Sinseol-Dong’s last day….
At 4am on June 25, 1950, North Korea launched a massive artillery barrage against the South across the 38th parallel – the artificial boundary that had split the two Koreas since liberation from the Japanese. On that day, a Sunday, one of the biggest races of the year was scheduled with the running of a race at Seoul Racecourse in honour of Shin Ik Hee.
Shin had been a resistance fighter against Japanese colonial rule and, along with Syngman Rhee, was recognised as one of the two “Founding Fathers” of the Republic of Korea and the then Speaker of the “Constituent Assembly” (now “National Assembly” or Korean Parliament). Shin, President Syngman Rhee and Kim Gu – the former President who had died the previous year, were all frequent visitors to the races.
Despite the rumours that were flying around the city of the invasion taking place just 30 miles to the North, a big crowd packed into the track in Sinseol-dong – location of Seoul Racecourse since 1928 – and racing got underway as usual at 11am. Many believed that what had happened was just a border skirmish, the likes of which were very common at the time and, while troubling, certainly weren’t worth losing a day’s punting over.
During Race 4, however, an unidentified plane circled the track and dropped hundreds of leaflets from the North announcing that an invasion – or ‘liberation’ – was in progress. Shortly afterward military jeeps arrived at the track equipped with loudspeakers calling for soldiers on leave among the crowd to immediately return to their divisions.
Racing continued and the Shin Ik Hee race (race 7) went ahead as planned, as did all twelve scheduled races, as word slowly filtered through that this was no border skirmish. At the end of racing at 5pm, young men at the track – including trainers, grooms and jockeys – were required to report to the racing office where most were immediately pressed into military service.
And so the Korean War had begun. Within 48 hours Seoul had been abandoned to the advancing Communist forces.
On September 15, the daring Incheon landings were launched under the direction of General MacArthur. Within a week Seoul was back in UN hands. The racing authorities – recently renamed the KRA – reconvened and believing, along with most others, that the Communists had been expelled for good, they discussed the possibility of racing resuming in late October.
The battle for Seoul though had been brutal. The advance of the Allies had been yard-by-yard and was met with fierce resistance in a bloody three-day street battle which left much of the city in ruins. The Communist army had used Sinseol-dong to store equipment, making it a prime target for allied bombing. When racing authorities returned to the track, they found it devastated, the safe looted and the horses gone. Most likely they had been used by the advancing army to carry supplies with the majority likely to have perished under fire as the Northern invaders were expelled.
Nevertheless, the Racing Authority was initially determined to go ahead with the re-opening and made plans to bring in horses from the South of the country. This plan was dashed – along with hopes for a swift end to the fighting – when China officially entered the war and promptly drove the Allies back across the 38th parallel and out of Seoul once more.
So began a long period of stalemate. Seoul would change hands several more times and would be little more than a burnt out shell of a city when nearly three years – and millions of military and civilian lives later – a truce would be agreed leaving both sides with roughly the same territory that they had before the war.
Racing never did return to Sinseol-dong. When the Authorities brought racing back to the shattered capital in 1954, it was to the north bank of the River Han at Ttukkseom. This new track would be home to Seoul Racecourse until the 1988 Olympic Games.
As for Shin Ik Hee, history doesn’t definitively record whether he showed up at the track as scheduled that fateful day to present the trophy named in his honour. He survived the war though and was a candidate in the 1956 Presidential elections but while campaigning, fell ill and died at the age of 62.
* Sources: The Korean language newspapers Ilgan Sports and Gyeonggi News both wrote on Sinseol-dong Racecourse’s last meeting last year. Information in English on Shin Ik Hee (also known as “Hae-Gong”) is scarce but some can be found here. General information on the Korean War is from Hastings, Max “The Korean War” (Pan, 1987, 2000).
Updated – See this post for information on what became of Sinseol-dong.