What have we learned from Pick Me Up?

Pick Me Up’s American sojourn was always going to be interesting and although few held out much hope of the six year old taking the US by storm, his tailing off by an average field running a slow time at Charles Town last week has caused more than a little embarrassment for Korean racing fans. Pick Me Up’s stay in the US is part of the KRA’s “Internationalization Plan”. The plan was started in 2004 with the first International Jockey Challenge and the start of a number of Trophy races. This has evolved into a once a year weekend event which this year also saw two jockeys come over from Malaysia as part of a jockey exchange, however, other than that and Busan Race Park making its Stewards’ Reports available in English, there seems to be little progress in making Korean racing truly “international”.

Go to the KRA’s English site right now and visitors are greeted with a Pop-Up window inviting overseas jockeys to apply for a licence to ride full time in Korea. Several foreign riders have done that in recent years. At the opening of Busan Race Park in 2005, Australians Mark Newnham, Garry Baker and Nathan Day were signed up although only Baker managed to make a go of it, landing 89 winners in two years. However, Baker reported on his return to Australia that “it did seem as if they didn’t really want you there”. Danny Craven put in a creditable nine month effort first at Seoul and then at Busan, however, South African Chris Taylor only lasted a few weeks before departing.

More successful have been the Japanese with the remarkable Toshio Uchida dominating Busan in 2008 while Ikuyasu Kurakane and Nozomu Tomizawa more than hold their own at Seoul. There are two more Japanese riders at Busan while another is scheduled to join Seoul in November. Maybe Pick Me Up would have been better going to Japan.

Korean fans need not be too embarrassed. Pick Me Up’s trot round Charles Town was witnessed by a grand total of 900 racegoers in attendance with total handle – both on and off course – for the entire card being about the same as what is bet on the average pony race on Jeju Island. It seems an odd way to go about “internationalization”. Pick Me Up has been a solid performer at Busan but by no means a star. He’s won seven out of his forty starts and has picked up a lot of second and third placed finishes, despite suffering over the past two years from a restrictive handicap mark, but he’s not the best Korea has to offer and he’s not 80 lengths worse than those horses he finished behind on Friday.

But this just adds further confusion to the point of the exercise. There are hundreds of overseas bred horses running in Korea but in his forty races, Pick Me Up had never encountered one. They are not allowed to compete against Korean horses except on very rare occasions with the year-ending Grand Prix race the only really big race they are allowed to enter. The truth is that to be the best in Korea, domestically bred horses do not have to be very good.

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