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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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).