On the Road to the Keeneland Korea Cup


Harvey Wallbanger | Adam Coglianese photo


Editor's Note: Patrick Gilligan has traveled to Seoul, South Korea with Harvey Wallbanger (Congrats) for the Sept. 8 Keeneland Korea Cup, and will be writing a travelogue for the TDN.

When I went to see Kenny McPeek in late December 2017 about taking a position as his assistant, he fed me a line about how he would like to take more horses to race in the UK, target some big races there, maybe even base some horses there at times. I spent many years training in the UK, in Newmarket. My son was born and raised there. That appealed to me. I took the job. He sent me to Saratoga for the summer. He sent me to Florida for the winter. He sent me to Canada. This morning I woke up in South Korea.

South Korea lies nearly 7,000 miles west of Kentucky. Seoul, its capital, is situated in the north west of the country, it is a progressive, advanced city of 10 million people, in a country of 50 million. Japan is an hour's flight east, and China an hour's flight west. It would be hard to find somewhere further from the UK to send me. I don't know if Kenny is trying to tell me something.

I am pleased to be here though. I am here because we are running Harvey Wallbanger in the Keeneland Korea Cup. And Kenny gave my son Jack Gilligan the ride.

Harvey Wallbanger was in Kenny's barn at Keeneland Race Course the day I started. A handsome 2-year old colt by Congrats, still learning the basics. A nice character who would come out of his stall each morning like an overexcited school kid let out of the classroom. I was in Saratoga with him for his debut. He finished second, I lost money. The horse who beat him ('TDN Rising Star' Complexity, by Maclean's Music) won a Grade I at Belmont next time. His second start was at Keeneland, he was beaten a nose. I lost money on him. The horse who beat him (Plus Que Parfait, by Point of Entry) went on to win the G2 UAE Derby.

When I decided to stop betting Harvey Wallbanger, Harvey Wallbanger decided to start winning. He won his maiden at Churchill, then he won the GII Fasig-Tipton Holy Bull S. at Gulfstream Park in the New Year. Things didn't really work out after that. He was given some time off and came back and ran a solid fourth in the Ellis Park Derby last month. If the race has brought him along, then we could be in business.

The fledgling Keeneland Korea Cup, just a 4-year-old race has this year been given Grade 1-Korean status (as Korea is a Part II country, it is simply black- type internationally) due to the presence of high-quality Japanese runners that have regularly farmed the approximately $800,000 contest. There are no Japanese runners this year though. Korea and Japan are engaged in a trade spat, that has evolved into a trade war, that has evolved into a diplomatic crisis, which means the Korea Racing Authority was unable this year to invite any Japanese-based contenders. This opens the race up and makes challengers from North America and Europe the favourites to take the contest this year. It is an ill trade wind that blows no one any good.

The Korea Racing Authority is progressive and ambitious, it has two main racetracks, and a crowd of 30,000 per race day is typical. The Seoul Racecourse can hold 80,000 spectators, and come Sunday it will be about full for South Korea's biggest races (from a monetary perspective, in any event). The KRA already boasts the seventh biggest horserace betting turnover in the world, and it looks like that figure is set to keep climbing.

They had the funds then, to look after the invited connections, so upper business class tickets were complementary. Knowing I was facing a 14- hour flight to Seoul, I suggested to Kenny that it might be a good idea if I took his ticket as he wouldn't be attending. He said fine, but that it was really not that big a deal compared to a standard ticket.

He could not have been more wrong. I enjoyed the champagne, polished off my filet steak, watched a movie while sipping a couple of vodkas, then pressed the button that turned my seat into a bed, pulled the duvet over me, and rested my head on the pillow in my private cubicle. I woke up when the captain announced we were 20 minutes from landing.

That is as far from a standard flight as it is possible to get. To be sandwiched in a narrow upright seat with no legroom next to some flatulent old man who spends the journey muttering to himself is not a pleasant experience (that's what Jack tells me anyway). When you are relaxing in that cubicle you feel like one of life's winners, like you are a chosen one. You really are special–in a good way. When you are flying in economy on a long-haul flight, it gives you a lot of time to reflect on the fact that, let's face it, all your dreams didn't really work out.

So, if you want your kids to really shine and do well in life, I will leave you with this bit of wisdom. Just pick somewhere a really long way away to fly your children to. Fly them out in economy, then fly them back in style. And then tell your children, it's up to them. They will become straight A students, I guarantee you. Or jockeys.

Patrick Lawrence Gilligan is the author of Around Kentucky With the Bug! (read Joe Bianca's review here, the story of his son Jack's apprenticeship, and serves as an assistant to Kenny McPeek.

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