Baekgwang, Korea’s Favourite Horse, Retired After Leg-Break
This time, it was obvious the story was over. At the end of the KRA Cup Classic, jockey Lee Joon Chel pulled him up and immediately dismounted and walked him into the unsaddling enclosure. The horse was limping badly. Lee, having ridden him for the first time, gave him a pat and handed him over to his groom. The vet gestured that there was no need for him to be trotted up to explain his performance. Baekgwang’s career was over.
When lists of the greatest racehorses are compiled, Baekgwang [The Groom Is Red-Grey Crest (Gold Crest)] likely won’t be on them. Not even in Korea. But there is something about a closer – a horse who can run from the back of the field to the front in the closing stages of a race to score a last gasp victory – that makes the heart beat faster. And when that horse is small in stature, a striking grey colour and when he has overcome injury to be around for the best part of six years, it is something that shines a light on the drama of a sport whose beauty is so often masked behind a game of numbers. Ask a Korean racing fan to name their favourite horse and it is likely to be Baekgwang.
Of course, while not being the greatest, Baekgwang was still a very fine racehorse. After failing to win any of his three starts as a two-year old, he finished third in the 2006 Korean Derby but went on to win the final three-year old Classic of the year, The Minister’s Cup, after picking up back-to-back Stakes wins in the Munhwa and Donga-Ilbo Cups earlier in the summer.
He continued this form into his four-year old season, winning three consecutive races before the end of April. However, it was then that injury struck for the first time in the shape of a ligament injury and he ran only once more that year. In the meantime, his younger half-sister Baekpa (Revere) has become a star in her own right, winning the 2007 Korean Oaks. A grey herself, although less striking than Baekgwang, her big brother was brought out of his recovery to pose for pictures with her after her Oaks triumph. Eventually, after treatment and a lengthy spell of recuperation in the Korean countryside, Baekgwang himself returned to Seoul Racecourse and made his comeback in the Ttukseom Cup in April 2008.
He was sent off as second favourite and, putting in his customary late run, looked to have a chance in the final furlong. However, in the final strides he was just headed by the even faster finishing Namchonuijijon (Concept Win) who, were it not for being unfortunate to have been born in the same year as the great J.S. Hold, may have become a Classic winner himself. After the race though came devastating news.
Ligaments in his knee were damaged. The stewards at Seoul instantly handed him a one-year ban under rules designed to protect injured horses. This was never likely to be a problem with Baekgwang as his career seemed over. Nevertheless, owner Lee Soo Hong decided to try something that as yet hadn’t been tried in Korean racing before. Baekgwang underwent Stem-cell treatment to repair his damaged knee with cells from his back. It would be a long lay-off. During his time out, little sister Baekpa would go on to defeat the seemingly invincible Myeongmungamun in the SBS Cup of 2008. It would be in this race a year later in July 2009 that, remarkably, Baekgwang would return once again.
He ran fourth but it was a display full of promise. A month later he finished second in a handicap. Then in September, he finally made it back where he belonged; in the winner’s circle having run down a class 1 field in the home stretch to record a narrow victory. Next up was the President’s Cup and, true to form, he pushed eventual winner Nice Choice all the way, despite giving him four kilos, to finish in a brave second. He closed out 2009 on a high, skipping his way through a blizzard two days after Christmas, once more mowing down the field in the home straight.
However, 2010 would see just one appearance, a second place in February before injury took hold again. Although he race-trialed sporadically it wasn’t until August this year that he finally made it to a race, finishing fifth behind Ace Galloper. Of course, it would be behind that horse, currently Seoul’s highest rated Korean born, that he would make his final appearance. For the first and only time in his 25 races, he would not take home any prize money yet, even with his leg broken, he was only just beaten out of the fifth and final moneying place by Dongbanui Gangja, the double Grand Prix winner. He never, ever gave up.
Baekgwang’s leg was broken but happily, it was not fatal. He will return to Jeju Island, this time permanently, as perhaps it should have been last time. He will be registered as a stallion and will live out his retirement in peace. His career outlasted that of almost all his rivals such as Nice Choice and Namchonuijijon and sister Baekpa who was retired last year – Baekpa is at the same farm as the pair’s mother, Grey Crest.
Some have lamented that Baekgwang – “Korea’s Seabiscuit” as he was described by the Korean Racing Journal last weekend – will not be given a retirement ceremony. It’s not necessary. Racing fans have enough memories of Baekgwang doing what he did best – be it in that Ttukseom Cup or dancing through the snow at Christmas or on all the other occasions he produced that thrilling stretch run. Baekgwang means “White Light” and he was a horse who with a turn of his head in the paddock was acknowledged by even the most hard-bitten punter as something special. We were lucky to have him.
Baekgwang (KOR) [The Groom Is Red-Grey Crest (Gold Crest)]
Foaled: March 19, 2003
Debut: September 24, 2005
Retired: October 9, 2011
25 races, 11 wins, 8 seconds, 2 thirds
Career Earnings: 817,614,000 Korean Won
Baekgwang: Let It Snow, Let Him Run Wild