After a month in Seoul and plenty of football it was time for a bit of variation so I thought I’d have a day at the races. South Korea has three racetracks, one of which is quite close to me in Seoul and so that seemed like the sensible place to start. The other two tracks are in the south of the country and I’ll no doubt get along to them at some point in my stay, hopefully, if my experiences so far are much of a guide, combined with a trip to a football match watched mainly by the player’s families and then a festival of arm wrestling rabbits.
Gambling seems quite highly regulated here, or at least it is on the internet where my Cheltenham winnings remain untouched due to me not being able to access my Victor Chandler account. Still, I suppose it stops me ‘re-investing’ them. They do have betting shops here though, I passed one a couple of weeks ago whilst walking in Seoul on a Sunday morning. It was a hive of activity outside, with plenty of punters arriving and about a dozen pavement sellers trying to persuade them to buy one of the many form guides that were available.
Anyway, good as it would have been to idle away a couple of hours in the betting shop, I’d rather be doing my idling at the track itself and so on Sunday morning I made my way on to the subway. The station that I was heading for is only eight stops and one line change away from me and is perfectly named as Seoul Racecourse Park. I like it when the authorities help you out by naming the station after the reason for going there. How much easier for visitors would it be if we had tube stations in London named Houses of Parliament or Buckingham Palace? They could also add a picture or symbol of what’s there to the name of the station on the tube map. Wembley gets a drawing of the new stadium for example, Trafalgar Square is denoted by Nelson’s column and so on. It would be so much easier for those unfamiliar with the network or unable to read English. The correct stop for a football club could be indicated by a picture of a player wearing the team colours and for those unsure of the strips there could be helpful extras. The Arsenal figure, for example, could perhaps have his lower leg hanging at a right angle to the upper part. Shepherds Bush could have the BBC logo or more imaginatively perhaps, a nudey still of Jacy from the skinny dipping scene in The Last Picture Show. Barking, to its shame, gets a burning cross.
Once I’d changed to the line for Seoul Racecourse Park the train was a whole lot busier and it was apparent that there was going to be a bigger crowd watching the horseracing than I’d encountered at any of the football games I’d been to so far. We were that tightly packed in on the train that I didn’t need to hold onto one of those hanging straps. If we changed pace suddenly, it didn’t matter, we were too tightly packed for me to fall or even move much. Amongst the punters were quite a few hikers heading for the hills south of the racecourse, walking poles strapped to their rucksacks which often came perilously close to having someone’s eye out. When we reached our stop we unavoidably burst out of the door, sweeping one of the hikers out with us against her wishes. I’m sure I saw her and her rucksack three races later still trying to fight her way against the tide of racegoers.
The station was extremely busy and I had to queue to get out of the exit turnstiles. There were lots of people selling the form guides, some from little stalls inside the station, others lining the stairs on the way out. Most of them seemed to be trying to gain our attention by shouting at the tops of their voices. I bought one of the guides for 1000 won, selected more for its relatively small size than the noisiness of its seller or any confidence in the merits of its selections.
Outside of the station there were more vendors, some of them selling recently cooked silkworm pupa, others trying to convince people to buy racing tips handwritten on scraps of paper. I smiled at that, not the silkworm pupa; I’d need plenty of drink inside of me to be smiling at them, but at the blokes selling their tips. I’d done it myself as a teenager outside of Thirsk races. A mate and I picked a horse at random, Fairways Girl was its name and it was running in the 3.45. The reason I can remember all these years later is because we wrote its name down a hundred times and put each one inside an envelope. We then turned up early at Thirsk races to sell them as ‘genuine stable tips’ for a pound a time to arriving punters who would be funding our day out. Or not. We spent two hours approaching anyone who looked like they had a pound and managed to sell a total of three. The paper and envelopes cost more than our takings. As we hadn’t sold enough to pay for our admission we had to turn around and head for home without even getting into the course, never mind having a drink and a bet. And what of Fairways Girl? Well, the three generous punters who took pity on us will have been delighted when it won at 7/1. We didn’t even have enough faith in our selection to risk the three quid takings on a bet so it was a bitter-sweet moment as the results came through.
I gave the blokes selling the tips a knowing look and hurried on towards the course. It was only about five minutes along a covered walkway to a few entrance gates where I paid 800 won to get in. That’s about fifty pence and to put it into perspective about a tenth of the price of getting into the football over here. It’s no wonder the crowds are so big. The course was built for the equestrian events at the 1988 Olympics and then redeveloped for racing shortly afterwards. I often hear comments in the media about the legacy of the Olympics and I wonder what, if anything, will be in use in the UK after the 2012 Games apart from possibly a new stadium for West Ham. If it gets a new tube station as well, they could use a photo of Tevez as their symbol so that nobody forgets the outrageously favourable treatment they received from the FA.
Despite Seoul racecourse being over twenty years old it still looked very modern to me, possibly because we don’t really have up to date racecourses in the UK. Or at least if we do I’m not really aware of them. I go to the Grand National most years and they have very impressively added a few new stands over the years, but most courses that I’ve visited around the country don’t seem to have changed much since I first started going thirty years ago. That’s not a criticism by the way, just an observation. The last thing I’d want is the character of some of those old courses changed beyond recognition.
Seoul racecourse seemed more like an airport terminal than a racecourse. Apart from the dirt track, which I suspect most planes would struggle to take off from. And the horses, I rarely see many of them cantering around baggage return at Durham Tees Valley. So not very much like an airport terminal at all I suppose apart from the grandstands which were enormous glass fronted buildings, at least five storeys high. I passed the parade ring and went into the first grandstand. It seemed just as modern inside with lots of seating, plenty of big screens, convenience stores, banks and betting windows.
A nice little touch was the provision of tables, scissors and glue, where punters were going through the dozens of different form guides and compiling their own comprehensive booklet, Blue Peter style, for the days racing by cutting out the relevant bits, gluing them together and throwing away the bits that they didn’t want. I was impressed by the views of the track too. The glass front meant that you could see the racetrack from just about anywhere inside the building without the need to pay extra to access somewhere where you could actually watch the race. I went to the Arc de Triumph in 1987. It was the year when Reference Point was supposed to romp home, but that’s another story. The point is that despite some impressive stands, the only place I could see the Arc from was outside at ground level. Here you could watch from comfy chairs inside, which a lot of people did, taking at least two chairs to accommodate all of their form guides, or you could go out onto the rows of seats outside that were situated at each level and watch in the fresh air and as high up as you liked, all for the same fifty pence that got you admission to the track.
The track had a backdrop of hills a bit like Hexham, which is probably my favourite UK racecourse, or Santa Anita in America. The track was definitely more Santa Anita than Hexham though, being a dirt track rather than grass and without any jumps. I went to Santa Anita for the Breeders Cup a couple of years ago and managed to have a close look at the running surface. It was weird stuff with a texture somewhere between loft insulation and belly button fluff. One notable difference between Seoul and both of those tracks though was that you couldn’t consume alcohol at the Seoul track. This surprised me as there appeared to be no restrictions on drinking at the Korean football games. At the matches that I’ve been to so far you can drink at your seat if you want, bring in your own crate of beer or bottle of soju and I’d be surprised if anyone would raise as much as an eyebrow should someone start up a home brew kit behind the goal. None of that at the racetrack though, it was strictly soft drinks only.
There were eleven races scheduled between 11.20 am and 6pm. They were quite unevenly spread out, with as little as twenty five minutes between races at the beginning and end of the day, but with up to an hour between the races that took place around lunchtime or teatime. The distances were all listed in metres rather than furlongs and ranged between 1000 metres and 2000 metres. I wandered about the various floors for a while before finding a lounge on the fourth floor specifically dedicated to foreigners. This was a great idea, keeping together in the same place all of us idiots who couldn’t read Korean and who were quite likely to try and put a bet on at a window selling ice creams. You had to show your passport to get into the foreigners lounge, but once in you got a reserved seat, a form guide in English and a leaflet, again in English, that showed you exactly how to complete a tote slip for the various bets and then what to do with it. I don’t recall ever seeing much guidance in the UK for people not too familiar with betting, never mind those who don’t speak the language, so I was both impressed and grateful.
I successfully managed to place my bet for the first race, avoiding the favourite who was untried over the distance. This was a wise move as after leading the race all the way around, it ran out of pace toward the end and was caught just short of the winning post. Not by my selection I must add, which had somehow contrived to toss his jockey off coming out of the starting stalls. That phrase might just get me a few hits in Google. After another couple of losing bets I went for lunch after the third race, as they had very kindly built in an hour before the start of the fourth race. I had beef that tasted very much like the beef that you get in the Chinese at home when you order beef in oyster sauce. I don’t know if the sauce here was oyster or not mind, but it was ok. I had it with boiled rice and Kimchi.
After lunch I finally got my first winner in the fourth race and then decided to take a stroll through a tunnel that went underneath the track and have a look at the area in the middle of the circuit. It was just like walking around in a park. There were families having picnics, children’s play areas with swings and slides and small kids riding around on hired bikes and trikes. All that was missing for the full Ropner Park experience were the burnt out cars and the dogshit. It seemed a very nice place to spend a family afternoon even if you had no interest in horse racing. When my kids were little I often used to take them to the races. It was a cheap day out as kids got in for free. We would usually watch the horses walking around the parade ring and then go right to the front and watch the horses from the rails where if they ran down your side of the track you could hear the hooves and feel the vibrations as they ran past, Invariably we would take a football and have a kickaround like some of the families at Seoul were doing. I have a photo somewhere of my son aged about four stood between our makeshift goalposts, one of them the traditional jumper, the other one the not so traditional younger sister asleep in her pushchair. As well as the families, there were a few groups of teenagers having a laugh on the grass and a group of old blokes in hiking gear sneakily swigging from illicit Soju bottles. I did wonder if they had been swept off the train that morning or whether they regularly left the house telling their wives they were going for a nice healthy hike before getting off a few stops later to meet their mates at the races instead.
I had one more winner before calling it a day after the seventh race, the one hour gap to the eighth making it a good time to head back into the city. There were still people coming into the track as I left, having had their Sunday dinners before deciding to round off the afternoon with the last four races. It was still good value for fifty pence. The blokes selling the racing tips had gone by then though, hopefully having done a little bit better than I did all those years ago at Thirsk.