COVID-19

Masashi Ueda Rides First Korean Winner & Ioannis Poullis Claims Four As Racing Makes Tentative Return

After a second prolonged shutdown, Korean racing took its first steps back toward resumption on Friday with behind-closed-doors/no wagering cards at both Seoul and Busan. They may have been racing for significantly reduced prize money but there was no shortage of competitiveness as Ioannis Poullis rode four winners at Busan while Japanese jockey Msasahi Ueda landed his first Korean winner at Seoul.

The very good Ssonsal (Adios Charlie) was the pick of Ioannis Poullis’s four winners on the ten-race card at Busan. The four-year-old Bart Rice trainee moved on to seven wins from thirteen starts as he outlasted two-time SBS Sprint winner Doraonpogyeongseon and regular rival Seobu Cat in the 1400M class 1 feature.

At Seoul there were 15 races and while Tiz Plan was scratched from the feature, there was still plenty of interest in the 1800M Class 1 affair. Ultimately it would be won by Cheongdam Jewang (Shackleford) ahead of the progressive Australian import Brigadier General (Tapit).

While it was a relief for everybody involved to be out and racing, albeit in somewhat surreal circumstances and for vastly reduced prizes, for Masashi Ueda it was no doubt especially so.

Japanese jockey Ueda was licensed early this year but his arrival was delayed first by the initial Covd-19 shutdown and then by Japan and Korea’s tit-for-tat entry bans. He finally arrived in mid-August and completed his mandatory quarantine only for racing to then immediately shut down again before he had managed a single ride.

Ueda kept busy riding work and trials throughout September and early October and his reward came in race 5 as he made all on Most Speed (Federalist) to secure his first Korean victory.

Another set of these low-stakes/no broadcast meetings will take place next Friday. If Covid-19 restrictions remain at their current “level 1” grade, then there is a chance of more normal racing resuming in November.

Behind Closed Doors, Low Stakes, No Wagering Racing To Start Friday

Racing – of a kind – will resume in Korea on Friday with both the thoroughbred tracks at Seoul and Busan, as well as the pony racecourse on Jeju hosting race meetings. The meetings will take place behind closed doors for significantly reduced prize money. There will initially be no wagering either locally or internationally. Races will only be held on Fridays.

Following a four-month hiatus in the first half of the year, racing was abandoned again at the end of August. The purpose of these race meetings is to support connections and horsemen who have kept horses in work throughout the prolonged shutdowns. It was felt that offering prize-money – albeit at a significantly reduced level – was the best way to distribute the money while keeping the industry ticking over so it is in the best shape possible if and when a normal resumption becomes possible.

Class 1 thoroughbred races – the top level of racing – will have a total purse of 40 Million Won (compared to 110 Million normally) while Class 6 – the lowest level – will keep its usual purse of 22 Million Won. Across all levels there will be a more even distribution of prize-money among place-getters with each winner receiving 33% of the total purse compared to 58% in normal circumstances. Thoroughbred races will be run over three distances only; 1200M, 1400M and 1800M. All races will be run under allowance conditions with set weights according to ratings bands.

Races will begin at Seoul at 9am. Although closed to the public, race cards will be published on the KRA’s official website as will results and (hopefully) race videos.

Korea unexpectedly lowered its social distancing alert to “level 1” earlier this week. This has enabled spectators to return to baseball and football stadiums and means there is an outside chance of some spectators being admitted to the track from the first week of November (racing needs other sports to have successfully completed at least two weeks of fans in attendance). If this were to happen, then more normal weekend racing with wagering would be able to resume. We have been here before though.

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.

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.

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.