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Expansion is on the table for Korea’s international races

The KRA has ridden the Covid storm and is now considering adding a third race to its international fixture as well as boosting the purses to attract higher calibre contenders.

Racing in Korea could be on the cusp of an important phase in its development after two years of Covid restrictions: turnover is bouncing back, the Korea Racing Authority’s (KRA) long-promised third thoroughbred racetrack development is finally underway, and the confidence garnered from last month’s international races at Seoul means expansion is on the table for its most noted fixture.

It also finds itself with a star or two on the track. Winner’s Man in the G3 Korea Cup and Eoma Eoma in the G3 Korea Sprint ensured a Korean clean sweep of its international races; and then there is the Korea Cup runner-up Raon The Fighter, who last Sunday took his record to 12 from 15 with a five-length win in the G2 KRA Cup Classic – in front of 27,000 people – setting up a potential rematch with Winner’s Man in the Grand Prix Stakes.

Korean racing’s so-far buoyant emergence from Covid was far from expected in the dark days of last winter. With no legal online betting in South Korea – the industry has to navigate a strong anti-gambling political bloc – and fans locked out of the track and the off-course betting shops, turnover took a massive hit, prompting the KRA to reduce purse money and pause the stakes race programme. As recently as April this year, the 2022 Korea Cup and Korea Sprint were still in doubt.

But now the KRA, under its new CEO Ki Hwan Chung, seems ready to up the ante with intended prize money increases to its September internationals, as well as the possibility of adding a third race within two years. That would align nicely with Chung’s ‘Vision 2037, Global Top 5 Horse Industry Leading Company’ plan for the KRA which he announced earlier this year.

“It is our ultimate aim to make the Korea Cup and Sprint among the most targeted races in the world,” said James Byung Woon Jang, the KRA’s General Manager, Corporate Management Department, who played a key role in pulling together this year’s international races after a two-year Covid shutdown of the event.   

“Increasing prize money will be our first step to attract high quality international runners. The KRA budget plan for 2023 has not yet been confirmed, but I can disclose that there will be a meaningful increase in the purse for both races.”

Jang also told Asian Racing Report that the international meeting’s expansion is in the KRA’s ‘short-term plan’ and ‘is a strong possibility for 2024’.

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Japanese runner Graceful Leap wins the Korea Sprint in 2017. (Photo by Lo Chun Kit/Getty Images)

The current line-up features the 1200-metre Korea Sprint and 1800-metre Korea Cup – each worth approximately US$700,000 in 2022 – and the KRA is ‘considering many different options’ around what that expanded programme might look like, with a 1600-metre race being problematic at Seoul because it would be restricted to ten runners due to the location of the mile start on a narrow chute beyond the home straight.  

“A 2000-metre ‘Classic’ is something under consideration but we plan to research thoroughly in order to make the optimum programme of races,” Jang said.

One potential stumbling block to any advancement of Korean racing on the global level is the sand surface of all of its tracks, including the new site at Yeongcheon. Jang said this was being taken into account with regard to the possible prize money increase, which the KRA hopes will be enough of a draw to improve quality despite the sand.

The KRA has said previously that it intended for the Korea Cup and Korea Sprint to attain Group 2 status by 2024 but that has had to be pushed back to 2025 due to the postponements in 2020 and 2021.

That will come around one year before the late 2026 slated opening of Yeongcheon racecourse, located in the South-East of the country, which has been in the pipeline since 2009. The groundbreaking ceremony for the approximately US$125 million project took place, at long last, on September 30.

The Yeongcheon Infrastructure Construction Team confirmed that “horses will not be permanently stabled and trained at Yeongcheon,” but rather the venue will be a destination for horses trained out of Busan and Seoul. It also confirmed that the track will be a sand track surface, “taking into account the seasonal weather changes in Korea and the all-year-around racing calendar.”

The lack of a turf track complicates the KRA’s ambitions to make South Korea a serious Group 1 destination; in 2016, its chairman and CEO at the time, Hyun Myung Kwan declared that Korea would have a turf track within two years; by September 2017, his successor, Lee Yang Ho had reassessed and said that was unrealistic. Five years on, the reality is there is no turf track in any foreseeable plans.

The regular turnover of Chairmen and CEOs – let alone other management grade staff – at the KRA has been detrimental to its ability to implement change with any degree of certainty or rapidity. The turf track is one example of unexecuted KRA plans, another is the unfulfilled aim stated in 2019 for this year, Korean racing’s centenary, to see the value of the Korea Cup and Korea Sprint rise to US$2.7 million and US$1.8 million respectively.

The unforeseen ravages of Covid, which saw turnover drop off a cliff and hit the KRA with massive losses, no doubt scuppered those grand purse increases. But with racing turnover now close to pre-Covid levels, Jang sees plenty of cause for optimism.

“Overall, we are in a much better place than we were at the start of the year,” he said, recalling that back then daily Covid cases were soaring and quarantine policies were unpredictable.

“Our racecourses are full again with our racing fans and prize money and turnover is approaching pre-pandemic levels. This year we have run a full stakes programme for the first time since 2019 and the successful running of the international races was a bonus for us, and the performance of the Korea-trained horses in those races show that the quality has held up. The breeding industry is also bouncing back after two years of uncertainty.”

But Jang also highlighted one of the “many challenges” the Korean racing industry faces: “The final efforts to legalise online wagering.”

In terms of development, a third racetrack is good, an expanded and more lucrative international fixture is a real positive, but the likely huge increase in turnover from legal online wagering would be the game changer Korean racing needs if it is ever to emerge from the quirky fringe and become one of the world’s foremost racing jurisdictions.

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