Notes From an Island

While Dongbanui Gangja was storming to the Owners’ Trophy at Seoul Race Park on Sunday afternoon, down on Jeju one of the island track’s biggest races of the season was also taking place.

This blog generally neglects the racing at Jeju Race Park. Contested between Jeju ponies that are native to the island, there is no studbook and, as seasoned punters at Seoul will tell you, it is notoriously difficult to handicap. Plus it always seems to rain.

Jeju ponies are strong and although the jockeys maintain their weight at similar levels to their thoroughbred counterparts, for some handicaps, even your correspondent would have a shot at making weight. For Sunday’s Jeju Ilbo Cup, top weight and favourite Hanramyeongseng carried 74 kilos. Most races are open to all ages and while most are young, there are a number of ponies who start their careers very late and a handful of ponies still run at twenty years of age or older.

In Sunday’s race, Hanramyeongseng never featured at the front. Just as he had in the corresponding race last year, Dongdaemunuikkum set a frenetic early pace. Last year, he faded to third with the line in sight, this time he went with a furlong remaining and third favourite Hwanghaemyengsan came through to claim victory (carrying 71 kilos). It was the three year old’s tenth win in seventeen races.

Jeju has an odd relationship with horses. Legend has it that Mongol invaders brought their own horses to the island and cross-bred them with the native ponies resulting in the distinctive pony which still survives today. Amid fears that they were dying out in the 1980’s as they ceased to be required in their traditional agricultural roles, the Korean government designated the ponies “National Monument Number 347” and mandated the Korea Racing Authority to set up the apparatus necessary to save the species. That apparatus took the form of Jeju Race Park and pari-mutuel betting.

On the other hand, Jeju is the only part of Korea where there is any significant market for horse meat (as this rather weird article from the English language edition of the Chosun Ilbo from 2006 rather too gleefully explains) and organisers of the island’s annual Daeboreum Fire Festival were disappointed at being banned from including horse-fighting on their list of attractions this year.

Jeju plays an important role in the Korean throughbred racing industry – most breeding farms are on the island and many young horses undergo their initial breaking in and training there. It is the ponies though that make this island a unique outpost of racing.

Jeju News Cup – Jeju Race Park – 900M (Hdcp) – June 21, 2009

1. Hwanghemyengsan – Jang Woo Sung – 3.9
2. Baengnokgunji – Jung Myoung Il – 24.3
2. Yeongsangsegye – Park Hoon – 67.9
Distances: 2 lengths/0.75 lengths – 10 ran

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