12/02/2013 1:18PM

Korean breeding, racing programs on rise

Barbara D. Livingston
Champion Hansen, a son of Tapit, will join Korea's growing stallion roster in 2014.

For people in one nation, Feel So Good’s seven-length win on Sept. 6, 2012, was considered a nice effort in a $35,000 maiden-claiming race on a Thursday card at Calder Race Course. For those in another, it was history being written.

The chestnut gelding had become the first South Korean-bred to win a race outside of his home country, a watershed moment for a national racing program making strides to gain recognition on a global scale.

The growth of the Korean racing and breeding program has been spearheaded by the national government through the Korean Racing Authority, which owns several of the industry’s key cogs, including racetracks and prominent stallions. The KRA also regulates racing activities in Korea and manages imported horses down to the method and price for which they can be acquired.

While Korea’s Thoroughbred industry remains fairly isolated in terms of the horses that it produces, the country’s horsemen already have made their presence felt in international markets – including the U.S. – through their activity at auctions and stallion purchases. Having set that foundation, Korea is poised to make an even bigger impact in the years to come.

“I think Korea is certainly going to play an expanding role over the next 20-odd years in global racing,” said Terence Collier, Fasig-Tipton’s director of marketing, who has visited Korea on four occasions and frequently interacts with Korean horsemen at sales. “They have already got an established racing program, they’ve got excellent facilities, they’ve got a very, very keen audience, and it’s very much [based] on the Japanese model: They have limited racing, mainly on weekends at a couple of showcase racecourses at the moment.”

Modern pari-mutuel racing in Korea dates back to the 1920s, with the government body that eventually became the KRA being formed in 1942. The Korean War stalled the program’s development in the early 1950s, when the country’s racetracks were used for military training. Following the war, the KRA was quick to restore racing facilities, and was commissioned to build the equestrian park for the 1988 Summer Olympics, which later became Seoul Race Park. Busan Gyeongnam Race Park in Busan is the country’s second Thoroughbred racetrack, and a third, Jeju Race Park, is dedicated to pony racing.

Attendance averaged 111,582 over 144 race dates in 2012 between the three tracks. The average purse at Seoul last year was $94,498 (100 million South Korean won) according to the KRA, while the average purse at Busan Gyeongnam was $75,931 (80.5 million won).

The on-track product resembles what one would find at many racetracks in North America, with left-handed turns strictly on dirt surfaces. The richest race on the calendar is the Group 1 President’s Cup, a roughly 1 1/4-mile race for Korean-bred 3-year-olds and up held in early November at Seoul for a purse of $660,227 (700 million won). Korean-breds represent about 80 percent of the country’s racehorse population.

Breeding in South Korea

Because of the country’s rather mountainous landscape, the amount of property available in Korea to raise Thoroughbreds is fairly limited. The hub for Thoroughbred breeding is located on Jeju Island, about 60 miles south of mainland South Korea, which houses about two-thirds of the country’s stallion population and about three-quarters of its breeding farms.

While the vast majority of Korea’s stallions are privately owned, the KRA has become an increasingly active player in acquiring its own stallions over the past decade and owning them as a government entity. The KRA-owned stallions cover approved mares free of charge in an effort to improve the country’s Thoroughbred bloodlines.

The KRA stallion roster features names familiar to U.S. fans and breeders, such as Grade 1/Group 1 winners Hawk Wing, Menifee, Officer, Peace Rules, Rock Hard Ten, and Vicar, as well as other North American graded stakes winners Buster’s Daydream, Distilled, Forest Camp, and Sharp Humor.

However, the KRA’s biggest stallion acquisition to date is arguably its most recent. In October, the KRA acquired Hansen, the champion 2-year-old male of 2011 and winner of that year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The 4-year-old son of Tapit covered 147 mares during his first breeding season in 2013 standing at Ashford Stud in Lexington, Ky., and his first foals will arrive in 2014.
Collier said that the KRA has shown a method to its stallion-buying program based on progeny performance in Korea, and the purchase of Hansen could represent a step in a new direction.

“The surprising thing as an observer is how [Korean officials] continue to pursue up to this point what everybody in this country perceives to be a failure,” Collier said, “but then you realize that the reason that they’re doing it is because that stallion has had one good runner in Korea, and that’s enough to tilt the balance in favor of buying a stallion that was not top-drawer here.

“I think Hansen is one of the first, if not the first, sires to be purchased that doesn’t have runners in the States to say one thing or another about the horse,” Collier continued. “He could be a game-changer over there.”

Collier said the economics of the Thoroughbred industry and the nature of government in Korea make it difficult, if not impractical, for private owners to acquire higher-level stallions. The fact that the KRA does not charge a stud fee for its attractive stallions would make it hard for breeders to look elsewhere in the first place.

“The wealthy Korean guys are not allowed a free run of buying stallions and importing them,” Collier said. “The KRA is the authority, and they are the ones that buy the lead stallions. There’s not enough people [in the Korean market] to syndicate a horse, so you can’t spend $2 million to get a decent stallion and not go broke. The only way that you can get a $2 million horse is if it comes out of government money and the government subsidizes the stud fee, and it’s [then] used to raise the quality of the gene pool in Korea.”

The KRA’s commitment to improving the quality of the country’s stallion roster has paid dividends as evidenced by the dramatic increase in broodmare population. In 1993, the KRA reports there were 245 mares in the country. In 2012, that number had increased to 2,510. Korean-bred broodmares account for about 23 percent of the total population.

At the sales

While one of the KRA’s primary objectives has been to raise the profile of the Korean-bred on a larger scale, it has also become an increasingly active player at auctions around the world, particularly in the U.S.

In recent years, as the level of horseflesh begins to dip into the middle and lower markets of many major North American sales, the letters “K.O.I.D.” will often become more and more prevalent when reading the buyer’s line in results.

The Korean-based organization using that name acts as a conduit between the auction market and the KRA, along with other private Korean buyers, handling the logistics of the auction: from translation, to hotel and meal accommodations, to equine quarantine and transport from the auction grounds to Korea.

Yoonie Choi, managing director of K.O.I.D. Co. Ltd. and Korean agent for Fasig-Tipton, said that about 300 to 350 horses are exported from the U.S. to Korea per year through the K.O.I.D., and that another 20 percent of Korea’s overall export business comes from Australian auctions. After the November mixed sale season in Kentucky, she said the organization had 69 broodmares in quarantine waiting to be shipped.

Originally buyers in the lower-end 2-year-olds in training sales and broodmare markets, Korean horsemen have expanded to the yearling market in recent years to test whether it is more effective to send a yearling straight to Korea for training, or leave it in the U.S. to be broken, and then make the trip.

“It’s been a while, but they’re still testing the market,” said Choi, a native of Seoul who lives in Lexington, Ky. “It’s cheaper to buy yearlings. It’s less risk just because they haven’t been [in training]. My job gets really hard because when buying 2-year-olds, you can’t find perfect horses structure-wise, and I have to let [Korean horsemen] know what is wrong with the horse right before they purchase.

“Standing there and listening to the announcement and trying to translate that to their language is tricky,” she continued. “The timing is very tricky, because once they raise their hand, it’s done.”

KRA rules require imported horses to be acquired through public auction for the hammer price. Private transactions, even ones made on the sale grounds after a horse fails to meet its reserve, are not allowed in order to prevent abuse of the guideline. Horses purchased by the KRA are sold at auction when they return to Korea.

What has kept the K.O.I.D. and its clients at the bottom end of the auction market is a government-mandated price ceiling for imported horses. In the past, purchases were limited to $20,000 per horse, but those restrictions have been gradually increased to $30,000 for males (with some exceptions, including stallion prospects) and no limit on females.

Collier said that he expected the Korean government to consider doing away with the price ceiling on colts, as well as the overall limit on how many outside horses can be brought into the country, within the next five years.

While the K.O.I.D. handles the paperwork and logistics surrounding the horses, Korean owners, trainers and veterinarians who make the trip to sales in Kentucky, Florida, and Maryland handle the actual selection process. At the recently completed Keeneland November breeding stock sale, Choi said she was responsible for the oversight of 35 clients.

“They have to be a lot less picky on conformation, but there’s no question that they know what they’re looking for,” Collier said about the methods of Korean buyers. “They will very quickly pass over horses that the sales company might know would fit their profile. They have tastes and things that they look for, and you’ve got to respect the fact that they know what works there.”

Collier said that the biggest drawing point for Korean buyers to North American auctions and pedigrees is the similar racing styles between the two countries. Because there is no turf racing in Korea, the dirt pedigrees that dominate North American racing figure to translate better to their program than the turf-heavy bloodlines one might find at European or Australian auctions. The same rationale is used for their approach to buying stallions.

“One of the reasons I think Korea represents a great opportunity for the United States is that if we can satisfy [Korean horsemen] that we are breeding a product that suits their racing surface, that suits their price restrictions, and performs well, then this is going to be a market that’s going to be very productive for us for a long time to come,” Collier said.

The Thoroughbred market swoon of the late 2000s was a fruitful time for the Korean buying bench, with quality horses falling into their price range that might not have in a healthier economic climate. However, as the market has recovered to pre-crash levels, Collier said the Korean presence remains one of the driving forces of the middle market.

“What’s happened is as the American market has come back in, and it’s naturally comfortable at a slightly higher level than the Korean market, [domestic] money hasn’t fallen back in to buying the $10,000 yearling because the Koreans have been there and they force the American middle market into a higher tier,” Collier said. “[Domestic buyers] have more money, so they’ve been chasing the $20,000 yearlings and making them $50,000 yearlings, and the Koreans have been chasing the $10,000 yearlings and making them $25,000 yearlings.

“The Koreans have pushed a lot of horses into the middle [market], even if they haven’t been able to buy them, and their activity on the lower end has made everybody spend a little more money, so they’ve been very helpful to the market.”

On the racetrack

After his maiden win at Calder, Feel So Good was sent back to Korea, where he was sold at auction by the KRA to a private owner for about $260,000, a record for a Korean-bred horse. He promptly went on to win his Korean debut by 12 lengths.

Feel So Good, a 4-year-old Ft. Stockton gelding, was part of a control group of KRA-owned Korean-breds sent to the U.S. as early yearlings in order to compare the Korean-bred stock to North American competition and gauge the progress of its breeding program.

The Korean horses are broken by Ocala, Fla.-based Nick de Meric’s training operation and trained at Gulfstream Park and Calder by J. David Braddy.

“We had three horses here last year, and the goal is to see if the horses that were raised in Korea can compete in an international market, and they will,” Braddy said. “They may not be competing well yet, but it doesn’t matter who you are, it is very difficult to pick out three yearlings every year that are going to stay sound and win. I don’t care how good you are in this game.”

Braddy said that the KRA representatives have been diligent in their communication regarding the horses under his watch, communicating often through email and making frequent visits. Five members of the KRA management team were on hand for Feel So Good’s maiden win.

KRA Stable, the Korean government’s nom de course in North America, has won one of 17 starts since 2010, with Feel So Good’s win being its only time finishing in the money. Most recently, Better Than You, a 2-year-old Ft. Stockton colt, finished fourth in his debut, a maiden claiming race on Nov. 24 at Gulfstream.

In addition to training horses for the KRA, Braddy has served as a mentor for Korean horsemen who spend time in the U.S. as apprentices before returning home to ply their trade.

“For several years the KRA have sent young guys that want to be trainers to me and they’ve spent time here, each one at least a month, and watch what we do – putting horses in ice, doing horses up,” he said. “This weekend, for instance, I had a horse come to the paddock and he had on bandages. One of their first questions was, ‘Why does this horse have on bandages?’ They have a thirst for knowledge.”

In his observations during visits, Collier said that the horsemanship of Korea’s trainers was perhaps the most advanced aspect of the country’s racing industry. As jockeys, breeders, and members of other industry sectors begin to expand their reach abroad and bring their knowledge home, he expected those groups to easily catch up.

“You don’t see Korea as being a wellspring of Thoroughbred knowledge, but all you’ve got to do is go to the KRA barns, which are at the racetrack, and go through a shed row and see the flesh, the physical well-being of these horses to know the guys looking after them know what they’re doing,” Collier said.

Collier said that Korean racing needs to make its most dramatic improvement in the area of racetrack maintenance. While the overall facilities are very modern, featuring amusement park-type attractions and exhibits displaying horses of all breeds, the upkeep of the racing surface was a cause for concern.

“I think one of the things that distressed me the most was, we’re not used to seeing horses run on a dirt track where there are clouds of dust and a very soft footing that falls apart when they run over it,” he said. “That’s not dissimilar to some of the racetracks in Japan. They don’t water dirt tracks between races. They don’t harrow dirt tracks the way that we do. They might do it every other race. To me, the track management is not at a level that can be compared to the States, and the [running] times reflect that. It’s very difficult for these horses to run fast times because the tracks are not biased for speed.”

While still a program with a lot of work to do in order to establish itself as a global force in Thoroughbred racing and breeding, those who are familiar with the program and/or have visited the country believe Korea is taking the right steps toward achieving that goal. Before long, chances are good that Korean-breds will have moved past weekday maiden claiming events and closer to major international competition.

“How far out is Korea? I think it’s the second-closest next to Japan among all Asian countries to having the potential to produce an international runner,” Collier said. “I don’t know how far out that is. They are going to get an exceptional horse at some point.”