A Day At The Races – In Korea
In honor of the forthcoming Melbourne Cup, I’ve turned today’s post over to Jared, the resident expert on horse racing. He deciphered his way through a lot of Korean websites, a few English websites, and managed to get to the Seoul races. Here is his account of the day – in English – to make things easier for other would-be punters in Korea.
After six months in Korea, I started to wonder what Korean men did for entertainment. There had to be more than just guzzling somak, a horrible mix of soju and makju (beer), which leaves you with a hangover like nothing I have ever experienced.
It turns out there is something else to do – Korea has three racetracks, which all hold races twice a week. Having worked at a racecourse in Australia on and off for five years, I was buoyed by the prospect of a day at the races in Korea.
Korea’s three tracks are in Seoul (Sat/Sun), Busan (Fri/Sun) and Jeju Island (Fri/Sat). Seoul was my choice, as it was the closest option.
The Seoul races are at Gwacheon, which is about 20 minutes south of the city by underground. Being the keen punter that I am, I gave myself plenty of time to get there.
While en route, I kept my eye out for other horsemen. I figured they would be easily identifiable by their dapper attire and form guides in hand.
But this is Korea. I should have known better.
The train approached Gwacheon and a few other men stood up with me. As I exited the train, hundreds of men suddenly spewed forth.
The reason I failed to identify them in transit is because they were all wearing the standard ajosshi uniform: collared shirt, black trousers and joggers.
Stands were set up outside the station exits selling a range of different form guides for 1000 won – less than $1. Everyone seemed to be buying one with a red cover, so I followed the crowd and did the same.
Swept up in all the excitement, I headed for the entrance, ready to pick my first winner. When I arrived, I saw a sign claiming that the entrance fee was 800 won.
Less than 80 cents? That seemed impossible.
Every racecourse I have been to in the past cost at least $10 to get in. Skeptical, I approached the counter with a handful of coins. Sure enough, I got an entry ticket in return.
Happy days! It is, in fact, only 800 won to get into the racecourse.
Setting up camp
A few things need to be taken into account when choosing your vantage point for the day.
- View of the finish line and giant replay screen
- Proximity to a betting window
- Easy access to refreshments and other amenities
- Surrounding atmosphere
For me, 1 and 2 were essential because I was here to place some bets. I had already researched the horses online and expected to be backing some winners.
A foreigner’s lounge is available, with English and other language services. Space is limited, and seats are first come, first serve.
I wanted to see how the locals did it, so I skipped the foreigner lounge. After doing the rounds, I found my ideal location on the third floor grandstand and settled in for a day of racing.
The ajosshis were curious about my arrival and immediately tested my Korean ability. We had some successful one-sided conversations that resulted in one of my new ajosshi friends bringing me a cup of Korean coffee.
I was impressed by both the modern facilities and the girls who work in the betting windows. I am quite sure they are chosen based on looks, which is fitting for Korea.
Placing a bet proved easy, as there was some English on the card. If you do run into trouble, the women behind the windows are very helpful. You can bet anything from 100 to 100,000 won, based on what your budget allows.
Here’s a tip: It’s a sand track. The day I was there, the horses that led at the home turn won more than half the races.
Getting food was also easy and cheap. You can find the Korean mainstays of kimbap and boiled eggs, along with sandwiches and a variety of snacks. Water fountains and coffee are also readily available, but there was one thing that wasn’t – alcohol.
The lack of bars at the grandstand was a glaring omission, as they are generally the mainstay of any racing establishment. This being Korea, the land of somak, I expected it to be no different. I have since learned that Koreans don’t mix alcohol and horse racing. They take their gambling very seriously, sticking to a strong, painfully sweet blend of coffee that leaves you buzzing almost as much as a beer.
The day continued with mixed success – I won a couple and lost a couple. Overall, it was an interesting and eventful experience, and I’ll be back again. If you ever have a spare day in Korea…see you at the track.