Racing into history with 1,000 victories

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Racing into history with 1,000 victories

Park Tae-jong walks with giants, something he himself has become in a world of the diminutive. Mr. Park is not a heroic warrior; at 150 centimeters (4 feet 9 inches), he is well below the minimum height requirement of 158 centimeters to serve in the Korean military. But he has mounted many steeds and charged into fame and glory. In fact, he has done so 985 times.
Park, 37, is Korea’s most prolific jockey; he is just 15 victories from becoming the first jockey in his country to log 1,000 wins.
Compared with the legendary Bill Shoemaker, who won 8,833 races out of 40,350 starts, Park does not even rate a footnote in equestrian history. But in Korea, this 46-kilogram (101-pound) man is considered a legend -- and a devil.
Lim Tae-gyu, who says he goes to the races as often as he can, sees something dark in Park. "That guy rides like a demon. It's not a good thing to bet against him."
For Park, who first saddled up in 1986, such comments are compliments. "That means I am doing a very good job."
The demon rider was not always so fearless. "You know, when I first sat on the back of a horse I got a cramp from holding the reins too tight out of fear that I would fall off,” Park says with a big laugh.
That was in 1986, when he first mounted a horse. It was his second try following an unsuccessful attempt the previous year. In April 1987, after a year of training at a jockey center run by the Korea Racing Association, Park made his racing debut.
He muses about what might have been if he had not chosen to make his living with horses. "Well, I was always interested in driving. I considered becoming a taxi driver. I also worked for a short time as a crane operator,” Park says. One day a friend told him about horse jockeys. "I thought he was talking about horse riding."
Noting that Shoemaker rode until he was 41, Park says he thinks he has a couple of good years left -- if he can reduce the number of falls.
"You know, people think just because I ride horses for a living I don't fall off them. I wish they were right," he says with a chuckle. "I have been riding horses for more than 15 years, and I still fall. Not as much as before, but fall I do."
Besides the tumbles, another career killer is the dirt kicked up by the horses. "Without goggles a jockey could go blind," says Kim Byeong-chun, an official with the Korea Racing Association.
Park's workday is a tightly scheduled regime. Up at 6 a.m., he rides new horses to get a feel for them and works at the stables, mopping the concrete floor, laying fresh straw.
Park, like all jockeys, professes to having a special line of communication with horses. He says brushing their coat with straw helps him to bond with the animal. "You gotta give it full effort. They will let you know when you are doing a lousy job."
The riding takes place in the afternoon. Circuits introduce the horses to the course’s layout, especially the straightaways, where during races Park makes his move toward the head of the pack.
Park’s size masks a strength obtained over the years with daily two-hour weight training sessions. A mechanical horse helps him hone his in-saddle rhythm. "Legs are what counts. Gotta keep myself riding high," Park says. Most falls and serious injuries, he says, happen because the jockey’s legs are weak.
Park pays for his own health insurance, but most jockeys, receiving a small basic salary, depend on the association to pay emergency health costs.
Under the current rules a jockey who wins a race takes 8 percent of the prize money, which ranges from 4 million won to 250 million won. Betting on horse racing reached 7 trillion won ($833 million) last year.
In his early years, Park did not have the expected success as a jockey. Most riders usually get their first win within their first ten starts, but Park had to wait until his16th race.
Horse racing can be traced back as far as the 1700s in England and the United States. Korea's first horse race that involved betting was held in 1923. After the Korean War, the sport was reorganized in 1954 with the establishment of the Ttukseom Horse Racing Track, which is now located in Gwacheon and is known as Seoul Racecourse Park. Ten to 12 races take place each day, drawing an average of 30,000 spectators. The total audience, including television viewers, is 170,000.
With his oldest rival being 45 years old, Park has his sights on becoming the oldest Korean jockey with the most wins. Close to establishing the 1,000 win record, Park is confident on the former quest. "It's not your age. It's how well you communicate with your horse, and I can talk to them forever."

by Brian Lee
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