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A trainer's horse whispers fall on deaf ears in South Korea

COLUMN ONE

Joseph Murphy was brought over to help raise the status of the country's racing industry. Too bad nobody will listen to him.

January 08, 2012|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Joseph Michael Murphy laments that too many of the South Korean jockeys who ride his horses behave as mere passengers, and he urges his riders to take charge right out of the gate: Get in the animals ear; take control with your gestures. You have to yell, he says.
Joseph Michael Murphy laments that too many of the South Korean jockeys… (Matt Douma, For The Times )

Reporting from Busan, South Korea — Joseph Michael Murphy had the defeated look of a man on a losing streak at the track, because that's precisely what he was.

So far on this sunny Sunday afternoon, the ponies just weren't cooperating. In the first race, his best bet of the day, a 7-1 shot named De Bora, had finished a dismal sixth.

But Murphy's problems ran deeper than those of a racing-form junkie who smokes too many cigarettes and throws down too much cash at the betting window: He trained De Bora and a slew of other horses here that have rarely seen the light of win, place or show.

Murphy comes from racing blood: His father and brother were successful U.S. jockeys. He learned the sport at famed Belmont Park and spent years guiding winning horses in track-crazy Hong Kong and Macao. Now he faces the longest odds of his career.

For two seasons, the 47-year-old with the clipped Brooklyn accent has tried to make his mark in South Korean horse racing, a subculture famously resistant to outsiders.

To succeed, experts say, foreign trainers and jockeys must conquer a rank-and-file track culture in which the biggest worry is the prospect of newcomers outshining native talent.

The Korean Racing Authority wants to change that.

In 2010, officials offered Murphy airfare and a contract in an effort to raise the quality of South Korean racetracks to better meet international standards and keep pace not just with the U.S., but also with regional competitors.

Murphy leaped at the chance for a new challenge.

Officials hope he and other foreign trainers will bring new blood to the world of Korean horse racing, introduced here in the last century by the Japanese during their 35-year occupation. Seeing the success that rival Asian racing jurisdictions have found with nonnative trainers and jockeys, South Korean officials are determined to open their track culture to new points of view.

The stakes are high: In South Korea's $7.4-billion industry, an average weekend's take at three racetracks equals that of all tracks in the United States over the same period. Prize money here places third in the world, behind only Dubai and Hong Kong.

Yet the industry has had limited success abroad. The racing authority's jockey academy has sent several South Koreans to train in the U.S., where one won two races. The few Korean horses racing overseas have had even less luck, said Alastair Middleton, author of a blog called Horse Racing in Korea.

The reasons go beyond culture: Money has also been an issue. South Korean owners once were reluctant to pay for better-bred horses, often settling for third-tier racers.

"For a while, it was either the glue factory or Korea," Murphy joked.

Now owners have begun to spend more on their horses. But most still rely on native-born trainers without international experience. The next step, track officials say, is to change that as well.

From the start, bosses at Busan Race Park warned Murphy that as one of only two foreigners among the 32 trainers, he would meet with resistance.

The other foreigner, an Australian, arrived four years ago and began to win only in the last two seasons. To Murphy, that's proof of the challenges ahead.

Shin Yong-sang, a racing authority security official, said Koreans are traditionally slow to change. "Many view a foreigner with antagonism," he said. "I know his task isn't easy, but it's necessary. Our sport needs foreign influence to stay competitive."

So far Murphy has managed to attract seven owners with 23 horses and has built a staff of six stable hands and an interpreter. But his horse sense has faced resistance at every turn, among owners, assistant trainers and the riders, who he says often respond to his suggestions with silence.

He attributes his rocky start not just to cultural protectionism and a powerful jockeys union, but also to language barriers. He's talkative, gets in people's faces, but struggles to learn the Korean track vocabulary that will allow him to become one of the boys.

Instead, he is questioned — over how he cracks horses' leg joints before races or consults an equine dentist, for instance. On the other side, the South Koreans are unable to explain why workers hang fish heads for luck over stable doors or throw salt on a horse's rump before races, saying that's just how things are done here.

Murphy remembers an owner telling him: "This is a Korean horse. It doesn't understand Western ways."

But a career trackside has taught him this: You can't argue with success. To get people to accept his methods, Murphy knows he has to start winning races, and fast. The trouble is, he hasn't. In 150 starts, he's won just seven times.

He senses that his next entry — a stallion named Big Day, a "tired horse with aches and pains" — is about to deliver more of the same.

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