South Korea is fast becoming an unlikely hub for lucrative horse racing

CNN  — 

South Korea is no stranger to elite sport.

It hosted the Summer Olympics in 1988 and the Winter Games in 2018, and its athletes have excelled in events from martial arts to speed skating.

But there’s a new sport catching on.

Horse racing, synonymous with many countries across the world, has started to make huge strides in the Asian country with jockeys, trainers, and owners all keen to break such a lucrative market.

The Korea Racing Authority (KRA) now estimates that 25 percent of South Korea’s population of 52 million visits tracks across the country but there are ambitions to grow beyond its borders.

“We focus on how to increase the ability of the racehorses as well as organizing and hosting International and Asian racing events,” Kim Nak Soon, KRA chairman and CEO, told Aly Vance for CNN’s Winning Post TV show.

“We are doing our best to globalize Korean racing.”

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‘Improved significantly’

The racing boom is very much a two-way street, with Korean talent traveling around the world as well as global talent descending on the country.

English language race caller Alastair Middleton estimates that about 80 percent of the horses running in Korea are now locally bred but says competition coming from abroad has improved the overall quality.

“It’s improved significantly,” Middleton told CNN Sport. “We’re seeing a much higher quality of thoroughbreds on the track than we were five or ten years ago.”

As a result, competition in two of the country’s biggest races – the Korea Cup and Korea Sprint – has rocketed along with the prize money.

The Cup boasts a prize purse of around $894,000, while the Sprint winner will pocket a share of $626,000.

By April 2022, to mark the centenary of South Korean thoroughbred racing, their value is set to increase to $2.7 million and $1.8 million respectively.

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Theme parks and K-pop

Partly what makes Korean racing so popular is the level of entertainment on display.

Like many racetracks across the world, organizers in Korea utilize the middle of the track to attract a new type of audience with K-pop music and fairground rides.

There is no better example of this than at the Let’s Run Park Seoul, on the outskirts of the Korean capital, which opened its doors to a horse-themed amusement park.

With pony riding, racing simulation machines and ice rinks in winter, there is hope that the centerpiece could educate young families about Korea’s horse racing tradition.

In addition, the coastal town of Busan is the destination of a slightly smaller racetrack which holds within it a waterpark for spectators.

Such modernization is seemingly working. South Korea’s three main venues – situated in the Seoul suburb of Gwacheon, Busan, and Jeju – have seen total annual attendance exceed 15 million in recent years.

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ASCOT, ENGLAND - JUNE 21:  A racegoer wears an outsize hat for Ladies Day during Royal Ascot Day 3 at Ascot Racecourse on June 21, 2018 in Ascot, United Kingdom. Royal Ascot is Britain's most valuable race meeting, attracting many of the world's finest racehorses to compete for more than £7.3m in prize money.  (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Royal Ascot's glamour and appeal
01:35 - Source: CNN

‘Keen to improve’

A South Korean race day can last for seven hours and incorporates all the tastes and sounds of the country’s rich history.

And, despite it still being slightly behind sports such as baseball in terms of popularity, it’s fast becoming a passion for many Koreans.

“It is incredible because so many people come to the races every weekend even for the smaller races, so it’s always intense and the people bet a lot on the race,” jockey Johan Victoire told Winning Post.

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Having raced in hubs such as Australia and his native France, Victoire says taxes make it easier to earn more money in Korea and admits being surprised by the quality of the sport.

“The thing in Korea is they’re really keen to improve all the time and to know what the people think around the world. It is a good challenge for me,” he said.

South Korea was upgraded to a Grade 2 country in 2016 by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) and the aim now is to become Grade 1 by 2022.

With its passionate fan base and emerging breeding program, don’t be surprised if South Korean racing achieves its goals.