06/25/2004 12:00AM

A Korean buyer stocks up

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Hundreds of Florida breeders will not be getting any breeders or stallions premiums down the road, because Myung Geol Leg, an executive with the Korea Racing Association, has been on a shopping spree these past few months. And, according to his tally, the KRA has bought 142 2-year-olds in training, with most of these having Florida connections.

During the recent Ocala Breeders' June sale of 2-year-olds in training, Leg talked about Thoroughbred racing in South Korea and the future of the horses he bought at the Florida sales this year.

Soccer, baseball, and horse racing are the principal sports in Korea. Horse racing, however, is picking up momentum. Two tracks, one for Thoroughbreds and the other for native Korean ponies, are already in operation in South Korea. Another multimillion-dollar Thoroughbred track is nearing completion. To supply this new track with the necessary horses, Leg, aided by Narvick International Bloodstock, needs to buy approximately 300 horses to complement the homebreds generated by the growing Korean breeding industry.

Thoroughbred racing is, according to Leg, conducted on most weekends, roughly 90 days in all. There are 10 to 12 races on a program. The footing at the Seoul track is sandy. There are no turf courses. There are two tiers of prize money: one for imports and the other for Korean-breds.

Owners belong to one of two organizations similar to the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders' Association here. Each of the organizations is affiliated with a racetrack. The spate of North American purchases is for the new track scheduled to open in the spring of next year.

Leg said that, in Korea, it is "not easy to become an owner." To obtain an owner's license, one has to have the affluence to pay bills in a timely fashion. A prospective owner must be free of any taint of scandal or unethical practices and pass muster with his peers.

The Florida 2-year-old purchases, after spending the required 30 days in quarantine, will be flown to Seoul, let down, and then picked up later in the year to participate in a March 3-year-olds in training auction. The new track southwest of Seoul is expected to be ready by then. The North American horses, together with others purchased in Australasia and supplemented by Korean homebreds, will become the racehorses of the new track.

Jeju Island, southwest of Seoul, is the heart of the Korean Thoroughbred industry. Most of the country's 1,300 broodmares and 40-odd stallions are quartered there. Among the stallions employed on Jeju Island is The Groom is Red, winner of the 1998 Champagne Stakes.

Jeju is also the source of most of the hay in the region. Oats, pellets, and veterinary supplies come from Australia, Canada, and the United States.

"Breeders do not pay stud fees," said Leg. "Seasons are won in sort of a lottery system." The stallions themselves are owned by an authority with governmental ties.

Leg said that his 2004 shopping spree is ostensibly a one-time deal. "We need horses for the new track. Next year, the year after, we will replace these horses with our own horses."

As if to emphasize this need was Leg's response when he was approached by a buyer who wanted to know if Leg would take a profit on one of his 41 purchases at the OBS sale. Very politely, and without asking which horse or the profit offered, he informed the would be buyer that his Korea Racing Association group came here to buy horses, not to sell them.