▲ Jeju ponies, known as Jejuma, may not be as fast as thoroughbreds, but they are still exciting to watch at the Jeju Race Park. Photo by The Jeju Weekly
South of Jeju City, just past Dinosaurland on highway 1135, is a stadium more European in nature than it is Korean, bringing to mind images of aristocrats in finery rather than the farmers in galot (traditional Jeju persimmon-dyed clothing) that live on this island. However, though the Jeju Race Park may seem like much of the island’s tourist attractions that look transplanted from elsewhere, it mirrors Jeju more than one would think.
On an overcast Saturday afternoon and with a crisp 10,000 won bill in my pocket, I decided to head to the Jeju Race Park and do something I had not done in a long time: bet on some ponies.
There are three horse racing parks in Korea — the others being in Seoul and Busan — but the one in Jeju stands out because its stadium is smaller in size, is visited by fewer people a year, and was built with preservation in mind.
“Before [the Jeju Race Park] was open, Jeju horses were being exported as horse meat to Japan or ... were just exported as cat food,” said Korean Racing Authority Customer Service Team Leader Heo Shang-cheol. According to the Horse Racing in Korea blog site which is affiliated with TURF: An International Gathering of Horse Racing Bloggers, by the 1980s the number of Jejuma, Korean for Jeju pony, had dwindled to an estimated 2,500, resulting in the government designating the species as National Monument No. 347.
The race park began construction in 1987 and opened in October 1990, “in order to preserve the Jeju horses,” said Heo. Only the small Jeju ponies race at this track, while the other two tracks on the mainland run thoroughbreds.
The stadium has a 31,000-person capacity and sees nine to 10 races at half-hour intervals every Friday and Saturday throughout the year. This excludes the last week of December and the first of January (the coldest days of the year) and the last week of July and the first of August, the hottest days. In total there are between 92 and 94 racing days a year.
The stadium is large with a 1,600-meter track and a disjointed atmosphere created by the mix of children running around old men sitting on the ground with cigarettes rolling between their teeth studying horse racing newspapers.
▲ Spectators look on as horses near the finish line. Photo by The Jeju Weekly
On entering the stadium I was quickly taken to the foreigner-only section on the second floor with its leather couches and helpful staff. The room was rather empty except for the odd ground of aged Asians not of Korean descent. The seating was comfortable and relaxing so after reacquainting myself with the betting system, which allows wagers from 100 won to 200,000 won (about US$0.08 to US$175) on either a horse to place first, simply place, place specifically in any of the top three positions, and two other forms of betting I did not exactly understand, I headed down to the bandstand and the track.
Heo told me that though Jeju has the lowest attendance of the three race parks, on average a single spectator will bet more money in a single day — roughly 200,000 won. Of all money brought into the park through betting, 75 percent is paid out in winnings, 10 percent goes to the regional tax, 4 to 6 percent towards the educational tax, 4 to 6 percent pays for the running of the race park, and the rest to other taxes. A total of 80 billion won (US$70 million) goes to the Jeju government from the park, accounting for 17 percent of the province’s regional tax income.
This was reassuring for if I were to lose my hard earned cash, I was glad that it would be going to a good cause.
Something I noticed is that of all the gambling facilities on the island, only the race track allows Koreans to gamble. I asked Heo about this and he said, “horse racing kind of occurred naturally,” a remnant of the Japanese occupation who “liked horse racing very much and they built these facilities and [the government] wanted to stop it,” after the country was reclaimed. The problem, he said, was that the infrastructure was already in place, and Koreans really enjoyed the sport. Instead of allowing the sport to fall into the hands of the private sector the government took it over, regulated it and taxed it.
With that crisp bill burning a hole in my pocket I put it to good use throughout the afternoon dispersing it over five races. Heo said that compared to thoroughbreds the Jeju ponies are slower and less exciting to watch, unless you’ve got money on the line, and he was right.
Whether it be 1,000 won or betting everything including the kitchen sink, it didn’t matter how fast those ponies moved, the second the horses left the starting line, the tension was thick as molasses. The audience hollered as the beasts neared the line and most of the results could only be known through a photo finish.
The race track is a great way to spend an afternoon, even though lady luck was not on my side, with me losing all of my 10 bets but two. At least I can go to sleep knowing that Jeju’s education system is that much better due to my lack of horse judgment.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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