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As Korean racing begins to rediscover its confidence, the reins have been loosened to allow Hong Kong’s horses to travel again.
Pre-typhoon rain showered Seoul racecourse last weekend to welcome the return of international competitors to South Korea after a three-year lockout. But while the overseas raiders were washed out in defeat this time, the downpours could not douse the upbeat mood that saw even the normally disinterested university students who staff the part-time race day posts cheering local heroes Eoma Eoma and Winner’s Man in the big features.
The staging of the Korea Cup and Korea Sprint, with notable participation from Hong Kong, signalled that racing in Korea, and down Sha Tin way, is at long last emerging from the strict Covid restrictions that prevented their horses from hopping a plane to compete overseas.
Back in 2019, the last time Korean fans saw international competition on their own ground, Blue Chipper was winning the Korea Sprint on his way to Santa Anita where he took a perception-altering third place in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
But there has been no opportunity to build on that: when Covid-19 disrupted Korean racing through 2020 and 2021, their only international hopes rested upon the Eclipse Award-winning exploits in the United States of the Korea Racing Authority (KRA)-owned Knicks Go, a horse that has never put hoof on Korean soil.
The unusual Knicks Go story – second tier racing jurisdiction buys fairly cheap yearling and races it to champion status in a top tier arena – is an extension of Korean racing’s oddball make-up.
Korean horses race on sand; silks identify jockeys, not owners; Seoul, Busan and Jeju are its three tracks but Jeju races only the protected Korean ponies; local trainers and jockeys in Seoul are firmly unionised; jockeys there receive a monthly salary but those in Busan do not; and the KRA, one of Korea’s biggest tax payers, is hampered by both the proliferation of illegal gaming entities and anti-gambling legislation that restricts its expansion.
It has so far prohibited the taking of online bets; the maximum allowable bet on horse racing is only 100,000 won (approximately AU$107). There is also a strong anti-gambling sentiment among political lobbyists.
Despite the political and legislative issues, the KRA’s annual racing turnover on its pari-mutuel for 2019 was a very healthy 7.3 trillion Korean won.
But, just to compound its peculiarity, while its neighbours Hong Kong and Japan saw turnover climb through Covid, Korea’s figure dipped to around one trillion won in both 2020 and 2021 as Covid restrictions affected fans’ access to the racecourses and the 30 off-course betting outlets.
This year, though, the turnover figure appears to be back on target for a return to the 2019 level, which would see turnover of about AU$7.3 billion at current exchange rates. That would place Korea in the top seven countries in the world for total turnover.
In keeping with the numbers, the vibe around the track on Sunday was very much that Korean racing has ridden the worst of a bumpy storm and brighter days are ahead. And that has been the message from the KRA since February of this year when Jung Ki-hwan became the latest to step through the fast-revolving door that seems to spin CEOs in and out at a rate that is dizzying in its rapidity.
Jung is the third KRA CEO in about as many years and Korean racing surely would benefit massively from the stability that would come should he see out his full term to February 2025. But the KRA is tied to government and in a nation that has sent four of its presidents to prison for corruption in its time – the latest only four years ago – stability is never guaranteed: government shake-ups usually mean a change at the top of connected entities like the KRA.
In his first address as CEO in February, Jung spoke of restoring public trust in the KRA after the crisis of suspending racing during the worst of the Covid pandemic. He also talked of expanding into the global market and even addressed the block on online betting, saying it was a ‘top priority’ to open up that channel.
Grander announcements came in May, at a ceremony to celebrate 100 years of Korean horse racing. Jung made public the basic framework for Korean racing’s vision: essentially, big ideas to inspire.
The KRA’s ‘Vision 2037, Global Top 5 Horse Industry Leading Company’ doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue but it delivers its basic message plainly. Korea is aiming to be one of the top five nations in the world with a developed thoroughbred industry, a group that by the KRA’s measurements features USA, France, Britain, Australia and Germany.
On the one hand, the KRA has previous form in making earnest pronouncements only to fall short in the delivery: the turf track that was going to be laid at Seoul and was at one time seen as a must for Korean racing to take the next step as an international player has never happened; and the new racecourse that has been talked about for more than a decade is another still awaiting fulfilment.
Those failures are perhaps partly to do with being straightjacketed, politically and legislatively, and partly due to a lack of a strong administrative head with willingness and time enough to force change.
On the other hand, KRA confidence appears to be up; Jung, unlike many of his predecessors, already knows the KRA, its limitations and its capabilities, after two years as its chief auditor; and, that third racecourse in Yeongcheon is back on the radar with a talked-about completion date of 2025.
And then there is the prize money. With such solid turnover – ordinarily – Korean racing offers good purses: Sunday’s Korea Sprint and Korea Cup carried prize money the equivalent of more than AU$1 million; and a Class 5 contest on that afternoon’s card was worth about AU$42,960, while a Class 6 at Seoul at a regular fixture, eight days prior, had a purse the equivalent of AU$26,850.
The two Group 3 races – the aim is Group 2 by 2024 – are what they are and have rarely attracted really high-class overseas contenders. Yet the fact that the Korea Cup and Korea Sprint had a runner each from Hong Kong, a city wrapped into China’s zero Covid approach, should not be downplayed. Kings Shield and Computer Patch failed to have any impact but their participation means that Hong Kong, too, is back in the travelling game.
Dubai’s sandy dirt is always the most likely destination for Korean horses – Mainstay was successful in 2017 as was Dolkong in 2019 – while Hong Kong has a long history there.
As long as their respective governments continue to roll back Covid control measures, there should be more east Asian representation at Meydan in March than just the intrepid Japanese.
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