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Take Two: Limited Number of Spectators To Be Admitted To Korean Racecourses From Friday

A second attempt at admitting a small number of racegoers to Korean racecourses and off-track betting centers will begin this weekend. Permission was previously granted in late July for a partial reopening but was rescinded one day before the scheduled start date.

Could closed-door racing finally be coming to an end?

While new COVID-19 cases in the country continue to hover between 50-120 per day, Korea nevertheless lowered its social distancing guidelines to the lowest level in mid-October as it seeks to manage the virus while enabling parts of the economy that have been shuttered, to reopen.

Fans were immediately admitted to football, baseball and basketball stadiums. Two weeks of attendance at those sports have now passed without incident and permission remains in place for a partial re-opening of the racecourses.

From Friday, up to 20% of the average attendance will be permitted to enter the Seoul, Busan and Jeju Racecourses while 10% of capacity will be allowed at Off-Track Betting Centers (OCBs). The exception is the OCBs at Bucheon and at the Walker Hill in Seoul, both of which will remain closed for the time being.

All seating will be allocated and punters must make a reservation one day in advance using the “My Card” betting application. No walk-up admission will be available at either the racecourses or OCBs. Masks will be mandatory.

It it goes ahead it will mean that Friday’s card at Jeju will mark the first legal betting on horse racing in Korea since February 22nd. Only horse owners were permitted to enter the track during the behind-closed-doors summer meeting. Permission was granted in late July for a partial reopening but was rescinded one day before the planned start.

This weekend, racing will be conducted at Jeju on Friday, Busan on Saturday and Seoul on Sunday for the same reduced prize money that has been raced for at the closed-doors Friday meetings over the past two weeks. Thoroughbred races will be run only over 1200M, 1400M and 1800M. It is hoped that a more normal schedule, as well as international simulcasting, will be permitted from one week later.

Morfhis Downs Dokki Blade, Eoma Eoma To Upturn Sprint Ranks In Shock SBS Win

Morfhis  swooped late to score a stunning victory in the SBS Sports Sprint at Seoul, diving home to deny Do Kki Blade and Eoma Eoma under a fine steer from jockey Johan Victoire.

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Morshis gets up to debu Do Kki Blade and Eoma Eoma in the SBS Sports Sprint

Busan Ilbo Cup top two Do Kki Blade and Gaon Champ renewed hostilities disputing the lead in the early stages of the six-furlong G3 race, the second leg in the 2020 Korea Sprint Series.

Gaon Champ would quickly capitulate at the top of the stretch and it seemed upstart Eoma Eoma would pose the only threat to Do Kki Blade. That was to reckon without Morfhis whose stunning late show saw him duck inside to snatch victory at the death by a head.

Morfhis is a five-year-old American bred gelding by Stephen Got Even and and out of the Rubiano mare Chinchilla. He was a $150,000 purchase from the OBS 2017 Spring Sale of Two-Year-Olds. The win was his eighth in twenty-three runs and takes him on to career winnings of KRW 739 Million. For jockey Victoire it was his second Korean Group win following his success on Dolkong in last year’s Busan Mayor’s Cup while it was a first for trainer Lee Gwan-ho.

The win was notable on a number of fronts. Morfhis, who up until now was seen as a solid dependable class 1 campaigner with a strong finish who specialises at seven-furlongs, now finds himself in the top echelon of Korean sprinters and a serious contender for September’s Korea Sprint (should that race take place).

It also provided the rare sight of a top level Korean sprint race by a horse coming from well off the pace. While Doraonpogyeongseon, who won this race in both 2017 and 2018, was by no means a front-runner, he would usually emerge from a relatively handy position. Two furlongs out on Sunday, Morfhis was still in 11th place.

While beaten, Do Kki Blade confirmed his place among the elite and still has every chance of going on to claim the overall Sprint Series win but another big story coming out of the race was the emergence of Eoma Eoma. The three-year-old entered the race having not had to face a serious challenge in three prior outings yet despite drawing an unfavourable gate, only went down by less than half a length on the line after an excellent ride by Song Jae-chul.

Gaon Champ and Simjangui Godong both had off-days but will be expected to bounce back while the ever awkward Global Captain missed the start before running on well. At their best, all three can be winning chances in future feature races.

The calendar may now be up in the air for all these horses. The Seoul Racehorse Owners’ Association Trophy was originally supposed to be the first leg of the Sprint Series in March. It is now tentatively scheduled for August 23rd. Then there is the Korea Sprint itself, still scheduled for September 13th.

Whatever happens in terms of the schedule, there is plenty to look forward to with these sprinters.

Some Spectators to Return To Korean Racecourses This Week

++Update – As of Wednesday afternoon, the re-opening to spectators has been postponed for at least one week++

For the first time since February, some spectators will be admitted to Seoul, Busan and Jeju Racecourses from this Friday, July 24th. Numbers will be limited and attendance is only possible by pre-booking using the KRA’s “My Card” application. Off-track betting locations will remain closed for at least another two weeks.

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Seoul Racecourse has been ready for weeks

The reopening is in line with public facilities in the Seoul area such as libraries and museums, which have begun reopening from this week. Korea’s other main wagering outlet, track cycling, will also open its doors again this weekend.

Since the resumption of the sport on June 19th, racing has been held behind closed doors and with the country not allowing online or telephone betting, there has been no legal outlet for wagering. Owners have been allowed to attend since the restart and have been betting in small amounts.

Admission will only be available to users of the My Card application and must be pre-booked through the app the day before the race meeting. Attendees will need to pass a health screening on arrival at the track, along with verification of identity and contact details to enable contact-tracing if necessary. Seats will be pre-assigned with the grandstands at all three racecourses having been reconfigured to allow for distancing. The maximum permitted attendance is approximately 10% of the usual number.

Cheongdam Dokki Monsters YTN Cup Rivals In Record Busting Romp

For the second time in a month, Cheongdam Dokki savaged his rivals over 2000M at Seoul Racecourse on Sunday, claiming an easy win in the G3 YTN Cup and in the process broke Dongbanui Gangja’s eleven-year-old track record for the distance.

Just four weeks after his dominant victory in the Herald Business Cup and facing a largely similar set of opponents, Cheongdam Dokki was always set to be a prohibitive favourite in a race which served as the second leg of the “Stayer Series”. And just as he did in the Herald, he stamped his authority on the race right from the start, crossing from gate eight under jockey Park Tae Jong and straight into the lead.

At his best, Cheongdam Dokki’s cruising speed is so superior to his local rivals at least in the absence of Moonhak Chief – that there was never a danger of him doing too much too soon and being caught. Instead he continued to run away from them, recording a nine-length winning margin on the line and taking six tenths of a second off the mark set by Dongbanui Gangja in the Owners’ Association Trophy in June 2009.

Behind Cheongdam Dokki, Tiz Plan and Shamrocker came home 2nd and 3rd in a repeat of the Herald Business trifecta. Buhwarui Banseok ran 4th.

The final leg of the Stayer Series is the G2 Busan Mayor’s Cup which is currently scheduled for August 16th at the slightly shorter distance of 1800M. All being well, Cheongdam Dokki would then likely be pointed to the Korea Cup on September 13th, the KRA Cup Classic on October 11th and then conclude his year taking another crack at a race that so far eludes him, the Grand Prix Stakes.

A six-year-old American-bred gelding by To Honor And Serve and out of Elusive Gold (by Strike The Gold), Cheongdam Dokki has now won 15 of 29 career starts for prize money of just over KRW 2.8 Billion.

Bart Rice Reaches 200 Not-Out At Busan

A field of ten will face the starter at Seoul Racecourse on Sunday in the YTN Cup but of them only two will have made the trip up from Busan. Both of the southern raiders for the Group 3 test, Buhwarui Banseok and Rock Hard Seven, are trained by Bart Rice, who earlier this month saddled his 200th Korean winner.

Bart Rice

Bart Rice arrived in Korea in late 2013 having trained in South Africa, and sent out his first runners in January of 2014, making an immediate impact as his first Busan starter, Gyeongnam Sinhwa, came home an 8/1 winner. He quickly built up an impressive strike rate, something he has managed to maintain over the subsequent years and brought up his 100th winner in May of 2017.

The latest milestone for Rice arrived on July 3rd when first-time starter Mr. Fusion took out race 3 at Busan under jockey Seo Seung-un wearing the colours of owners Isidore Farm, leading from the gate and winning by ten-lengths on what was his very first start. It was a win that surprised his trainer as much as anyone.

“He (Mr. Fusion) hopefully is above class 6 but to be honest I didn’t expect him to win” Rice told KRBC. “He’s inexperienced and I thought he would need the race, but he managed to get to the front and then didn’t have any kickback”.

As for the double-century, Rice was understated. “For me it’s been a long time to get the 200 winners. I would have liked it to be a little bit faster than that but we’re happy we’ve done it. We try to be as professional as we can in my stable and appreciate the owners’ support”.

Rice may be yet to saddle a Group winner in Korea but he has taken out a number of valuable races and has sent horses from his stable to run in both Singapore and Dubai. He currently lies in 4th place in the Busan Trainer’s Premiership in what has been an interrupted 2020 racing season.

With horses such as the pair who race in Seoul on Sunday as well as the progressive Ssonsal, who won his first class 1 race last weekend and holds an entry to the SBS Sports Sprint later this month among his forty-three strong string, Rice is putting together a formidable looking team.

“I don’t really have a plan” Rice said when asked of his future goals. “We just try to get as many wins as we can. When we get to three hundred we will celebrate but I don’t really have a plan” he continued before paying tribute to his staff in what has been a challenging year. “We didn’t race for a long time but my staff always seem to be happy and bubbly and they’ve done a good job.”

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.