Day: June 8, 2009

Tight at the Top but Tougher at the Bottom

Top jockeys flourish but Foreign riders are still struggling
Not only did he score his 400th career winner in the process of landing a treble at Seoul Race Park on Sunday, Moon Se Young also managed to put some distance between himself and his main rivals in what has been so far a tight race for the 2009 Jockey’s Championship.

After a slow May, which yielded only 9 winners, last year’s Champion scored five winners across the weekend to take his year’s total to fifty and open up a gap of six over his closest challenger, the veteran Park Tae Jong. Cho Kyoung Ho, who reached the 400 winner milestone a week before Moon, is one behind Park on 43, while Choi Beom Hyun is the only other rider in touch, on 39.

Park Tae Jong meanwhile, remains on the verge of becoming the first Korean rider to land 1500 career victories. Park was also the first to reach 1000 wins back in 2004. While such figures may not sound impressive to those accustomed to US or European racing, where the top jockeys can amass huge numbers of winners over their careers, with racing confined to two days a week in Korea, it is not possible. Aside with limited races, another diffculty to overcome is the lack of rides.

Park is a freelance jockey, which means he may accept as many rides as he is able to secure. However, the freelance system has only been in operation in Korea since 2005. Prior to this, all jockeys were attached to a trainer and they were limited to a maximum of five race rides per week. This is still the case for all but the 21 jockeys (and a further 10 at Busan) who hold freelance status which is why all of those filling out the top places in the Jockey’s championship are freelance.

Being freelance is all very well (and all very lucrative – the KRA estimates that freelance jockeys can make four times as much money as their retained counterparts) for established riders, but for for those less known it is anything but easy. And here is the problem for overseas riders granted licenses under the KRA’s Internationalization program. In reporting the departure of Santos Chavez, an American jockey who joined in February this year and opted not to renew his four month license, the Korean Racing Journal noted that an overseas jockey at Seoul generally gets far less opportunities for rides than a brand new apprentice. With the limit on rides stable jockeys can have, apprentices are quite rightly guaranteed some rides and, while life is far from easy, they have a steady stream of horses to ride out in the mornings.

For the overseas jockeys, there are no such guarantees. South African Stephan Swanepoel debuted in March and has since ridden just 48 times. He has no winners so far but that is hardly surprising given the calibre of those 48. Swanepoel has managed to guide 17 of them to minor money finishes and gives every impression of being a talented rider. However, few would blame him if he was follow Chavez in calling it a day at the earliest opportunity. The Journal reported that there is a possiblity of him transferring to Busan where overseas riders are starting to fare a little better.

At Busan, while opportunities are not significantly greater, there has been one interesting development. Martin Wepner has just become the first foreign jockey to be retained by a trainer. Despite Wepner walking away from his Derby mount on Namdo Jeap for Kim Young Kwan after a breakdown in communication, the trainer decided that Wepner was worth keeping in Korea and offered him the opportunity to be his main rider until his contract finishes in July. Whether this will be successful or whether there is any possibility for this to be repeated in the future remains to be seen.

What is once more clear though is that in its current form the “Internalization” program benefits no-one and as more jockeys return home with nothing but bad things to say, its prospects for future success – indeed its prospects of attracting quality jockeys – diminish. Which no doubt is a source of great satisfaction for certain elements on the backstretch.

Seoul Jockeys’ Championship 2009 – Current Standings

1. Moon Se Young 50
2. Park Tae Jong 44
3. Cho Kyoung Ho 43
4. Choi Beom Hyun 39
5. Kim Ok Sung 17

Continuing the jockeys theme, later this week we’ll have a look at the newly qualified apprentices who will make their racing debuts shortly and grade the performance of those coming up to their one year anniversary in the saddle. We’ll also take a look back over the career so far of the only man in Korean racing whose name is known outside racing circles, Park Tae Jong.