Success and Tragedy – A short history of female jockeys in Korea
Back in the early days of this site, a not insubstantial proportion of traffic came from those googling for “Korean racing girls”. A high instance of the words Korean, racing and a lot of horses with the word “girl” in their name no doubt contributing to that. And probably disappointing those surfers. Hopefully those figures will now get another boost.
On Sunday, jockey Na Yu Na landed the KRA Jeju Cup on 9-1 shot Mangpouikkum and in doing so secured what was arguably the most prestigious ever win for a female rider in Korea. With Lee Shin Young and Lee Ae Li also in the Winner’s Circle at Seoul, it meant that 25% of all licensed female riders in Korean racing history tasted victory this past weekend. The story of female jockeys in Korea is brief, but contains elements of tragedy, frustrated ambition but also success in a challenging environment.
You have to go back to the now long-gone Ttukkseom Racecourse on the north bank of the Han River and to the Spring of 1975 when 21 year old Lee Ok Rae became the first woman to be granted a jockey license in Korea. South Korea was, at the time, under the authoritarian rule of President Park Chung Hee who had recently survived the second of three assassination attempts – this one had resulted in the death of his wife. Then, as now, racing held a near monopoly on gambling and Ttukkseom was full to bursting on each race-day.
Lee Ok Rae graduated in the same class as Bae Dae Sun and Ji Yong Cheol, who would go on to become two of the top riders of their generation and today are among the country’s most successful trainers. Lee was assigned to trainer Kwon In Deok and on March 17 that year rode in her first race. In true storybook fashion it was a winning debut as in race 4 that day, she partnered horse number 1, “Kansas” to victory over five and a half furlongs.
Lee continued to establish herself over the coming months, however, in August that year, disaster struck in the shape of a fall in which she sustained injuries that would end her career. She retired just six months after her first ride with seven wins from forty eight starts. No Korean woman would ride in a race for the next quarter of a century.
By the time they did, Park Chung Hee had been dead for two decades and his once bitter enemy Kim Dae Jung was now President of South Korea. Seoul had hosted the Olympic games in 1988 and Ttukkseom Racecourse was closed as the huge new track at Gwacheon opened. At the turn of the millennium, the KRA made an effort to get more women into the sport.
In 2001, two jockeys were granted licenses, Lee Geum Joo and Lee Shin Young. They were followed a year later by Lee Ae Li and Park Jin Hee. While Lee Geum Joo remains licensed, she hasn’t ridden for over two years. The other three, however, have enjoyed successful careers.
Lee Shin Young, known for an aggressive style that has her in the stewards’ room as often as the winner’s circle has the most thoroughbred wins with 82 while Park Jin Hee moved down to Busan when the southern track opened and has become well-established there. Lee Ae Li, meanwhile, continues to be the punters’ favourite with her pink silks and “Ae Li Gongju” (Princess Ae Li) nickname despite a recent dip in form. Booting home Enertein for a wire-to-wire win in race 1 last Sunday, however, may be the fillip she needs to get back in form.
Tragedy struck the next intake, however. Granted a license in 2005, Lee Myoung Hwa took her own life shortly afterward. She was found to have been suffering from depression that is believed to have been exacerbated by worries about constant reducing to make weight. A year later, newly licensed Kim Seo Jin quit
In 2006, the jockeys received nationwide mainstream publicity with the release of the movie “Gaksoltang” (“Lump Sugar”). Starring actress Im Su Jeong, key parts of the movie were shot at Seoul Race Park as the heroine takes on the role of a jockey (click here to watch trailer). KBS Television produced a one-off documentary about Lee Ae Li to coincide with the film’s release.
Meanwhile, down on Jeju Island Kim Joo Hee and Na Yu Na became the first women to receive jockey licenses for the pony racing there. Kim was formerly a promising athlete while Na was an Aerobics instructor. Both have become prolific winners with Na becoming the first woman to reach 100 career winners as well as landing the KRA Jeju Cup.
Na and Kim have found it easier to compete riding the Jeju ponies than their counterparts have on the thorougbreds on the mainland and in a short time have risen to first and third in the all-time female winners list.
Back in Seoul, Yoo Mi Ra qualified in 2008. It took her over a year to record her first winner and she languishes with one of the worst quinella percentages at the track. However, she has only ever ridden one horse with a clear chance of winning – and she won. Her time may come. Still searching for her first winner is this year’s graduate, Kim Hae Sun. With plenty of support from trainers, however, it seems this first win isn’t far away.
There will soon be an eleventh woman joining the ranks of licensed jockeys in Korea. Having won the International Lady Jockey Invitational last month, Japanese rider Hitomi Miyashita clearly took a liking to the Busan track and applied for a license as soon as she returned home. She’s anticipated to join in the coming weeks.
All time List – (Winners/Rides):
1. Na Yu Na* – 102 (963)
2. Lee Shin Young – 82 (816)
4. Kim Joo Hee* – 51 (897)
5. Lee Ae Li – 43 (808)
6. Park Jin Hee – 38 (586)
7. Lee Geum Ju – 16 (624)
8. Lee Ok Rae – 7 (48)
9. Yoo Mi Ra – 1 (132)
10. Kim Hae Sun – 0 (23)
11. Lee Myoung Hwa –
11. Kim Seo Jin –
*Jeju Pony Racing
* Much of the information for this post was sourced from the excellent Korean language blog “Enjoy Horse Racing”. Pictures of all the jockeys mentioned can be found at this link.