Month: January 2012

“This is a Korean horse. It doesn’t understand Western ways”

That was definitely the money-quote from John Glionna’s Los Angeles Times profile of Busan trainer Joe Murphy, a report which reflects the reality of the challenges faced by those brought in by the Korea Racing Authority (KRA) to implement its oft-stated goal of “Internationalization.”

Over the years, I’ve written on this topic several times with regard to, amongst other things, Korean horses racing overseas and foreign jockeys coming to Korea. But what is internationalization, why are they doing it and why isn’t it working?

Competitors pose prior to last year's International Jockey Challenge in Seoul

The KRA started the process in 2004 with a dubiously named “Five-Year Plan”. That year they inaugurated a series of exchange races with other Racing Authorities and also established an annual International Jockey Challenge. The aim was, by the end of the five years, to regularly have Korean horses going overseas to compete while welcoming international competitors to Korea.

There were a number of reasons for doing this but one key factor was the desire of the KRA (or more specifically, the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry under whose jurisdiction the KRA is – it has always been a matter of debate as to how interested the KRA really is in changing things and how much is forced upon them) was to improve the domestic image of horse-racing, making it a vital part of the economy.

Racing has a near-monopoly on legal gambling and as such has a dreadful public image and is persistently the target of populist anti-gambling groups who seek to impose even tighter restrictions on racing. Under the auspices of the National Gaming Control Commission, this has involved the enforced closure of the KRA’s internet and telephone betting services and an order for it to close several of its Off-Track Betting sites.

To fight this image, the KRA has become one of the largest charitable organizations in the country, has constructed family leisure parks at its tracks to get families in and sponsored the production of racing movies such as “Gak-seol-tang”, “Grand Prix” and “Champ”. Alongside this, they are fully aware of the importance of National pride in Korea. An internationally competitive racing industry would be a secure industry.

The KRA set about trying to improve its breeding, training and riding. The results have been mixed. The first aim has been successful. The Jeju Stud Farm was already operational but the addition of the Jangsu Farm in 2007 (with a foreign Manager), the lifting of restrictions on spending on broodmares and a bigger budget to import stallions. Korea now has an impressive Stud line-up with the calibre of foals much better than it was a decade ago and the importers know what they are doing. However, for the most part, when they reach the track they’re still slower than the very average two-year-old imports – Korean buyers are still only allowed to spend $20,000 on importing a colt for racing.

That’s where the training comes in and that’s where the problems start. Training and conditioning here is substandard. Joe Murphy is only the second foreign trainer after Peter Wolsley who has just completed his fourth year at Busan. The Australian is finally in command of a decent string of horses but at 18 months in, Murphy is in roughly the same position as Wolsley was at the same point.

Wolsley stuck it out and to his credit, Murphy despite the difficulties, speaks very highly of his Korean co-workers and says he enjoys life at Busan and intends to stay to make a success of things. However, it is fair to say that a system which requires three years of toil for little reward isn’t likely to attract much talent going forward.

Why is it like this? Why doesn’t the horse “understand western ways”? A lot comes down to money and control. The KRA administers racing but it would be quite a stretch to say they control it. There are four sets of license holders; Owners, Trainers, Jockeys and Grooms. These groups – and the organisations that represent them wield the real power. With prize-money so high, as far as many are concerned the system is not broken and doesn’t need to be improved.

At Busan, it is only the owners who can change things. It was owners who wanted their horse ridden by Japanese jockey Toshio Uchida and now it is owners who want Peter Wolsley to train their horses. When they win, they can start to influence the locals in a postive way as happened with the introduction of pacifiers as approved racing gear a couple of years ago; the first two horses home in the Grand Prix Stakes, Tough Win and Mister Park, were both wearing the equipment that Wolsley introduced to Korea.

Interestingly, it is at Seoul, where hostility to foreigners is such that not a single trainer has been invited and where no foreign jockey can be said to have been a success, where there has been visible progress and that has come in the saddle. The KRA’s Jockey academy, headed by a South African, has been turning out some good young riders. At Busan, Murphy points out the problem of younger jockeys showing far too much respect for their elders but at Seoul, if the likes of Jo In Kwen, Jang Chu Yeol and Seo Seung Un respect their elders then they have a funny way of showing it. All are genuine talents but there is no-one similar at Busan.

There have been some improvements, for instance, The KRA’s English language webpage has got much better over the past couple of years and a foreign steward is a permanent fixture on the panels at both Seoul and Busan (although they have stopped producing English language reports).

Korea also exported some racehorses to Malaysia last year, a first for the industry. Additionally, like they’re doing with young jockeys, the KRA is sending groups of trainers abroad – not only to the US but also to Australia and the UK (with no raceday medication allowed in Korea, it is thought these two countries are better options for trainers).

However, for every step forward in Korean racing, there are two steps back. A foreign Master Farrier left Seoul last October after being frustrated in his attempts to improve the generally poor shoeing quality of racehorses here. The local farriers have a good union and a good income. Meanwhile horses continue to have bad shoes.

Then again, the Korean horses probably wouldn’t like or understand those western shoes.


Sunday Round-Up: Moon Se Young Brings His Wife To Work

Moon Se Young was presented with the 2011 Jockey Championship Trophy at Seoul Race Park on Sunday…by his wife.

2011 Prize-Winners: Trainer Shin Woo Chul (left with check), Tamna Saryo CEO Yoon Tae Hyeon (owner of Tough Win, centre), Champion Jockey Moon Se Young and Ace Galloper's owner Shin Joon Soo (right)

KRA TV Announcer Kim Ryeo Jin, who also happens to be Mrs Moon Se Young, was the surprise presenter of the award to her husband who racked up 105 wins last year to claim his second Seoul Jockey Championship.

Also receiving awards were Champion Trainer Shin Woo Chul, as well as connections of Seoul’s best two horses of the last year. Grand Prix Stakes winner Tough Win claimed the overall Horse Of The Year prize, Tamna Feed Company CEO Yoon Tae Hyeon picking up the award, while KRA Cup Classic winner Ace Galloper won the prize for Korean bred horses for owner Shin Joon Soo.

On the track, Champion Moon notched another two winners but he couldn’t take out the feature race which was won by Ham Wan Sik (who landed a treble) on Japanese five-year-old Real Victor (Biwa Shinseiki) who upset hot favourite Cheonun.

Cheonun was runner-up in the 2010 Korean Oaks and it seems likely that a similarly named filly could be making an impact on the Triple Crown races this year. Cheoneun (Forest Camp) began her three-year old career in the very last race on Sunday, scoring a comfortable two-length win over seven furlongs. That takes her record to four wins from six starts and she’ll be one to watch as the year progresses.

She's not going to believe you bought those so don't even try.

It’s not just horses we need to watch as the year progresses. Moon Se Young may be champion jockey now but there is plenty of talent coming up behind him.

Chief among those seems to be Jo In Kwen, who won Saturday’s big handicap on Jumong and Jang Chu Yeol, who is yet to open his account this year. A year behind them though is first-year apprentice Seo Seung Un. Seo won twice on Sunday and looks in good shape to ride out his apprenticeship (reach 40 winners) quicker than any Korean jockey before him.

For now though, Moon Se Young can content himself with being the best at what he does whilst being one of the richest sportsmen in the country. And married to a TV presenter.

* It was a good start to 2012 for Japanese jockey Makoto Noda. After being without a win in the final two months of last year, he landed successes on both Saturday and Sunday.

Filly Is Seoul’s New Year Darling

Favourite Darling Vision swooped to win the New Year Stakes on opening day at Seoul Race Park.

Darling Vision and Cho Kyoung Ho in the New Year's Stakes winner's circle

Coming into the race on the back of a strong end to her three-year old season, the four-year-old filly was always travelling well under jockey Cho Kyoung Ho and the pair came wide to win by a length from rank outsider Bon Rising, who led the rest of the field home by a nose.

It was Darling Vision’s fifth win in four starts and marked a very quick return to the Stakes winner’s circle for jockey Cho Kyoung Ho who ended last season in the best possible way with victory on Tough Win in the Grand Prix Stakes. Darling Vision is no Tough Win, but she won handily enough to suggest that she cause problems in tougher races than this later in the year.

Also winning handily was three-year-old colt Viva Cat (Creek Cat), who got the race to the Triple Crown underway with a smart victory in race 7. Racing around two turns for the first time, Viva Cat posted his fourth win from five career starts to date. There’s a long way to go until the first of the Triple Crown races, the KRA Cup Mile on the first Sunday of April, but things are off to a good start.

The afternoon’s feature handicap was a very open betting race and it was US five-year-old Jumong (Johar-Foreign Aid) who got the better of top filly Kkakjaengi (Put It Back) to take the spoils over nine and a half furlongs.

Herald Business New Year Stakes – Seoul Race Park – 1800M – Jan 7, 2011

1. Darling Vision (KOR) [Perfect Champion-Groom’s Darling (Runaway Groom)] – Cho Kyoung Ho – 3.2, 1.5
2. Bon Rising (KOR) [Volponi-Shadaroba (El Prado)] – Lee Gang Seo – 18.1
3. Summit Runner (KOR) [Capital Spending-Zeppelin Zu (Night Zeppelin)] – Jang Chu Yeol – 7.6

Distances: 1 length/Nose
Also Ran: 4. Kakamega 5. King Fighting 6. Prime Galloper 7. Fly Energy 8. Seoul Jeongsang 9. Forest Wind 10. Palgigun 11. Storm Troop 12. Manjeomhwanhui 13. Beongaegangho 14. Seungniuihamseong

Racing returns to Seoul on Sunday with 12 races from 11:10 to 17:30. There is no racing at Busan.

Weekend Preview – 2012 Opening Days at Seoul & Jeju

New Year’s Commemorative Stakes Headlines Opening Day In Capital

The 2012 fixture list is out and, while Busan remains dark for another week, racing gets underway this weekend at Seoul and Jeju.

Happyville - and Happy New Year as 2012 racing gets underway at Seoul this weekend

As is traditional, opening day at Seoul on Saturday is headlined by the Herald Business New Year’s Commemorative Stakes.

The 1800 metre test brings together a number of horses who didn’t quite fulfil their potential as three-year-olds, giving them the opportunity to start off the year with a Stakes victory.

Last year’s winner, Andy’s Runner went on to be a solid competitor at class 1 level. 2011 Sports Seoul Stakes winner Seungniuihamseong and in-form Palgigun and Summit Runner are among a full field of fourteen.

Here’s a full list of runners and riders (Name (Sire) Age, Sex (Starts/1st/2nd/3rd) – Jockey):

Herald Business New Year’s Stakes – Seoul Race Park – 1800M – Jan 8, 2012, 16:15

1. Seoul Jeongsang (KOR) (Capital Spending) 4 G (13/4/1/5) – Ham Wan Sik
2. Palgigun (KOR) (Commendable) 4 C (12/5/2/1) – Jung Pyeong Soo
3. Forest Wind (KOR) (Capital Spending) 5 H (18/4/1/3) – Moon Jung Kyun
4. Darling Vision (KOR) (Perfect Champion) 4 F (13/4/3/2) – Cho Kyoung Ho
5. Storm Troop (KOR) (Concept Win) 5 G (20/5/1/0) – Kim Dong Chul
6. Manjeomhwanhui (KOR) (Yehudi) 5 M (22/5/2/3) – Seo Seung Un
7. Fly Energy (KOR) (Dice Dancer) 4 F (12/3/1/2) – Oh Kyoung Hoan
8. Beongaegangho (KOR) (Vicar) 4 C (15/4/5/1) – Choi Bum Hyun
9. Bon Rising (KOR) (Volponi) 5 H (24/2/5/2) – Lee Gang Seo
10. Seungniuihamseong (KOR) (Vicar) 4 F (11/4/2/0) – Kim Ok Sung
11. Summit Runner (KOR) (Capital Spending) 4 C (11/3/5/1) – Jang Chu Yeol
12. Prime Galloper (KOR) (Strodes Creek) 4 C (13/4/4/1) – Toshihiko Inoue
13. King Fighting (KOR) (Concept Win) 4 C (14/3/3/0) – Jo In Kwen
14. Kakamega (KOR) (Gold Money) 4 C (16/4/4/2) – Moon Se Young

Saturday also sees a big class 1 handicap involving double Stakes winner Kkakjaengi as well as promisng newcomers to the top-tier of racing Sing Sing Cat and Ppoppai . Jumong , who is making a quick return to the track after a disappointing run in the Grand Prix, also goes.

Sunday’s big handicap will be headed by Nonghyup Stakes winner Cheonun as well as the afore-mentioned Andy’s Runner. Singgeureounachim was the underachiever of the Triple Crown trail last year and he will have an early opportunity to get his four-year old career off to a good start.

With Busan not running until next week, Seoul’s program is amended to 11 races on Saturday and 12 on Sunday – the opposite to what will be its regular program in 2012. Here’s what’s happening when and where this weekend:

Friday January 6

Jeju Race Park: 10 races from 12:30 to 17:00

Saturday January 7

Seoul Race Park: 11 races from 11:10 to 17:30
Jeju Race Park: 9 races from 12:40 to 17:25

Sunday January 8

Seoul Race Park: 12 races from 11:10 to 17:30

2011 – Records Broken, Movies Made, Retirements & Replacements

We’re just a few days away from the start of the 2012 racing season so there’s just time to look back at some of the big events in Korean racing in 2011, selected not necessarily in order of importance:

Mister Park wins for a record-breaking 16th consecutive time (KRA)

Mister Park Breaks the Record – In the US there was Rapid Redux. In Korea in 2011 there was Mister Park. In fact they would probably give each other quite a good race. In September, he surpassed Po Gyeong Seon and Saegangja, horses who have almost mythical status among Korean racing fans, with whom he was tied on fifteen wins, to claim the all-time record. He would extend his streak to seventeen before coming unstuck in an epic Grand Prix Stakes at Seoul in December.

Some of the shine was taken off when connections avoided going for the record in the Busan Metropolitan but regardless of this – and regardless of his defeat to Tough Win in the Grand Prix – Mister Park has done something no horse has been able to do in Korea before. For that, he is this blog’s Horse Of The Year.

Jang Chu Yeol 's Win Picture in the USA

Jang Chu Yeol Rides Winners in the USA – It shouldn’t really be a big story but it is. Young Korean jockeys at Seoul are getting better and better and most now get sent overseas for a short spell to expose them to different riding styles. Some have been to South Africa and some to Australia.

Jang Chu Yeol went to the USA and in November, rode 2 winners at Charles Town, the first Korean jockey to do so. Despite taking those two months out, Jang finished eleventh in the Seoul championship, one place behind…

Kim Hae Sun – Third year jockey Kim Hae Sun looks well set to become the first Korean female jockey to break through to the elite level, riding an impressive 29 winners in 2011. Now comes the difficult bit as she has ridden out her weight allowance and now will be competing on equal terms with the best in the weighing room. Part of Kim’s success has come with a certain new trainer, which brings us onto the next entry…

Kim Hae Sun contemplates getting on her horse in the snow-filled paddock - she got on 29 winners in 2011

Lee Shin Young – Last year she made this list by being the first Korean woman to earn a trainer’s licence. In 2011, she took control of her own barn and by the end of the year had landed 8 winners from her 51 runners, with Kim Hae Sun riding the majority of them.

Shin Woo Chul waits patiently for his interview after Tough Win landed him his 1000th career win as a trainer

Shin Woo Chul trains 1000 winners – The veteran trainer leads the all-time list and scored his 1000th winner in 2011. Fittingly it was Tough Win who got him the milestone victory and it was the same horse who crowned a wonderful year for him by winning the Grand Prix Stakes in December.

The KRA gets a new Chairman – Kim Gwang Won came to the end of his term in September this year and, after a delay of two months, was replaced by Jang Tae Pyeong. A career civil servant, the 62-year-old Jang joins a KRA that has been treading water recently. While former Chairman Kim was popular in some quarters, he leaves behind problems. The new track at Yeongcheon (a ridiculous place for a racecourse) is running into regulatory trouble, as is a KRA Plaza in Seocho in Seoul. Chairman Kim tried hard but Chairman Jang will need to try harder.

A diverse lot, aren't they?. Jang Tae Pyung and the KRA (front row, centre-KRA)

Korea Exports Racehorses – Three Korean bred racehorses were exported to Malaysia in October reflecting the rapid development made by the local breeding industry.

Publicity poster for the movie "Champ"

Champ – The racing movie starring Cha Tae Hyeon and very loosely based on the story of champion racemare Luna was released in September. Unlike last year’s “Grand Prix” it was a good watch and even has a cameo from South African Martin Wepner at the end riding the real Luna. Unfortunately, an on-set accident involving a horse cast a long shadow over the production.

Sires – The battle for leading sire went down to the last day of the season and was eventually won by Exploit. Just behind were Menifee and Vicar. With Forest Camp strolling the freshman sire list and with Ecton Park foals about to start racing, next year looks like it’s going to be very interesting.

A Two-Year-Old Comes Third In The Grand Prix – The Smarty Jones colt Smarty Moonhak was beaten on his debut but won his next four in a canter, including the Turkey Jockey Club Trophy. He was billed as the future of Korean racing. The first two-year-ol to ever run in the Grand Prix Stakes, in finishing third, just behind Tough Win and Mister Park, Smarty Moonhak showed that he’s very much the present of Korean racing.

Smarty Moonhak (KRA)

Smarty Moonhak, Mister Park and Tough Win were the biggest names of 2011 but they were joined by the likes of Yeonseung Daero, Dangdae Bulpae, Cheonnyeon Daero, Gwangyajeil, Useung Touch, Ace Galloper and Dongseo Jeongbeol – Stakes winners all. Lion Santa went nine races unbeaten at Busan while Khaosan gave Peter Wolsley his first Stakes winner. The great Bally Brae kept on winning into his ninth year while the equally great Baekgwang was retired.

Of course, only a small minority of horses who make it into this blog and indeed into the winner’s circle. Racing would not run without them and it is worth taking a moment to remember the contribution that the likes of Charming Girl, Haneulcheoreom, Perfect Love and all the other old-stagers make. Some have good owners, some do not. Jang Tae Pyeong would do well to pay more attention to this area in 2012.

2011 – The Foreigners in Korea

Jockeys, Trainers & Stewards Flying Various Flags

The KRA is still, officially at least, plugging away with its “Internationalization” project. And while part of that project involves sending Korean riders and trainers overseas, another involves bringing foreign racing professionals to Korea.

International staff work in the Korean breeding program on the stud farms in Jeju and at Jangsu in Jeolla Province. There is a foreign handicapper at Busan and there are Americans on the Stewards’ panels at both thoroughbred tracks; sought after positions those were too given the ongoing difficultes in the thoroughbred racing industry worldwide.

Soseuldaemun and Toshio Uchida win the KRA Cup Mile (Picture: KRA)

It’s on the track though where the most visible foreign representation is. Two foreign trainers were joined throughout the year by a total of nine foreign jockeys, eight of them Japanese.

2011 started with “Mr. Pink” Toshio Uchida ruling the roost in the Busan weighing room. By the time his license expired in August – and after pleading from the local Jockey Union, it wasn’t renewed, he had racked up 58 winners including the KRA Cup Mile. Such was his popularity among punters we called him the most popular Japanese man in Korea.

Akane Yamamoto

Uchida was joined at Busan in June by Akane Yamamoto. The 28-year-old became the first woman to ride at the track since Hitomi Miyashita left last year. Akane qucikly started winning and found herself in the unlikely position of becoming the second foreign rider (after South African Martin Wepner) to be stable jockey to Busan’s top trainer Kim Young Kwan.

Trainer Kim hasn’t always had the best of reputations and he’s not always been a fan of foreign jockeys but he likes winning and he likes Akane. Through this partnership, Akane found herself making Korean racing history as she rode Mister Park to his record-breaking 17th consecutive win before just missing out in the biggest race of all as the pair finished second to Tough Win in the Grand Prix Stakes.

Only Non-Japanese: Nathan Stanley (KRA)

A foreign rider will get a chance at Busan as, Jo Sung Gon and a couple of noteworthy exceptions aside, the competition – and the Union – is not very strong. It’s a different matter at Seoul. Mai Beppu has been the most successful of the four Japanese jockeys to ride in the capital this year.

The only non-Japanese foreign rider this year was Australian Nathan Stanley. Unlike some who have gone before, Stanley brought the right kind of attitude – tough and self-confident but not egotistical – to succeed in Korea. And with Aussie trainer Peter Wolsley crying out for a rider to convert his near-misses into winners, the timing was perfect. Stanley won the Owners’ Cup (after a disqualification) on his first mount in Korea and went on to score 17 winners with a quinella percentage of 39%. However, a three-month ban incurred for careless riding brought a premature end to his 2011.

Foreign Jockeys in 2011: Name/Time in Korea / Winners (Track)

1. Toshio Uchida (Jan-Aug) 58 (Busan)
2. Akane Yamamoto (Jun-Dec) 28 (Busan)
3. Nathan Stanley (Sep-Dec) 17 (Busan)
4. Mai Beppu (Mar-Dec) 13 (Seoul)
5. Yoshi Aoki (Jan-Apr) 7 (Busan)
6. Eiki Nishimura (Oct-Dec) 7 (Busan)
7. Makoto Noda (Jun-Dec) 6 (Seoul)
8. Hiro Hamada (Jan-Jun) 2 (Seoul)
9. Toshihiko Inoue (Dec) 1 (Seoul)

Stanley’s win on Khaosan in the Owners’ Cup was a standout moment in a standout year for trainer Peter Wolsley. Earlier in the year, he scored his 100th winner and ends his fourth year in Korea in fourth place in the Busan Trainer Championship.

It took Wolsley two years to really become established. American Joe Murphy is at the 18 month mark and continues to work hard without the reward he perhaps deserves, with seven winners in 2011. His string is gradually getting bigger but still lacks quality. Maybe 2012 will be the year he makes his breakthrough.

In the Stewards’ room, Brett Wright headed home to Racing Victoria while James Smith and Billy Williams joined. Of course the year started with the tragic news from Australia that James Perry, who made many friends in Seoul, lost his life in the Queensland floods. He remains fondly remembered in Korea.

As we head into 2012, another Australian trainer is reportedly considering joining Busan in March while the KRA continues to advertise for qualified foreign jockeys – any takers should click here. Just remember to choose Busan.