An analog photoessay on Seoul Race Park by photographer and writer Paul Keelan.
A program to the Seoul Race Park is more expensive than entrance to the horse-racing venue itself: a mere 1,000 won, easily swiped with a T-money card. Strutting past horse chariots and fried tteok vendors, I enter the park.
Cigarettes freckle the concrete as afternoon nappers sprawl their limbs, strewn like cadavers on benches along the patio outside the bleachers of Seoul Race Park in Gwacheon. The intermittent shadows cast over their sleeping faces as dapper couples with parasols walk past them with bags filled with picnic tomatoes and Korean melons. Alert old Korean men crouch with betting books and inked gambling sheets.
I entertain myself by looking for a South Korean Hunter S. Thompson or Bukowski type, some literary doppleganger drunkenly wandering beneath the Sunday sun’s lurid glare amongst the railing at the edge of the horse-racing track. If anything, I discover what could be an entire enclave of Korean Bukowski: any one of the old men snoozing atop the outside benches. I walk past an army of ajusshis lie shaded under marked-up and blacked-out touts filled with scratched pen markings: inked losses over their now slumbering, bankrupt corpses. It is better to dream in defeat under the humid afternoon sun than vainly hope for posterity with the droves smacking their betting slips in their palms at the race-track; a revery that keeps the KRW in the pocket. Unfortunately they learned their lessons only after emptying their wallets.
Not a single likeness of Hunter Thompson is no surprise given the pharmaceutical differences between the U.S. and South Korea.
I decide to make a bet myself, though only a meagre one. Short on won, I almost abort the mission upon learning that even the black ink pens needed to mark the betting card cost money and I’m already low on cash. Before quitting, though, I locate the information booth. Charitable to my waygook confusion, the information helpers, Korean women in beige suits with pink scarves, fill the ticket out upon receiving the details of my bet.
I put 2,000 won on 7 and 12 and head to the track where an adorable couple in stripes and khakis have the same picks: I hope that the enthusiasm of our collective cheers will will the horse to victory. Watching the race on a TV screen inside, our luck turns sour at the final stretch: we were both fools of picking a ticket of favorites. The clairvoyant few who chose horses 8 and 3, finishing first and second respectively, yelp at their triumphant win and head to the window to cash out.
Between races I play the plastic Danso I was gifted with upon arriving to Korea in the horse racing grandstands. The instrument spurts flimsy notes but the effort alleviates loneliness, massages the brain and tingles the gums until a dirty look of a devoted horse-better sends me off to watching the equestrian beauties strut around the paddy area outside. A janitor with metal teeth picking up trash stops to listen to me play the Danso but I freeze on the spot. The presence of attention leads to the blowing of dead air, incapable of pursing the lips for the first note of Arirang I had nailed moments earlier. Disappointment reigns as he dives head first back into the nearest trash bin. Luckily, a “Gangnam Style” dance tutorial soon catches his attention and helps him forget my abominable attempt at assimilation into Korean musicality.
Unwilling to learn the horse get-up dance of Psy’s cultural phenomenon, I figure it is time to get off the saddle altogether and head out of the Seoul Racecourse Park. My exit substituting with the evening arrivals, many glamorously fashioned like the Southern Gentry of the US, only with the Korean visor instead of bonnets, and soju instead of a mint juleps. On the subway home I ponder upon what Gatsby’s pseudonym would be in Gangnam.
Words and photography by Paul Keelan