Horse racing and K-pop might not be traditional bedfellows but, then again, you don’t often see an equine theme park in the center of a racecourse.
South Korea is doing things differently and, one hundred years on from its first authorized thoroughbred race, the nation hopes to become a major player in the sport.
A two-way process of “internationalization” is underway, with leading foreign jockeys and trainers employed domestically and Korean runners beginning to attend major race meetings overseas.
What started with small, unstandardized pony races has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry.
The grand plan
“Right now thoroughbred racing is very popular,” says Yang Tae Park, executive director of the Korea Racing Authority.
“If our process of internationalization succeeds, we can change the perception of horse racing from not just a means of gambling, but a sport.”
With a new quarantine protocol, the Korea Racing Authority (KRA) plans to stage some of the biggest events on the horse racing calendar within five years.
A long-term plan has been put in place to ensure the incremental development of both the Korea Cup and Korea Sprint, from International Grade Three races to Grade One.
The Korea Sprint and Cup are currently worth KRW 1 billion ($890k) and KRW 0.7 billion ($623K) respectively.
By April 2022, to mark the centenary of South Korean thoroughbred racing, their value is set to increase threefold to KRW 3 billion ($2.7m) and KRW 2 billion ($1.8m).
‘Well ahead of football’
As a former insurance worker who fell in love with Korean horse racing, started a website, became a race caller, and eventually a member of the Korea Racing Authority, Englishman Alastair Middleton brings a unique perspective.
“In terms of attendance, horse racing is right up there with baseball and well ahead of the domestic football league,” he says.
“Internationalization is so important but also so challenging, because it is really difficult to measure progress or success.
“It’s more qualitative than quantitative but in the time I’ve been following Korean racing, I’ve seen significant development and yes, I would say the foreign influence has played a major part.”
‘The world’s top horses’
The KRA visited the United States for the Pan America Racing Conference this May.
No US-trained horse has ever raced in South Korea, but officials are confident such a breakthrough is imminent — approaching several trainers with a view to entering September’s Korean Cup.
“We are inviting high-quality horses from overseas so Korean-bred horses can compete with foreign horses,” says Tae Park, contending the move will raise standards.
The infrastructure and interest are certainly there.
South Korea’s three main venues — situated in the Seoul suburb of Gwacheon, Busan and Jeju — have seen total annual attendances exceed 15 million in recent years.
Two decades on from hosting equestrian events at the 1988 Olympics, LetsRun Park Seoul features towering grandstands, called Happy Ville and Lucky Ville, capable of accommodating 77,000 people.
According to Tae Park, the domestic industry already boasts an annual turnover 6.4 billion dollars — the seventh largest in the world — and it’s only going to get bigger.
“Right now, the racing surface is sand and that is off-putting to many of the world’s top horses,” says Middleton. “However, a turf track will soon be installed at Seoul Racecourse.”
A two-way process
But the KRA’s plans aren’t limited to luring the world’s best racehorses to East Asia.
Reaping the rewards of internationalization, Korean-bred horses are increasingly racing in foreign lands and proving they can cut it at a high level.
Five South Korean runners competed in this year’s Dubai World Cup Carnival, three are set to line up at Singapore’s Kranji Racecourse in July and two to three more are scheduled to run in Japan’s Interaction Cup.
This year saw the first major international win by a horse born and trained in South Korea, as Main Stay romped to victory in January’s Dubai World Cup Carnival 1200m dirt handicap.
The four-year-old bay gelding, trained by YK Kim, beat far more established competitors to earn the winning connections over $100,000.
“Main Stay winning in Dubai gave us confidence to develop the racing quality,” says Tae Park.
“Main Stay made horse racing more attractive in Korea. Many media outlets carried news of his victory.”
Triple Nine, another South Korean runner, was second behind Hunting Ground in the 2000-meter handicap earlier in the night.
This, Tae Park contends, is just a sign of things to come.
By the year 2019, the KRA claims it will send its horses to all-weather track races in Hong Kong.
By 2022, Tae Park foresees Korean runners competing in the best EU turf races and best dirt track races in the States.
Middleton admits Korea is starting from “a long way behind the leading countries” but says significant progress is already being made and compares the influence of international runners to that of stars in baseball and football.
“Korean sports fans love seeing the likes of [LA Dodgers pitcher] Ryu Hyun-jin and [Tottenham Hotspur footballer] Son Heung-min performing well in overseas leagues,” says Middleton. “Hopefully they will start to follow Korean horses too.”
In the meantime, the KRA is striving to reach new demographics in South Korea.
If race days have traditionally enticed an older, male audience — with many regarding the sport as a medium for betting — the KRA is “endeavoring to attract young people and ladies.”
To that end, a horse theme park, situated in the center of the Seoul Racecourse, opened its doors in September 2016 — playing host to a number of K-pop acts, including girl group I.O.I.
The attraction, named Whinny World, claims to offer guests an “interactive and inspirational experience,” educating young families about Korea’s horse racing tradition.
With pony riding, racing simulation machines and ice rinks in winter, there’s hope it can persuade people who wouldn’t ordinarily consider visiting the racecourse to attend.
“Right now horse racing has a bad perception among some Korean people,” says Tae park. “We are trying to change that perception.”
While the horses run, the young families are turning out in force.
Don’t bet against seeing a South Korean horse on a racetrack near you soon.