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The Long Road to Online Betting & The Prospects of Racing Returning in Korea

Over three months since racing in Korea was forcibly halted by the spread in the country of the Covid-19 epidemic and with racing around the world gradually getting back up and running, there is still no confirmed date for resumption. Two weeks ago, the Ministry of Agriculture (under whose jurisdiction the Korea Racing Authority falls) approved plans to begin operations on May 29 with an attendance cap of 10% of the average number of racegoers. Shortly afterwards, a rise in confirmed Covid-19 “clusters” in the greater Seoul area, first at a Coupang distribution centre in Bucheon and then a group of churches in Incheon, caused the Korean government to urge caution in the Capital area up to and including June 14th and the approval was rescinded. That now means an earliest restart of June 19th and that is only if the number of new cases falls – right now it is hovering bewteen 30-50 per day.

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A trial takes place at Seoul Racecourse during the shutdown – note the dividers by the rail for when racegoers finally return

One thing that does occasionally need to be made clear is that in Korea there has been no “lockdown” of any kind. Shops, restaurants, bars, cinemas, hair salons etc have all remained open throughout, albeit with some of them (cinemas especially) seeing a dramatic decline in business. The only things forced shut were sports venues and churches (schools were already closed for holidays, however it is only in the past two weeks that some pupils have returned to their desks). Churches and sports facilities reopened at the beginning of May while the country’s professional baseball and football leagues began behind closed doors.

Racing has also continued its operations. Trackwork has carried on as have official trials with up to ten heats a day being run at Seoul Racecourse on recent Thursdays and Fridays.  Patience has generally been commendably high among participants, primarily due to a feeling of helplessness by all concerned. Everybody knows that racing can’t take place without punters on track because since 2009, there has been no facility for someone to have a legal bet from their home by telephone or on the internet, rendering racing behind closed doors for a sustained amount of time impossible.

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Inside the grandstands, most seats have been blocked off

Racing in Korea operates under what is known as the “KRA Law” (a somewhat misleading title as the KRA itself often has little influence on its content) and this particular document contains plenty of ambiguities; the “maximum betting limit” being perhaps the best (or worst) example. Therefore, when it became clear there was a market – illegal services having sprung up in the early 2000s – the “KNetz” service was introduced to allow punters to place their bets without having to physically attend the racecourse or an OTB.

Just over a decade ago, a small number of  politicians with a keen eye for a favourable headline, noticed that KNetz was therefore never formally legalised and launched a high profile campaign to get it shut down. As with many campaigns launched by publicity hungry politicians against publicity shy and quiet-life seeking civil servants, it was successful and in August 2009, KNetz was discontinued and live racing disappeared from local tv screens. In the years since, online gambling in Korea has thrived, just not of the legal kind – although the lottery, for some reason not seen as gambling, is allowed to sell tickets online – and Korea has become, along with Malaysia, the only major racing jurisdiction to be unable to offer its customers a safe and legal way of wagering from home.

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It’s the same in the parade ruing with only one in four seats left open

Moves have been afoot over the past few years to rectify this. The KRA has launched its “My Card” app for punters to download and place bets on but it comes with the major catch that currently it only works when connected to the KRA wifi at a racecourse or OTB. It does mean, however, that once the political will is there, the infrastructure is ready to go immediately. Currently “My Card”  accounts for approximately 30% of all turnover, a figure that is boosted by the fact that the popular Tierce (trifecta) bet type is available exclusively to punters on the app. Additionally the app features a league table for punters to find out how they match up against their peers as well as playing host to the annual Korea Handicapping Challenge, an event that prior to the shutdown, was this year set to be an official feeder contest for the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge in the US.

Politically, numerous parliamentary hearings have been held with figures such as Hong Kong Jockey Club CEO Winfried Engelbrecht Bresges among those who have made the trip to Yeouido over the years to impress upon lawmakers why a safe and legal avenue for online wagering is vital. Subsequently last November, a group of nineteen lawmakers led by Jeju Assembly member Kang Chang-il introduced the necessary legislation. It reached committee stage in February of this year, however it there ran into an impasse – the lack of “social concensus” – which could not be resolved before the dissolution of the 20th National Assembly in advance of April’s elections. As with all pending legislation it was therefore automatically abandoned.

The 21st National Assembly has just opened and it is essentially back to square one. Kang Chang-il didn’t run for re-election so the hope is that one of those eighteen others who put their name to the proposed bill, or a new lawmaker from an area such as Jeju that is heavily dependent on racing for jobs and tax revenue, will step up and re-introduce it. It is likely to happen but it will take time and it’s too late for it to have any mitigating impact on the current crisis.

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Lotteria has installed dividers at its tables

So right now the only way of getting racing up and running is if at least some spectators are allowed into the venues. This would have happened on May 29th with the KBO baseball league also having been poised to allow spectators in from the same weekend before the new infections in the capital area were discovered and paralysis set in again. Lots of work has been done at the racecourses to enforce the idea of “social distancing” with even the Lotteria outlet in the grandstand having erected dividers at its tables – something it has not been required to do at its downtown locations. Temporary structures have been built by the rails to keep punters apart and three out of every four seats in the grandstand have been blocked off. Anyone who does attend will need to scan a QR code from their phone in to enable swift contact tracing in the event of a positive test by a racegoer or participant.

As it stands, it does seem as though racing in some form will return on Friday June 19th. Attendance will be very limited and how enough turnover can be generated to keep the whole show on the road long-term will be the next challenge. For now, for the sake of the whole industry, the only focus is on finding a way to get back racing.

Take Charge Indy Colt Tops May Jeju 2YO Sale

The Korean Thorougbred Breeders’ Association hosted its first two-year-old sale of the year at the KRA’s sales complex on Jeju Island on Wednesday and it was a Take Charge Indy colt who topped the bidding.

(The entire sale can be viewed in the video above)

While in excess of 150 lots were offered, only 28 found buyers on the day, something which is not ususual at these sales as any horse which does not reach KRW 20 Million is passed in. The minimum price paid was KRW 20 Million with the average being KRW 39.8 Million.

Sale-topper was a Take Charge Indy colt out of Patti’s Sweet Song (Unbridled’s Song) consigned by breeder Kim Jung-cheol and purchased by the DRM City group for KRW 90 Million. DRM City, who own and race over a dozen horses at Seoul Racecourse including top sprinter Spring Back, were the most active buyers on the day scooping up four lots in all, including the second most expensive, a Gemologist filly out of Pied A Terre (City Zip) at KRW 82 Million.

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Take Charge Indy during his time in Korea

Completing the top three was a Distorted Humor colt out of Flamenba (Kingmambo), bought for KRW 80 Million by Boo Soo-sun, who races his horses at Busan.

Take Charge Indy, who was repurchased by American interests last summer after his progeny had performed better than expected at home, was the most popular sire with five of his juveniles selling.

The sale was held with bidders present in the saleroom albeit with due COVID-19 precautions in place.

Jeju 2YO Sales To Go Ahead May 12

Jeju Island, the centre of Korea’s thoroughbred breeding industry, will finally play host to its first sale of 2020 with the Korea Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association Jeju May Sale of Two-Year-Olds takng place on the island on Tuesday May 12th.

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Jeju’s sales ring will see action for the first time this year on Tuesday

The May sale is usually Jeju’s second of the year, however, the planned March sale had to be scrapped due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Attendees will be temperature checked and required to wear facemasks.

A total of 151 juveniles will be offered at the sale, including thirteen by Take Charge Indy, who returned to the USA last summer.

April’s smaller Mainland Two-Year-Old sale did go ahead at Jangsu two weeks ago when twenty-two were sold with an Alternation colt out of Fictionality (by Tale Of The Cat) fetching the highest price at KRW 69 Million.

The Sale Catalogue can be found here.

As for when actual racing can take place, plans are at an advanced stage for a resumption before the end of May with all the major relevant authorities reportedly having come very close to giving approval. However, the recent “Itaewon Outbreak” has threatened to derail those plans.

 

Obituary: Kim Bo-kyung

Kim Bo-kyung, one of the leading trainers at Busan Racecourse, died on Monday March 30. He was 43.

Starting out as a groom in 1998, Kim Bo-kyung worked for a number of stables first on Jeju Island and then from 2005 at the Busan Racecourse. He was ultimately granted a license to strike out on his own in 2018 and quickly established himself among the top tier of trainers at Busan.

In 2019, his first full year, Kim Bo-kyung finished in 6th place in the Busan Trainer’s Premiership, sending out 40 winners. His top three strike-rate of 30% was second only to perennial champion trainer Kim Young-kwan.

While he hadn’t yet saddled a winner in a Group race, Kim had one of this season’s leading three-year-olds, Breeders’ Cup runner-up Save The World, among his 33-strong team, one of the largest at the track.

Save The World provided him with his biggest win when scoring in the main Breeders’ Cup lead-up race in October last year.

A notice posted on the KRA’s Korean language website the week after his death paid tribute to Kim Bo-kyung’s “long term dedication and passion for horse racing”.

International crisis support helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org

Korea: Shutdown Latest / Trial Updates

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.

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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.

Roller Blade, Mark Story Impress In Seoul Trials

Racing might be shut-down in Korea for the time being as Coronavirus outbreak continues but two of the hottest three-year-old properties in racing here did meet on the track on Friday morning with Roller Blade and Mark Story stepping out in an official trial

Roller Blade (Officer) was champion juvenile in 2019 and had been slated to kick off his three-year-old campaign in the Sports Seoul Cup, the capital’s Classic trial, last week. That race was the first Listed or Stakes race to be lost to the virus and with Roller Blade not having competedsince his winning effort in the Breeders’ Cup at Busan in early December, it was time for a hit-out.

Mark Story (Currency Swap) is a US import and therefore not eligible for the domestic Classics. He has a perfect race record of three wins from three starts and looks an extremely exciting prospect, at least at sprint distances.

Both performed pleasingly and it was Mark Story who took the line three lengths in front of Roller Blade after an easy five-furlongs for both. The rest of the field was a further four-lengths in arrears.

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Mark Story leads Roller Blade to the line in heat 4 of Friday’s trials

While racing remains shutdown at a cost to the tax office of approximately US$20 Million per week due to remote wagering being illegal in Korea (making the behind closed doors model of Hong Kong and Japan impractical), trackwork and official trials are continuing as usual. Racing is currently cancelled through March 22nd and it seems as though the decision on whether to resume after that will depend on whether the schools do in fact go back on Monday March 23rd as is the current plan, should Coronavirus cases ease off in the meantime.

The Sports Seoul and Gyeongnam Shinmun Classic trials at Seoul and Busan have already been lost while next week’s Tokyo City Keiba Trophy and the SROA Chairman’s Cup, the latter the first Korean Group race of the year have also succumbed.  The next big race scheduled is the first leg of the Korean Triple Crown, the KRA Cup Mile at Busan on Sunday April 5th.

Today Caps Korea’s Dubai Carnival With Solid 2nd in Curlin Stakes

South Korea’s presence at the Meydan carnival came to an end on Thursday night with three representatives lining up in the Curlin Handicap at international listed level.

Korea was looking for successive wins in the dirt feature, after Dolkong won the event last year for trainer Simon Foster and recently retired jockey Olivier Doleuze.

Trainer Kim Young-Kwan had Today and Baengmunbaekdap engaged in the race whilst Busan counterpart Thomas Gillespie had Great King entered in the 1 1/4m event.

Today, who had a favourable draw took up the running in the early stages of the event whilst Great King and Baengmunbaekdap were dealt torrid runs tramping three and four wide for the majority of the race.

At the three-furlong pole it was obvious that Today’s rider Fernando Jara had plenty of horse left underneath him, as it started to appear a two-horse race with US representative Parsimony presenting on the outside of him.

As Today and Parsimony straightened up for the run home, they were matching each other’s stride, before Parsimony started to edge clear and go on and win by just over two lengths.

Whilst Today finished second, Great King produced an admirable performance to finish sixth after a tough run and Baengmunbaekdap capitulated to beat one home.

It was a truly international event with Parsimony (U.S.), Today, Ambassadorial (U.K.) and race favourite George Villiers (South Africa) the top four finishing order.

The Curlin Handicap capped off the Dubai preparations for the trio who lined up in the event, whilst connections of Blue Chipper travelled the Korea Sprint winner to Dubai without him stepping foot on the track.

Blue Chipper was touted as Korea’s best chance for victory at Meydan, but a bout of travel sickness presented shortly after arriving.

The five-year-old was awaiting clearance from vet staff resulting in changes to his Dubai campaign, but ultimately ran out of time.

Connections are now expected to target the international Group Three features later this year, with connections potentially targeting the Korea Cup (1800m) after taking out the Korea Sprint (1200m) last year.

 

Seoul & Busan Sunday Race Meetings Postponed on COVID-19 Concerns

The scheduled race meetings at Seoul and Busan Racecourses on Sunday February 23 have both been postponed following the  recent rapid rise in COVID-19 infections in Korea.

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Confirmed infections in Korea of the highly contagious virus rose from just 31 on Tuesday to 346  by Saturday lunchtime. Saturday’s meetings at Seoul and Jeju went ahead as planned.

There is no online or telephone betting in Korea so running races behind closed doors is not an option.

In what is a quickly-evolving situation in the country, an announcement on next week’s scheduled racing is expected to be made on Wednesday.

Korean All-Time Leading Money Winner Triple Nine To Return Sunday Following Thirteen Month Absence

Triple Nine, four-times President’s Cup winner and all-time leading money earner in Korean racing, has been declared to run at Busan Racecourse on Sunday. It will mark the now eight-year-old’s first outing in a race since winning the Grand Prix Stakes as a six-year-old in December 2018.

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Triple Nine is scheduled to return on Sunday (Pic: KRA)

The race is the last on Busan’s six-race Sunday card and is a class 1 handicap over 2000M. With his domestic rating of 130, Triple Nine will carry 60kg putting all eleven of his rivals out of the handicap. He will therefore be giving all of them at least 8kg in weight.

The race is the last on Busan’s six-race Sunday card and is a class 1 handicap over 2000M. With his domestic rating of 130, Triple Nine will carry 60kg, putting all eleven of his rivals out of the handicap. He will therefore be giving all of them at least 8kg in weight.

It had been originally hoped that Triple Nine would be back to seek a fifth President’s Cup win in November and he accordingly re-qualified a month ahead of that race. However, a recurrence of a fetlock joint condition set him back in his training and he didn’t make the start line. He trialed again in November looking competent but only returned to full work just prior to the turn of the year.

A winner of five Korean Group 1 races, he also holds a win in the Group 2 busan Owners’ Cup and in 2017 raced at the Dubai World Cup Carnival. Although he didn’t manage to pick up a win, he ran well enough to earn a spot in the Godolphin Mile on World CUp night.

Bred by Isidore Farm and owner by Choi Byung-bu, who also owns Blue Chipper, Triple Nine has won fifteen of his thirty-one races for prize money of 4.2 Billion Korean Won. Trainer Kim Young-kwan has engaged Cypriot jockey Ioannis Poullis, who rode New Legend to win the 2019 President’s Cup.