A Day at the Races

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A Day at the Races

Ten jockeys mount their steeds and take their places at the starting gate. The crowd falls resolutely silent until the signal shot fires and the horses sprint around the sandy track.

At the first turn, grandmothers, laborers and businessmen are roaring, "Win, win," "Go, go," and "Oh, no." They leap from their seats, their joy or disappointment immediately evident as the winners are posted on mammoth screens in the center of the track.

The drama is over in less than two minutes. Welcome to horse racing Korea.

It's drizzling and dreary on a recent Saturday afternoon, but at Seoul Racecourse Park more than 30,000 spectators are packing the bleachers and clubhouses. Regardless of the weather, throngs of horse racing enthusiasts come to Gwacheon to watch the thoroughbreds run -- and perhaps reap a few won in dividends.

Horse racing is synonymous with gambling in Korea. Seoul Racecourse Park is where ordinary folk come to strike it rich, rather than for the joy of seeing handsome, powerful animals charge the finish line. You don't see Eliza Doolittles chatting with aristocrats in this neck of the woods. Instead of fancy hats and fashionable outfits, there are workers in shorts and T-shirts.

The track is mostly populated by men, with a few women and children tagging along. "I can't trust my husband to come here alone," says a mother, minding both her spouse and their 5-year-old daughter. "My husband might get too immersed in the betting."

Gambling is the primary attraction. Call it the beauty of a providential wager. Professional gamblers usually sit in the Old Stadium. "They have their favorite seats, under their lucky stars," says Kim Yeong-hoon, a publicist for the race track. The New Stadium Building, a sprawling, relatively comfortable, five-story glass structure, is preferred by families.

There are 12 races a day, each ranging between 1,000 and 2,000 meters. Gamblers have a half hour between each race to place their next round of bets. The time goes fast.

A gray-haired man in his 60s, surrounded by horse racing manuals and almanacs, discusses the next race with a fellow gambler. "This one looks like a winner," he says, pointing to a horse's stats in the track's program. "But it seems he's lost quite a bit of weight since last month." The horse, In Motion, is fast and light, the man says, but it's getting up in years. Nevertheless, he heads to the counter and places his money on the steed. It loses. "I've been coming to racetracks for almost 20 years," the old man says with a sigh. "And let me tell you, it's an addiction."

While wives and children enjoy the track's playground and pony riding trails, the fathers generally stick to the bleachers. "I won 70,000 won ($60) in four races," gloats Lee Seung-yong, a 38-year-old father, who brought his two kids, wife and sister-in-law to the track. "Which means we're going out to a fancy restaurant for dinner," his wife adds, as she returns from a food counter with burgers for her brood.

When one race ends and wagering on the next begins, two giant screens ("the largest in all of Korea," boasts Mr. Kim) chronicle each horse's weight, number of races won and other statistical information. Odds and payouts are listed, determined by the number of bets on each horse. Betting is similar to Western countries, with fans queuing up to make 100-won to 100,000-won wagers for win, place, show and combination.

All the while, the professional gamblers are huddled in small knots, smoking ferociously and consulting their copies of the "Prospective Wins Guide." They carefully record their picks' numbers and the type of wagers they're making, then go to a window to place their bets. More often than not, they tear up their receipts at the end of each race, scowling grimly.

I must admit, this is not a place where I would want to bring my family, with scruffy bamboo mats and crumpled food wrappers everywhere. But it isn't the environment that draws people here. "People come to the track because it's a quick win. There's a kind of a get-rich-quick mentality," says Choi Jin-ho, a university student. "In two minutes you either make or lose your money."

For me, a first timer at the races, it's the thrill of watching thoroughbreds speed past that makes the experience electrifying.

by Choi Jie-ho

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