Toshio Uchida

Japan’s Kurakane Riding High Again At Seoul

They say you should never go back, but Ikuyasu Kurakane’s second stint at Seoul Racecourse is shaping up to be just as good – and maybe even better – than his first.

Ikuyasu Kurakane is into his second successful stint at Seoul Race Park

Ikuyasu Kurakane is into his second successful stint at Seoul Race Park

Japanese jockey Kurakane first rode at Seoul in 2007 and spent nearly 18 months in Korea, riding both in the capital and at Busan, scoring 106 winners in all.

He returned at the beginning of April this year and has quickly become the hardest working man at the track, riding in 188 races since – no mean feat when there are only 2 race meetings a week.

The horses he’s been riding haven’t necessarily been the best and it is rare for Kurakane to get on a favourite, however, this past weekend the 38-year-old partnered 5 different horses to victory. It takes him up to 22 since his return and puts him in 8th place in the 2013 jockeys’ championship.

Shortly before returning to Korea, Kurakane rode his 1500th winner in Japan. Prize-money and lifestyle in Korea is such though that there is plenty of competition among Japanese jockeys to ride here and many apply to return after they leave.

It does take a certain kind of jockey to succeed in what is a harsh weighing room environment for foreign jockeys and the workaholic Kurakane, who rides a full lot of trackwork every morning and never turns down a mount, fits it exactly.

In the winner's circle: Ikuyasu has been in it more times than any other foreign rider at Seoul

In the winner’s circle: Ikuyasu has been in it more times than any other foreign rider at Seoul

While Japanese jockeys find things much easier than western riders, there have still been as many who haven’t been a success than have. At semi-foreigner friendly Busan, Toshio Uchida and Joe Fujii have, a couple of years apart, both become the track’s top rider. At Seoul, Ikuyasu has been the only one to break through to the top-tier of jockeys.

Currently there are 5 foreign jockeys licensed in Korea. Britain’s Darryll Holland – with 9 wins to his name so far – is the only non-Japanese. Another Japanese rider will start at Busan this month.

Meanwhile in foreign training terms, there really is only one Peter Wolsley. The remarkable Australian is closing in on 200 Korean winners and made it 190 on Sunday afternoon when Cheongchun Bulpae (Milwaukee Brew) took the first of Busan’s co-feature races.

“This is a Korean horse. It doesn’t understand Western ways”

That was definitely the money-quote from John Glionna’s Los Angeles Times profile of Busan trainer Joe Murphy, a report which reflects the reality of the challenges faced by those brought in by the Korea Racing Authority (KRA) to implement its oft-stated goal of “Internationalization.”

Over the years, I’ve written on this topic several times with regard to, amongst other things, Korean horses racing overseas and foreign jockeys coming to Korea. But what is internationalization, why are they doing it and why isn’t it working?

Competitors pose prior to last year's International Jockey Challenge in Seoul

The KRA started the process in 2004 with a dubiously named “Five-Year Plan”. That year they inaugurated a series of exchange races with other Racing Authorities and also established an annual International Jockey Challenge. The aim was, by the end of the five years, to regularly have Korean horses going overseas to compete while welcoming international competitors to Korea.

There were a number of reasons for doing this but one key factor was the desire of the KRA (or more specifically, the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry under whose jurisdiction the KRA is – it has always been a matter of debate as to how interested the KRA really is in changing things and how much is forced upon them) was to improve the domestic image of horse-racing, making it a vital part of the economy.

Racing has a near-monopoly on legal gambling and as such has a dreadful public image and is persistently the target of populist anti-gambling groups who seek to impose even tighter restrictions on racing. Under the auspices of the National Gaming Control Commission, this has involved the enforced closure of the KRA’s internet and telephone betting services and an order for it to close several of its Off-Track Betting sites.

To fight this image, the KRA has become one of the largest charitable organizations in the country, has constructed family leisure parks at its tracks to get families in and sponsored the production of racing movies such as “Gak-seol-tang”, “Grand Prix” and “Champ”. Alongside this, they are fully aware of the importance of National pride in Korea. An internationally competitive racing industry would be a secure industry.

The KRA set about trying to improve its breeding, training and riding. The results have been mixed. The first aim has been successful. The Jeju Stud Farm was already operational but the addition of the Jangsu Farm in 2007 (with a foreign Manager), the lifting of restrictions on spending on broodmares and a bigger budget to import stallions. Korea now has an impressive Stud line-up with the calibre of foals much better than it was a decade ago and the importers know what they are doing. However, for the most part, when they reach the track they’re still slower than the very average two-year-old imports – Korean buyers are still only allowed to spend $20,000 on importing a colt for racing.

That’s where the training comes in and that’s where the problems start. Training and conditioning here is substandard. Joe Murphy is only the second foreign trainer after Peter Wolsley who has just completed his fourth year at Busan. The Australian is finally in command of a decent string of horses but at 18 months in, Murphy is in roughly the same position as Wolsley was at the same point.

Wolsley stuck it out and to his credit, Murphy despite the difficulties, speaks very highly of his Korean co-workers and says he enjoys life at Busan and intends to stay to make a success of things. However, it is fair to say that a system which requires three years of toil for little reward isn’t likely to attract much talent going forward.

Why is it like this? Why doesn’t the horse “understand western ways”? A lot comes down to money and control. The KRA administers racing but it would be quite a stretch to say they control it. There are four sets of license holders; Owners, Trainers, Jockeys and Grooms. These groups – and the organisations that represent them wield the real power. With prize-money so high, as far as many are concerned the system is not broken and doesn’t need to be improved.

At Busan, it is only the owners who can change things. It was owners who wanted their horse ridden by Japanese jockey Toshio Uchida and now it is owners who want Peter Wolsley to train their horses. When they win, they can start to influence the locals in a postive way as happened with the introduction of pacifiers as approved racing gear a couple of years ago; the first two horses home in the Grand Prix Stakes, Tough Win and Mister Park, were both wearing the equipment that Wolsley introduced to Korea.

Interestingly, it is at Seoul, where hostility to foreigners is such that not a single trainer has been invited and where no foreign jockey can be said to have been a success, where there has been visible progress and that has come in the saddle. The KRA’s Jockey academy, headed by a South African, has been turning out some good young riders. At Busan, Murphy points out the problem of younger jockeys showing far too much respect for their elders but at Seoul, if the likes of Jo In Kwen, Jang Chu Yeol and Seo Seung Un respect their elders then they have a funny way of showing it. All are genuine talents but there is no-one similar at Busan.

There have been some improvements, for instance, The KRA’s English language webpage has got much better over the past couple of years and a foreign steward is a permanent fixture on the panels at both Seoul and Busan (although they have stopped producing English language reports).

Korea also exported some racehorses to Malaysia last year, a first for the industry. Additionally, like they’re doing with young jockeys, the KRA is sending groups of trainers abroad – not only to the US but also to Australia and the UK (with no raceday medication allowed in Korea, it is thought these two countries are better options for trainers).

However, for every step forward in Korean racing, there are two steps back. A foreign Master Farrier left Seoul last October after being frustrated in his attempts to improve the generally poor shoeing quality of racehorses here. The local farriers have a good union and a good income. Meanwhile horses continue to have bad shoes.

Then again, the Korean horses probably wouldn’t like or understand those western shoes.