With massive crowds, booming betting turnover and burning with ambition, Korean racing just might be Asian racing's sleeping giant.
Yet not only does it face the same external pressures as the sport does worldwide, there are many “internal” challenges unique to the still-emerging jurisdiction.
Now the Korean Racing Authority (KRA) is hoping a new international race meeting and re-vitalized competition can lead it into a new golden age.
“I strongly believe that without competition we cannot prove ourselves, the race product can’t improve,” KRA CEO and chairman Hyun Myung-kwan told reporters at a press conference for September's $1million Korea Cup, one of many new initiatives aimed at pushing the sport forward. “I believe that openness and competition is an essential element for the future development of Korean racing.”
Ask anyone about racing in Asia and regional powers Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore all spring to mind, but Korean racing shares many of the structural and cultural characteristics of its more established neighbors – as well as big betting numbers that buck the downward trend in the west.
Just like the aforementioned racing powers of the far east, a protected “totalisator-only” model with no bookmakers and few legal competitors gifts the government-run Korean Racing Authority a solid frame to work on.
Korean laws include restrictions on advertising, but also a ban on internet and phone betting that has been in place since 2012, and a 100,000 KRW (around US$90) maximum bet law that is watched closely by authorities.
So as mind-boggling as turnover of 7,769 Billion KRW is, placing the nation of 60 million people fifth in the world for betting turnover on racing, it is unfathomable that the amount is basically bet in US$100 units over counters at the three race courses and the 31 off-course “screen centres” scattered throughout the country.
Already burdened with a 27 percent take out on its pools, the Korean government further plunders Korean racing coffers to the tune of 21 percent of turnover – that's more than the entire take-out from the Hong Kong Jockey Club's betting pools.
The KRA is the nation's third-biggest taxpayer behind manufacturing giants Samsung and Hyundai.
Then there are the competitors eating into market share, with lotteries, football betting and casinos, which have all seen substantial jumps in turnover over since 2011, while racing's handle has plateaued.
Despite all this, the sport seems to give the impression of being on an upward trajectory, with perhaps the biggest plus the KRA, a strong ambition and a hunger to grow. There is the sense that officials are well aware of the threats, both internal and external, and aren't afraid of introducing new initiatives.
Foreign raiders dominated both events - Japanese horses finished one-two in the Cup and a Hong Kong horse smashed rivals in the sprint – it was all part of a learning curve for the KRA and a way to expand a fan base with an ageing demographic.
After extensive customer research by the KRA it was found that the public held a negative view of the sport, regarding it merely as a gambling activity and seeing racing fans as gambling addicts, and changes were made to marketing.
“We want people to see horse racing for what it is, a sport,” explained the KRA's International Racing manager Seungho Ryu. “We are trying to change the image, but not everybody is fully supportive.”
Also standing in the way of progress perhaps is a sand track that could be argued makes racing less competitive – front-runners enjoying a huge advantage as those behind are sprayed with blinding “kick back” and struggle to make ground.
Cold temperatures make it difficult to grow grass in winter time at Seoul, Busan and Jeju (which hosts traditional non-thoroughbred pony racing that the KRA bets on), but KRA CEO and chairman Hyun Myung-kwan said installation of a turf track was a “must have” for the sport to progress.
Korea's crowd's are among the most robust in world racing, and standing relatively firm in the face of a worrying global trend, with an average of 13,617 fans attending each race meeting at the KRA's three racecourses – down from a peak of 19,518 in 2011 but with factors like an increase in race meetings and entrance fees playing a part.
At September’s month's big races, K-Pop sensation Sistar performed their hit song “shake it” for 40,000 fans in front of a newly-installed 127-metre-long state of the art big screen, helping to create a raceday experience.
Seoul Racecourse, was renamed “Let’s Run Park”, as part of a recent re-branding to shake the stigma associated with gambling. It features a “horse theme park” called Whinny World in its infield, towering modern grandstands and even a man-made waterfall among the beautiful park-like settings behind the grandstands and well-appointed betting facilities.
Still, racing is all about the horse, and officials hope that the new big races can grow in popularity.
And in the same way Hong Kong's International Races have helped transform the sport there and lifted its profile, Hyun believes the same can happen in his jurisdiction.
"Three years ago we invited horses only from Japan, then two years ago we were able to add horses from Singapore as well – now this year we have invited horses from seven countries,” he said. “By 2018, we would like to expand to 10 countries, and eventually the Korean international races to be recognised as international Group One races.”
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