In Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, just a 20 minute-drive from southern Seoul, is the 1.3-square-kilometer Seoul Racecourse Park.
Themed around horses, the park is composed of a bicycle park, kids’ playground, “water bike park”, inline skating rink, outdoor concert facility, exhibition room, stable, flower garden, topiary playground and others. And of course, there is the turf, the country’s largest.
Until now, Seoul Racecourse Park was considered a sort of casino for gamblers with the majority of visitors betting on the horse races held nearly 365 days a year. About 16 million people, including multiple-times admission by a single person, bet an astronomical amount of money every year on the horses and their jockeys. And of course, it had been blamed for fostering gambling addiction which can easily put one into bankruptcy.
Hyun Myung-kwan, the newly appointed chairman and CEO of the Korea Racing Authority, has refuted the public perception of horse racing. He vowed to develop the park into a family-friendly destination and to clean up the reputation of horse racing.
“It is a great disappointment that many Koreans perceive horse racing as a theme for gambling. But horse racing in other parts of the world is regarded as a legitimatesport with hundreds of years of history, inducing respectable peoples’ participation in networking and sharing hobbies,” Hyun said in an interview with The Korea Herald last week.
Korea Racing Authority chairman Hyun Myung-kwan speaks to The Korea Herald at his office in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province. (KRA)
In fact, the British royal family attends the Royal Ascot’s horse races every year, attracting thousands who want to enjoy the upper-class lifestyle.
“To win a horse race is quite complicated, beyond simple luck. The family tree of each race horse is tightly managed and they are trained like human athletes. From food to body fat, they are checked and controlled. So are the jockeys. So, betting on a horse race is totally different from gambling at a casino and relying on a faint hope,” Hyun said.
Hyun, a former Samsung C&T Corp. chairman, was determined to make horseback riding a national hobby. According to the KRA, there are about 14,501 horses in the country for riding. About 45,265 people went horseback riding in 2012 348 equestrian arenas in the country and the horse industry is estimated at around 3.4 trillion won.
A five-year plan to nurture the horse industry came into effect in September 2011, which includes a string of projects to make horseback riding an affordable sport. The KRA supports horseback riding novices by subsidizing half of their tuition fees. The organization is also planning to hold 13 horse races including some international events, from the current nine domestic competitions.
The number of youth equestrian teams will be increased to 50 from the current three, with the KRA pushing horseback riding to become a physical education subject at schools. Horseback riding for rehabilitation, an emerging subject in the medical field, will be strengthened, according to the plan.
“I envy European countries where horseback riding is part of their culture and tradition. Its has long been an important business, spanning from not only riding but gourmet delicacies, leather and others,” Hyun said.
To shed the negative image, changing the race horse park, where betting takes place, into a family picnic spot is necessary.
“I hope the park, which is one of the rare green spaces in the metropolitan area, could become a place for family outings, where children can ride ponies and have great time at the gardens while their parents could bet with a small amount of money. Letting the whole family enjoy weekends with horses is my dream,” he said.
“Once people understand the value of a horse and this industry, I think we can get there soon,” he said.
By Bae Ji-sook (email@example.com)