Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Seoul Horse Track

Last month we headed over to the Seoul Race Park with our friend Josephine on a fine summer Saturday afternoon.

Located just south of the city in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi-do province, the park can be found just one subway stop away (Line 4) from the lovely Seoul Grand Park which we had visited earlier in the springtime. The Race Park is really the only attraction at Seoul Race Park station, and you can take any exit and easily find your way.

The outskirts and the entrance of the park are quite lovely, adorned with many varieties of bright flowers and equine themed statues. We first stopped into the information booth outside the park and learned that their is actually another one just for foreigners in one of the main buildings.
Jamie and Josephine at the entrance
Map of the track and park

The two main buildings are right next to each other, each one being 5 or 6 stories tall. In the above picture you can see “Happyville” on the left and “Luckyville” on the right. I feel that these names are not representative of the occupants, however, as most people in Happyville didn’t seem very happy (except us!), and most people in Luckyville didn’t seem particularly Lucky. However, there was no smoking in Happyville, so perhaps the happiness stems from their slightly better standards of health. NOTE - surprisingly enough there was no drinking at all at the park!

66% of the people enjoying themselves (the remaining 33% is holding the camera)

So we learned at the first info booth that the foreigner friendly information could be found in “Luckyville”, so that was our first destination. The ladies at the desk were extremely helpful and gave us racing sheets that had information on each race in English. The information included the type of race (length, age of horses, handicap, and whether or not the race was live at the track or telecasted from the sister track in Jeju-do), the names of the horses and jockeys, and a quick winning history of said horses and jockeys. The ladies at information also told us how to place bets using the betting cards and turn them in (with money) for a ticket.

These are the betting cards - one can place up to three different bets on each card

Armed with our race sheets and our betting-how-to knowledge, we found some nice outdoor seating up in Luckyville and proceeded to place our very first race bets!
Placing a bet is fairly easy and we quickly picked up the Korean words for the different types of bets (I’ve of course forgotten by now!). Here were our options:
Win: Bet on a single horse to come in first place. Place: Bet on a single horse to come in either first, second, or third place (same payout for each scenario) Trio: Bet on three different horses and if all three come in first, second, and third place, in any permutation, you win (and usually big - Jamie and Josephine managed to hit this one)! Quinella: Bet on two horses and if they come in first and second place, in any order, you win! Exacta: Bet on two horses, one specifically to come in first and the other specifically to come in second. It must be exact (hence the name!); if both come in first and second but you guessed it backwards you don’t win anything (this happened to me a couple times)! Quinella place: Bet on two horses (like the quinella), but if they come in first, second, or third place, in any order, you win!

With a betting card and payment you can get these, betting tickets

You can also make miniscule bets, I’m talking 100 won, which, depending on the exchange rate of the moment, is about 8 or 9 cents. This meant that we could make lots of little interesting wagers on different outcomes (I liked the quinella place and exacta bets as they were the most dramatic). One other important point: you need to use a special betting pen to fill out the cards - the ticketing machine must read the specific ink. These can be purchased on sight for about a quarter.

Shannon posing with her ticket, looks like a winner!

What we didn’t understand initially is that horse race betting is not like betting in a casino. In a casino your odds (or rather, how much you will win from any given bet) is pre-determined by the casino (and are generally standard). For example, if you win a normal hand of blackjack they pay you 1:1 (bet $1 and gain $1 on top of your initial bet). This is not so with horse races, as there are obviously so many variables. The system they use is called parimutuel betting. In a nutshell, this system has the bettors pretty much defining the payouts for each given bet and the race track makes money by taking a percentage of the total amount placed on all bets. All bets are placed into a giant pool (picture the one that Scrooge McDuck swims in - just kidding!), the track takes their cut, and then the remainder is divvied up to the winners. This means that if a really popular horse wins, the bettors don’t make much off of their bets. But if an unpopular horse wins and only a few people placed bets on it, the payout is often much higher.
That screen showed the payouts for most bets in real time

Leading up to a race (which were held every half hour, by the way), the payouts for each bet was displayed in real time meaning that they continually changed until the betting closed just before the race. This meant that many last second bets were placed and the betting areas were just crowded with tons of ajashis (middle aged men) with all of their race day paraphernalia.
Bettors waiting till the last minute to place their wages

Soon after arriving (we got there around noon) we needed some sustenance so we wandered around a bit and found typical Korean style cafeteria offerings at acceptable prices. Not bad but not great. Their may be some nicer alternatives in a different area but we didn’t look to hard (being the hungry gamblers that we were).

Well, after a few races in “Luckyville”, we’d had enough of the smoke clouds created by all the nervous gamblers and took for greener pastures: Happyville! Happyville is more or less an exact replica of Luckyville, but it has nicer outdoor seating and no smoking, which made it much more comfortable for the remainder of the day.

Race in the background with the Happyville "smoking police" in the foreground

We really enjoyed placing small wagers and rooting for our horses to come in - we stayed for the remainder of the race day (it ended around 5). Jamie and Shannon both ended up losing a small sum, but Josephine in her trio moment of glory was up something like 30,000 won! That is near enough to 30 USD. I believe it was won on something like a 500 won bet - not bad for 50 cents!

There were many different race lengths throughout the day; this one started right near us

Afterwards we decided to make the trek underneath the racecourse to the family park area and wait for the subway rush to end. The family park area actually was closing as well, but we managed to sneak in for a quick stroll to check it out. In the middle of the track is a sizable playing field, a pony riding area, some cafes, and of course betting stations (come now, it couldn’t be 100% wholesome, its a race track after all). We did see quite a few families and children in the area.
Mountains! Also, that screen on the left was used to simulcast races from a sister track in Jeju-do

Final thoughts: while we did manage to have a lot of fun, it really wasn’t the happiest of places. My perception of race tracks is perhaps antiquated, with couples in their best Sunday hats viewing their pocket watches through a monocled eyes to check the time before the next race. Yeah, that was not the case. People were spread out all over the floor inside looking stressed out, not a lot of smiles. Tons of smoking made the first area we set up basically unbearable. Even the races that seemed to work out for a lot of people didn’t produce a net amount of happiness. Basically it seemed that a lot of folks seemed to be there for the wrong reason (expecting to actually make money versus have a good time). That being said, we had a blast and I (Jamie) wouldn’t mind going again before the season ends (Shannon could pass, however).


Track and Field World Championships 2011 Daegu, South Korea

On Saturday, September 3rd Shannon, myself, and six friends all headed down to the central city of Daegu to attend the 13th annual IAAF Track and Field World Championship. Held every two years at
different locations around the world, this is arguably the biggest/most important event for track and field after the Olympic games.
Most of the group, Shannon, Jamie, Melissa, Julia, Josephine, Shelly (missing is Frank and Mark)

We took the high speed KTX train from Seoul to Dongdaegu station (East Daegu) and arrived in about two hours time. I had previously booked a couple of motel rooms via the internet (which was way more complicated than it needed to be, but I was eventually successful) and managed to get a nice enough place right by the train station.

The entire event actually spanned the course of a nine day period, and they would typically hold both morning sessions and evening sessions. The morning sessions would generally be only qualifiers and heats, and the evening sessions were made up mostly of semi-final and final events. We had chosen the final weekend of the championship meaning that only evening sessions were being held, but all of the events were either semi-finals or finals. Being the end of the meet, we also got to witness some of the popular favorites (women's 4x400m, men’s 200m, men’s and women’s 4x100m).

The facility is really quite beautiful; it was built for the 2002 World Cup that was co-hosted by Japan and Korea and is one of the more interesting structures I’ve seen over here. That being said, the spot they chose for the construction is a mystery to me, as it was a good 15 kilometers outside of the city and fairly inconvenient to get to via the normal public transportation system. Luckily for us the city had organized free shuttle buses directly from the east Daegu train station, so it really wasn’t such a bad commute.

Day 8 (well, day 1 for us) - Saturday September 3rd

We arrived at the facility an hour or so before things got underway. On our way to our entrance, we ran into a volunteering group that were doing free face painting as a way to advertise their organization (brilliant!). A few of us took them up on their offer.

*Yes, Shannon’s flag really does have 50 stars - perhaps it was that face painter’s masterpiece?

We sat in the A section, which meant we were fairly close to the track but on the opposite side of the finish line. While the picture of the stadium makes the place look really big, it really didn’t have that feel and I must say we had pretty decent seats for the price. Our view of the men’s javelin throw was really great, but it was sort of hard to give women’s high jump our full attention.

Women's high jump, to our right, on full zoom.

Great View of the screen and the mountains behind.

Julia and Melissa. More of the stadium

And there was a lot to see! There were two wheelchair races (800 and 400, men’s and women’s, respectively) that were I believe a first for a championship event. Following that we saw a young American (Matthew Centrowitz) take bronze in the 1500 (after a close finish with two Kenyans).

Centrowitz, Second from the right.

Things really ramped up next with the women’s 4x400m (US team: Sanya Richards-Ross; Allyson Felix; Jessica Beard; Francena McCorory), where we saw the USA set a world leading time (world leading means best time of the year, FYI) to take the gold, a narrow victory over our ever more competitive rivals, Jamaica.

Perhaps the most impressive feat of the evening, though, was next in the 100m women’s hurdles. Sally Pearson (Australia) has really been shining in the event and she looked just liquid in this race. Her hurdling was so fluid, the hurdles might as well not have been there at all. She was seriously playing with the world record and did manage to set a championship record (CR, this is the best time ever run at the world championship event) which so has it was the fourth fastest time in the event: EVER. It was seriously a sight to see. The US did try to keep up and managed to take silver and bronze with personal best times (Danielle Carruthers and Dawn Harper, respectively), but they were outshone by Pearson.

Following that, the men’s 200m was nearly as exciting - we (and the world) finally got to see Usain Bolt in action after his unfortunate mishap in the 100 a week earlier. He performed much as expected (19.40), totally blowing away our US competitor, Walter Dix, by a third of a second (19.70) to leave us with silver.
Usain Bolt in the middle in yellow and Walter Dix to his right facing us.

This was really funny, Usain was literally playing with the paparazzi during his victory lap; at one point he took a photographers camera and took a picture of the photographer with it.

At some point in the evening we notice a guy wearing a USA coat sitting in front of us, and after a few double checks we realized that it was Bershawn Jackson, Olympic medalist in the 400m hurdles and co-gold medalist of the men’s 4x400m the day before. On our way out of the stadium we managed to strike up a conversation with him while he was waiting for his wife in the bathroom. He was really a nice guy and he explained what it is like to come to these events (they had been in Korea for a month prior to get ready and acclimated), how sponsorships work and some other business related things (apparently there is a huge monetary reward to the athletes for winning at an event). Anyways, we were chatting for a bit and he offered to show us his medal! After 30 seconds of taking pictures with it, he was MOBBED by other attendees, so we sort of let him go so he could be fawned over. I wish him the greatest of luck in his career!

Day 9 (Day 2 for us!)

Second day, woot! We got there a lot earlier this day and also met up with an additional friend at the track (he couldn’t manage to get a ticket for Saturday). Getting there earlier meant we could explore some of the attractions they had set up around the facilities.

In our wanderings we also stumbled across a Swedish film crew. They are currently making a film that is investigating the issue of doping (in all forms) in sports so they interviewed Shannon and I regarding our opinion. Personally having a strong negative opinion on doping it was kind of fun to talk to them about it (although I must say they were a little bit leading in their set up before the interview and with their questions, not that I needed to be lead). I hope it works out for them.

OK, then we finally made it into the stadium! Our seats for the second day weren’t as good, so we sort of just moved to the prime seats in front of the triple jump pit - best. decision. ever. We had perfect seats, and apparently the jumping teams (who had since finished with their events) from a bunch of different countries were hanging out all around us. Having been hooked on the championship events all week back in Seoul (we had been watching them pretty much each night), we recognized a handful of faces. Also the triple jump coaches were just crawling all over the place, hanging around the edge of the stadium to give advice to their athletes. At one point we looked back and saw a familiar face: Dwight Phillips, Olympic long jump gold medalist and four time Championship gold medalist (most recent one being only days before) sitting behind us 2 or 3 rows back. He seemed to be secretly enjoying his victorious performance with a concealed celebratory brew, so I bought him another and passed it up to him! And gosh darn it, I’m pretty sure he drank that beer!

Dwight Phillips

And to the events! In the middle of the field was women’s hammer throw. Since my high school league didn’t participate in this event, this was actually my first time ever seeing it. OH! And they had this little robotic car that they would load the hammer’s onto after each throw and send it zipping back to the throwing area! They had done this for the javelin the day before as well, very fun to watch!

If you look closely, you can see the little electronic cars ferrying the javelins back and forth.

As mentioned before, right in front of us was the triple jump and we had two amazing jumpers from the US, Christian Taylor and Will Claye. Taylor was way behind the UK favorite, Phillips Idowu, up until his fourth jump when he absolutely flew, an astounding 17.96m to firmly clinch the lead for the rest of the contest, the fifth longest triple jump of all time. Will Claye couldn’t manage to follow suit though and had to settle for bronze behind the Brit. Again, we had amazing seats to see all of this!

The men’s 5000m saw us again battling with Britain for the top spot, but this time we were on the losing side to their star, Mohamed Farah, who narrowly beat our veteran distance man Bernard Lagat. Lagat had paced himself very well throughout most of the race which had fooled us into thinking he was out of the running as he stayed in the middle pack for quite a few laps. But he turned on the heat later on which made for a really spectacular finish against Farah.

While the next event, the women’s 800m, didn’t see an American placing, it was interesting nonetheless as it saw the performance of, up until very recently, a controversial South African athlete Caster Semenya, who was also expected to win the event. HOWEVER, she was “outkicked” on the final stretch by the Russian athlete Mariya Savinova to make it an upset victory. Very exciting race.
Caster Semeyna is the third one back.

To close the entire championship up, we saw some of the most anticipated events: the men’s and women’s 4x100m relays. The women were up first and it was a tight one, with Jamaica pushing themselves to a Jamaican national record time (41.70). Luckily for the US (Bianca Knight; Allyson Felix; Marshevet Myers; Carmelita Jeter), we were even more formidable that night, pushing it to another world leading time (41.56) to secure gold (the second in two days for Allyson Felix who was also a member of the winning 4x400m team).

Finally that brought us to the end, the men’s 4x100m. It turned out to be a disappointment for the US fans, as we had a collision at the hand off between the 3rd and 4th legs of the race, knocking us out. But Jamaica upped the ante over their women’s team counterparts, not only setting a Jamaican national record but also bumping up the world record as well (37.04). Anchored by none other than Usain Bolt, and setting the only world record of the entire championship, the crowd went wild after the feat.

Having seen all the events, we opted to skip out on the K-pop and final awards ceremony in an attempt to get home a little earlier. We managed to get onto one of the shuttles in good time and even managed to change to an earlier train back home. We were in bed by 1:00AM!

I really must say that this was my favorite sporting event that I’ve ever attended and it has served only to increase my desire to see the Olympic games. I highly recommend that if you find yourself near an Athletics championship in the future that you try and budget it in, as it was really, really worth it.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


I went for a hike on the mountain near our house, Acha Mountain, hither to known as Achasan. It was a normal hike for me. But then I started to wonder, is it normal because I've been in Korea so long? So, with fresh eyes, I thought, what might I have found fascinating when I first arrived here. This is what I came up with.

At the bottom of the mountain, a fun performance. Usually they sing folk songs and everyone in the audience cheers and claps along.

As I reached the summit I found ANOTHER singing group! What!?

It's really common to have exercise parks in Korea. Our friend Matthew made a fun video of Jamie and I exercising. One day I'll post that. For now, look here. This is at the TOP of the mountain. As if hiking the mountain wasn't enough!

Please note two things.
One: Look how huge that woman's hula-hoop is. She didn't carry that with her (thank heavens!), it's just there for you to use. She's currently paused from hula-hooping because she is talking on the phone. I'd like to note that she, by my count, hula-hooped for 20 minutes. She didn't look like she was ready to give it up anytime soon.

Two: The man that is lying on the sit up board. He's napping. Upside down.

I'll leave you with this city scape.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Great Tee-Shirts

So, as you may know, the language in Korea is Korean. There is, however, a fair amount of English written on signs and tee-shirts. Restaurants often have English name, street signs are in Korean and English, and tee-shirts often have English written on them. Fortunately for ouramusement, the English on the tee-shirts is usually just for decoration and not necessarily for message. Some of them are hilarious!

Here's one:

And another:

And one last one:

More to come!