Last year was another tough one for overseas jocks in Korea
Korea provides a notoriously difficult challenge for ex-pat employees with long hours and alien working practices. A lot of people have bad experiences, some self-inflicted, some not. Racing is no exception.
The most high-profile of foreign employees in the Korean racing industry are the jockeys. On the surface a jockey’s life in Korea is good – purses are big, accommodation is free and they only race twice a week. In reality, it’s anything but. Just like everywhere else in the World, while the top jockeys do indeed earn a lot, the majority don’t.
Japanese riders have generally had the best luck in Korea. The culture shock is less as is the style of racing – Korean racing has been described by more than one observer as being similar to that of Japan. Twenty years ago. The gap left by Toshio Uchida at Busan was ably filled by Ikuyasu Kurakane who moved down from Seoul and quickly became the track’s top rider. Ikuyasu left during 2009 as did Nozomu Tomizawa who returned to Australia after putting in a creditable two years at Seoul without getting the recognition – or more importantly, the rides – he deserved.
Eiki Nishimura joined Busan early in 2009 and battled through a tough start to be rewarded with victory on Sangseung Ilro in the KRA Cup Mile. Sadly Eiki was jocked off the filly for the Korean Derby amid rumours that the militant Seoul Jockeys’ Association did not want a foreigner riding a potential Derby winner. He did, however, regain the ride for the Oaks where Sangseung Ilro was beaten.
Three other Japanese riders joined during the year. Toshiyuki Katoh has found rides difficult to come by at Seoul but is still plugging away. He was joined recently by Yoshiyuki Aoki who has found rides in more quantity than Katoh, if not in quality. Finally, Hitomi Miyashita joined Busan in October. The winner of the International Lady Jockey Invitational at the track in August, Hitomi wasted no time in applying for a full-time license and has had no trouble settling in and being accepted by trainers. As of now, she is arguably the top jockey at the track and is worshipped by lovestruck punters.
As for the non-Japanese, American Santos Chavez was popular with punters and put in a quiet but competent four months at Seoul before returning to the States. At Busan, Vincent Sit rode for two months before returning to Hong Kong where his wife had just become the first woman to be granted a trainer’s license. India’s Rahul Shinde lasted all of one week while Eden Cheung of Hong Kong is currently on the injured list.
That leaves the two South Africans. Stephan Swanepoel started off at Seoul but, as is common at the capital track was given no opportunities and was allowed to relocate to Busan where he had slightly more success. Swanepoel called time in late November and returned to South Africa, retiring from the saddle completely.
Then there is the exception. Martin Wepner arrived in Korea having had considerable experience in Malaysia. With a strong reputation and an ability to do the light weights, he instantly got more rides – not necessarily good rides, just more – than the other foreigners. And he started winning on them. Things haven’t been simple with Wepner. A miscommunication which placed him in an embarrassing situation led to him walking out on the ride of Namdo Jeap in the Derby on the day of race.
With Wepner set to leave Korea, top Busan trainer Kim Young Gwan, possibly appreciating the difficulties faced by foreign riders here, stepped in to offer him the job as his stable jockey. Wepner accepted and it was the start of a prolific partnership. However, late in 2009 their relationship broke down and trainer and jockey went their separate ways. Wepner has once again landed on his feet and, back as a freelancer is, alongside Hitomi, the most in-demand rider at the track.
Peter Wolsley is still the sole foreign trainer working on the peninsula. Just as the foreign jockeys get the horses no-one else wants to ride, when he arrived, Wolsley was given the horses no-one else wanted to train. He toughed it out, however, and has been rewarded with a number of good quality runners in his barn including Ebony Storm, Khaosan and Yeoreumbi, as well as one-time Derby hopeful Impeccable. Now with twenty-four horses in his care, Wolsley saddled twenty-nine winners in 2009.
In terms of the KRA, the last week of 2009 saw the upgrade of their website to include English language racecards and results as well as links to the English language stewards reports. The KRA have a foreign steward at both thoroughbred tracks and James Perry at Seoul and Brett Wright at Busan have been tapping out English translations of the reports for over a year. Behind the scenes, a South African jockey instructor has played a key role in the development of a promising crop of young Korean jockeys.
The word is that another overseas trainer will be granted a licence in 2010. No word yet on the identity or even the nationality. The KRA is also still accepting applications from foriegn jockeys. Any newcomer should hope to be based at Busan which while still challenging, offers a more accepting environment to newcomers than at Seoul where the Jockeys’ Association still wields great power on the backstretch.
Overall there is still plenty of work to be done for the much heralded “Internationalization” plan to be realised. 2010 promises to be another challenging year for those racing professionals who choose to ply their trade on the peninsula