are as clean as hotel lobbies?
The horses are led out into the parade ring and shown to the betters, while the jockeys mount. Information about every possible aspect of the race is shown on giant screens. This is Samsung land, mind you.
Covered by TV-cameras from every angle, the horses enter the tunnel to the below-ground preparation area. Here, every horse is weighed before each race before entering into another tunnel and going up to the track.
All races in South Korea are run on sand. In Seoul, the racecourse even has two sand tracks, with some distances starting on the inner track and finishing on the outer. The horses canter to the stalls (some have lead ponies), and all is as efficient as you would expect it to be.
Loading is done in a matter of seconds. And then, away they go. Lining the rails with 30 meters between them are security staff. Their backs are toward the horses as they stare at the crowd, much like the hooligan police at English football matches. There are no hooligans here, though. Standing on a balcony, the total absence of cheering and shouting is eerie as everybody is indoors this hot July day.
After the race, all of the horses are unsaddled and led away from the public view—including the winner. On regular race days, the winner’s presentation takes place without the horse.
Once inside the building, the feeling is completely different. Various sections of the racecourse open up for different target groups. For instance, newcomers have their own section, where they can be taught the basics of betting without hard-core punters around. There are even classrooms where races and rides are analyzed by betting teachers. Other parts of the track are dedicated to families, the elderly, and the owners, respectively.
”Betting has had a bit of a bad ring to it here,” says Jung. ”It is conceived as an activity for ‘real men’ who speak in terms that you don’t understand. We really try to open it up to new people and create an atmosphere where everybody can feel relaxed.”
The average purse for each thoroughbred race is $95,000, about 30,000 visitors attend on normal race days, and there is a yearly betting turnover of some $7 billion! All in all, the KRA has more than 16 million people watching races at its locations every year.
In order to gain credibility and respect, racing in South Korea is extremely transparent. The control room at Seoul Racecourse Park looks like something from NASA, and there are more TV cameras than at a royal wedding. Most horses are trained at the racecourses in Seoul, Busan, and Jeju, and each year more than 4,000 participate in races at one of the tracks. Each facility also has a complete horse industry center.
In Seoul, about 1,500 horses are in training with some 53 trainers. Here you do not only find stables and training facilities, but an equine hospital, a ”hoof clinic centre,” and the Korean Horse Industry Research Center as well. Even the local trainers’ association has its own building.
It is clear that the Korean Racing Authority (KRA) is slightly more than your average turf club. The fact it has a total of 1,100 staff, plus another 8,000 on race days, is impressive.
So are the finances.
The average purse for each thoroughbred race is $95,000, about 30,000 visitors attend on normal race days, and there is a yearly betting turnover of some $7 billion! All in all, the KRA has more than 16 million people watching races at its locations every year.Walking around the Seoul Racecourse makes any horse person feel at home. Even if one end of the racecourse faces high-rise buildings, the other side of the venue’s park-like 280 hectares climbs up the steep green hills that are so typical of the Korean landscape. It doesn’t feel at all like you are in one of the world’s biggest cities.
”Our location is actually a key asset for us when we are recruiting people to the KRA,” says Jung. “Young people are starting to realize that they want more out of life than just a desk at an office and crowding on the subway. We can offer clean air, nature and lots of space. And of course horses!”
Betting is huge in South Korea, and it’s very controlled. KRA is a government body responsible not only for horse racing but also for betting. Wagering is restricted to the racecourses and to KRA betting offices around the country.
Jung took us a KRA Plaza in Seoul. Seeing one of these “shops” is an experience that is as far from a bookie office in London or a PMU agent in France as you can get.
Upon entering the five-story building, you pay a small entry fee. The size of it depends on how long you want to stay and how much comfort you want. In total, the building can hold up to 5,000 people.
Monitors, betting magazines, and form guides are everywhere and are all in Korean. Long rows of betting windows and betting machines line the walls. The feeling is a bit like that of pre-computer Wall Street. People gaze at overhead screens, while running back and forth with paper slips that are either thrown away in anger or carried to the cashier window as if they were precious diamonds.
All of it is done in a very orderly fashion—after all, we’re in Korea.
Betting has to be done in cash, and this specific KRA Plaza has a daily turnover of about $2 million per day, three days per week. There is no racing Monday through Thursday, so those days the facilities are used for free by the local community as a place for exercise, studies, and community meetings.
Most races in South Korea are restricted to locally-bred horses, and if you want to buy a foreign horse there are restrictions. In order to protect the Korean bloodstock industry, there is a legal limit on how much Korean buyers can spend on a colt or gelding at overseas sales – $20,000 is the maximum.
There is no limit for fillies, as the intention is after they are done racing, they will become broodmares and help improve the domestic breeding stock.
Most foreign horses are bought at 2-year-old sales by the KRA, the Seoul Racehorse Owners’ Association, or the Busan Racehorse Owners’ Association rather than by an individual owner. A few weeks after the new purchases have been flown to Korea, they will go through the sales ring again and be sold on to private owners. It is not uncommon for a horse to fetch many times his original value at this stage.
All owners are registered with the KRA and are usually attached to one of the two Thoroughbred racecourses in Korea: Seoul or Busan. (The third track, Jeju, hosts pony racing, but more on that in a bit.)
While they may spend some time at the KRA’s training centre in Jangsu or at a private farm if their owner has such facilities, most 2-year-olds join straight up with their assigned trainers at Seoul or Busan. Most horses will spend their entire careers at the same track, and horses from the rival tracks only meet in the very biggest races.
The same goes for jockeys, trainers, and owners. You ”belong” to one racecourse, and that is where you race.
Furthermore, foreign-bred horses may only run in open races. Because of the small number of these contests available, very few of these races are solely for 2-year-olds or restricted to fillies. Therefore, it is possible a juvenile filly can find herself up against a 5-year-old gelding in her racing debut.
The heart of the breeding industry is the island of Jeju, south of the Korean peninsula, but Thoroughbreds are not the only race horse bred here. Legend has it that Mongol invaders brought their own horses to the island and cross-bred them with the native ponies resulting in the local Jeju pony, which still survives today.
Amid fears that the Jeju pony was dying out in the 1980s as it ceased to be needed in traditional agricultural roles, the Korean government designated the ponies “National Monument Number 347” and mandated the KRA set up the apparatus necessary to save the species. The result was the Jeju Race Park and pari-mutuel betting.
Jeju ponies are strong despite their small size, and although the jockeys maintain their weight at similar levels to their Thoroughbred counterparts, you can see weights of up to 74 kg (163 lbs). The majority of races are open to all ages, and while most runners are young, there are a number of ponies who start their careers very late and a handful of ponies who still run at age 20 and older.