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A trainer’s horse whispers fall on deaf ears in 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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At race time, he glanced up at the scoreboard. Big Day was listed as an 82-1 shot. Murphy grimaced. Then, as if on cue, the window bettors heaped on more insult: Big Day’s odds dropped to 100 to 1.

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Murphy was in the stables, offering some last-minute advice to his jockey. Interpreter at his side, he leaned in close with a strategy about when to make a move.

“I can’t do it,” the jockey said, looking afraid.

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“You can do it,” Murphy insisted.

It’s the jockeys who have given Murphy his biggest headaches. They’re often too timid in the saddle, he says, and most squirm when urged to become more aggressive.

In a hierarchical culture where age brings rank, he believes the younger jockeys are afraid to pass horses ridden by their seniors. Middleton, the blogger, said that while it’s true such attitudes have existed among jockeys, many younger ones are becoming more aggressive, especially in Seoul.

Murphy laments that too many of the jockeys behave as mere passengers, and he urges his riders to take charge right out of the gate: “Get in the animal’s ear; take control with your gestures. You have to yell.”

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One jockey said he was afraid he might scare a competitor’s horse and that its rider might complain. “Win the race, then apologize,” Murphy responded.

Still, he believes in the future of South Korean racing, where Korean-bred, mixed and foreign-bred horses compete. Though smaller than their foreign counterparts, Korean horses can one day win on an international level, Murphy says.

His goal is to take the training reins of a Korean-bred horse such as the revered Mr. Park, who this season won 17 straight races here, then tackle the world. But so far, he’s been able to attract only second-tier animals.

Busan handicapper H.J. Yoo has seen Murphy make headway, though slowly.

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“Many Korean trainers know that foreigners have been racing horses for centuries.” Yoo said. “They don’t want to be outclassed. At first there’s push-back, then acceptance.”

Last year, for instance, the foreign trainers introduced a device called a pacifier, which covers the horse’s eyes to protect them from flying debris during races. Now many trainers use it.

Still, “no matter what I try, I’m a fish out of water,” said Murphy. “I thought I knew Asia, but this place is just different.” Even so, he says he plans to stay indefinitely. “I’m here for the long haul.”

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The jockey in the first race explained that a frustrated De Bora got caught in the pack and had sand kicked in his face.

Murphy returned to his stable, where his line of also-rans poked their heads out of their stalls. He rubbed De Bora’s nose. “You don’t get sand in your face, no,” he said. “You just win.”

The next race started off just as miserably. Big Day got bumped and quickly fell to second-to-last in the field of 12. Murphy knew he’d soon have to explain the poor performance to yet another owner. But then the 100-1 shot rallied to finish fifth, a victory of sorts.

“Back to the drawing board,” Murphy said. “It’s disheartening. But we can only improve.”

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That was followed by another Murphy truism: Keep your sense of humor. The trainer watched two toddlers pass, their faces downcast. He cracked a smile. “You bet on my horse, too, huh?”

john.glionna@latimes.com


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