Korean racing is no longer alone in its COVID-19 induced shutdown with even the existence of online betting not enough to save tracks around the world from going dark as the pandemic spreads worldwide. The local shutdown was officially extended this past week and will now continue until at least April 5th.
It would be a very pleasant surprise were this to be the last extension. While Korea appears to have handled its outbreak as well as any nation and the pace of new infections has slowed, a number of so-called “cluster infections” have continued to spring up. Not far from Seoul Racecourse, a church in Seongnam which ignored government advice to refrain from holding offline services, saw over 50 members of its congregation test positive for COVID-19 last week.
It is this fear that may impact on the ability of racing to return any time soon – especially as now, in a effort to bring the recalcitrant churches into line, Seoul City is threatening to pursue operators of “mass gatherings” for any costs incurred as a result of infections. With no online betting, racing in Korea requires a “mass gathering” in order to exist and absolutely nobody thinks that having 30,000 to 40,000 people gathering inside a racecourse of 10,000 people in an off-course building is a good idea at this moment in time.
As for online betting, a bill to make it legal has been before parliament for some time as with no legal alternative, overseas-based illegal sites have boomed in popularity in Korea. The infrastructure is in place and ready to go with bets placed through the KRA’s mobile app already accounting for approximately 30% of turnover on any given raceday. However, the app only works when connected to the KRA’s wifi network at the racecourses or the off-track betting branches. It is popular with punters as the tierce bet-type is only accessible online, while the government likes it too as it has to be connected to a bank account and a real-name provided.
Quick legalisation isn’t easy though, despite the loss of significant tax revenue (up to about US$20 Million for each week there is no racing) and also the success of Hong Kong and Japan in maintaining their turnover when racing behind closed-doors, which has been closely watched by observers here. There are still many hurdles to be overcome if polticians, most of whom are instinctively against being seen to do anything that is seen to liberalize gambling, are to give the go ahead for the switch to be flipped and the app allowed to connect from punters’ living rooms.
For now, Korean racing still intends to return on Friday April 10th. For that to happen, there must be a drastic reduction in the infection rate and also the schools must re-open, somehthing that is currently pencilled in for Monday April 6th. If either of those things fails to happen, then racing won’t be re-starting.
In the meantime, trackwork has been continuing as have official barrier trials. Busan missed a week of trials due to a suspected COVID-19 case but started up again on March 14th, while Seoul has continued uniterrupted.
At Seoul a couple of big names have taken to the track in Friday trials. Global Captain ran out when favourite in a class 1 affair back in February, to the fury of punters, and was ordered to successfully complete two consecutive trials before being allowed to race again.
Global Captain is a winner of seven from twelve starts and at four-years-old, the Munnings colt is expected to be a major player in big sprint races later in the year, including the Korea Sprint. He’s going to have to re-qualify first though. While he succcessfully negotiated the first of during the first weeek of the shutdown at the end of February, it’s now back to the drawing board after he attempted the second on March 20th. While he won the five-furlong trial, stewards took a dim view of his antics rounding the turn and did not pass him.
There were no such problems for Tiz Plan. The Tiznow five-year-ols was a strong class 1 winner in January and was set to be sent off as favourite for the main event ont he day racing was abandoned in February. A winner of nine races from sisteen appearances, he is another who still has scope to improve and he looked to be maintaining his condition very nicely when comfortably coming hom in front in a trial last week.
Tiz Plan was ridden by Johan Victoire, who seems to have been mitigating the boredom of the shutdown by winning trials – the French rider has been on the horse crossing the line in 1st place in five of the twenty trials that have taken place in the capital since racing ceased. On March 20th, he partnered two for trainer Tony Castenheira, Nimui Hyanggi and Mighty Boom, both of whom have racing experience as well as Luigi Riccardi’s promising looking filly Choego Camp (Chapel Royal), who is yet to make her debut but may be one to follow if and when the season gets back up and running, having looked nuice and mature in her heat.
The first leg of the Triple Crown, the KRA Cup Mile, slated for April 5th at Busan won’t be run that day, but one of the potential contenders looked in excellent form in a trial on the south-coast last week. Touch Star Man (Testa Matta), dawdled in the early stages of a March 14th heat before openng up nicely under Jung Do-yun to run away from the rest of the field. The Kim Young-kwan trained colt is out of Menifee mare Useung Touch, who won the 2011 Korean Oaks and has won three of five starts so far.
Also not happening this year is the popular annual cherry blossom festival. Although presumably nobody has told the blossoms and they will still be coming out, the racecourse will not be open.