The lot of a gelding is often to keep on running until either age or injury catches up. But for Mister Park it wasn’t supposed to end like this. Not now, not in the prime of what was already a glorious career. Going into race 5 on Sunday, a simple tune-up for bigger challenges to come, he had won 19 of the 21 starts he’d made and on a warm afternoon in Busan, there was no reason to think this would be anything other than routine win number 20.
He was carrying 63kg in this mile-long handicap. It was a lot, the most he’d ever carried and 8kg more than any other horse in the race. A lot of people were not very happy about the new increased weights that had recently come into force, but it wasn’t cause for much concern. After all, the favourite really was 8kg better than the others and, like most horses, he had carried more than that weight on many mornings in trackwork.
The gates opened and Mister Park broke well, settling into third place and, as they exited the long back straight and rounded the home turn, he seemed to be well-positioned to make his move. Suddenly though, something looked wrong. He was too wide and then too slow. Then came the stumble, the awful sign that this was serious.
For those of us watching on TV from Seoul Racecourse, that was the last we saw of him. The race went on but as the remaining field crossed the line, the track TV coverage immediately cut back to the scene. Unprecedented. In Korea the coverage is strictly business, a game of numbers where all that matters is in which order they cross the line; show the race, confirm the finishing order and the pay-outs and move on. But not this time.
Few had noticed that Ebony Storm, the 2008 Korean Derby winner, had won the race but everybody knew something terrible had happened on that final corner. Usually when an odds-on favourite has lost, regardless of the circumstances, there is agitation and anger among the crowd. But not this time. At Busan and at Seoul there was silence. As the live shot returned, the racecaller didn’t know what to say. In the end, all he said was what everybody already knew: “That’s Mister Park”.
Mister Park was standing, tall and proud but his head was bobbing up and down. The vet and the ambulance were there. His jockey had taken care of him, stopped him, dismounted and supported him, taking as much weight off his stricken leg as possible until help arrived.
It looked like a fracture but the emergency team got him off the track and into the KRA’s Equine Hospital. The live-feed cut back to Seoul where the Sports Chosun Cup was about to start and then, predictably, rumours began. Around the paddock in the capital, there were loud shouts from some in the crowd for Tough Win, Mister Park’s great rival, who was scheduled to carry even more weight in a later race, to be scratched (ultimately he would race and win, although not without cost).
Those initial rumors were encouraging. Ligament damage. We’d seen that before with another popular horse – Baekgwang had recovered from ligament damage. Pictures of Mister Park in the hospital were circulated and speculation moved on from his chances of not just surviving but even actually racing again.
Later though, around 7 in the evening and with the tracks empty, the truth came out. A complete rupture of the distal sesamoid ligament with little prospect of any meaningful recovery. Owner Kwak Jong Soo took the decision to allow his horse to be euthanized.
Two months ago Mr. Kwak had been up at Seoul Racecourse to visit an exhibition in honour of his horse. Mister Park [Ecton Park-Formal Deal (Formal Gold)] had set a new Korean record of 17 consecutive victories.
Chest puffed out with pride, Mr. Kwak nevertheless look shocked that people would come to look at pictures of his horse. Shocked that they wanted to have their picture taken with a cardboard cut-out of his horse. Shocked too to learn that, through the internet, some people in other countries knew his horse’s name, that the gelding he referred to as “Park-shi” was famous beyond traditional Korean racing circles.
His horse was a genuine star though. Mister Park’s feats had appeared on the national TV news, extraordinary in a country where racing, while massively attended, is considered a betting game, not a sport, a poor man’s vice. Yet Mister Park had a documentary made about him and there was even a “limited edition” children’s stuffed toy produced of him, complete with his distinctive pacifier headgear. Touchingly these have appeared in a number of the many online tributes that have been paid to him so far.
Part of the “troika” – with Tough Win and Smarty Moonhak – who were expected to compete for the nation’s biggest races later this year, Mister Park was perhaps as close as any horse has ever been to being a household name in Korea.
Mister Park finished third on his race debut on November 27, 2009 but went on to win his next 17, including the 2010 Grand Prix Stakes. During that time, he encountered and defeated every possible big name rival on the peninsula. Tough Win, Dangdae Bulpae (several times), and Dongbanui Gangja were among his many victims. Completing his record-breaking streak in October last year, he was named Horse of the Year for 2011.
Owner Kwak had always campaigned him conservatively and was desperate for him not to lose his unbeaten record. He had avoided running him in the Busan Metropolitan City Stakes last summer and had to be cajoled by trainer Kim Young Kwan into coming back to Seoul to defend his Grand Prix title at the end of the year and in doing so put his winning streak on the line.
Tough Win got the better of him that day but it was not by much and, as trainer Kim told Kwak at the end of the race in a conversation caught by the TV cameras, Mister Park lost nothing in defeat. With a young, raw and precociously talented Smarty Moonhak just behind them, we may have seen a finish contested between three of the best horses we’ve ever been privileged to have run in this country.
Sadly, there won’t be a rematch. Mister Park deserved better than to meet his end underneath 63kg in a race that would normally be forgotten about the moment it was over. He deserved the opportunity to take his Grand Prix back. Moreover, he deserved the retirement that his owner was determined to give him when he was no longer the best.
Most of all, like every single one of those horses who don’t return home safely after being sent out to run for our pleasure, he deserved to live. Racing will go on, his record may never be beaten. But Mister Park is gone.