WASHINGTON – When a former South Korean senator and his family first visited Maryland stables looking to buy horses for the Korean Racing Association in 1997, no one took them seriously.
“These guys were business people in restaurants, laundries and other specialty stores . . . nobody was interested in the beginning,” said Errol Small, chief of marketing for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
But when state horse owners realized that the family had a $750,000 contract with the Korean government, they were interested.
Since then, sales of Maryland horses to the Koreans has steadily grown. South Korea is now the “biggest buyer of American horses,” Small said, and Maryland leads all states that ship thoroughbred horses to that country.
Small said that 1,500 thoroughbreds — about 40 percent of which were Maryland-bred — have been shipped out of the state to South Korea since 1997. The sales in that time have totaled $3 million, with about $750,000 in sales this year alone.
Since they started exporting horses, Howard County residents Jay Bang and his father-in-law, the former senator, have opened their own stable in Maryland to house and raise their thoroughbreds before sending them to Korea, officials said.
“Now, the Koreans are king of the hill,” Small said.
So far, they have focused on quantity, he said, buying only a few top- quality horses. But the quality is high enough for racing in Korea, where most horses originally came from either Australia or New Zealand.
When Maryland Jockey Club Vice President Tim Capps went to Korea with a Maryland Department of Agriculture delegation soon after the first American thoroughbreds arrived, he visited the track several times. There, 29 of the 40 American horses racing in Korea for the first time won their races.
Racing is serious sport in Korea, Capps said. Purses average $50,000 a race, and people at the track “bet more in the first three races than we bet in a whole day,” he said.
Although there is only one track in Korea now, plans are underway for a second, which is driving up the demand for American horses.
Capps said that the venture with the Koreans “worked so well that everybody said let’s see if we can repeat it.” But a state Agriculture Department effort to sell horses to Russia has been slow out of the gate.
Russian buyers planned to purchase a few expensive stallions from Maryland breeders this year, but trading stopped when several horses were found infected with the West Nile virus in September. Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working with Russian officials to lift the embargo.
Although progress has been slow, between the halt in trading and several Russian trade delegation visits that were canceled at the last minute, Small said prospects are good. He said the Russians tend to buy more expensive, higher-quality horses and expects that the state will ship 40 to 50 a year once normal relations are established.
“That ship is gradually righting itself in the water,” Capps said.
But he maintains the business with Korea was initially based on luck.
“We were sitting on a market that was ready to happen,” Capps said. “It was sort of being in the right place at the right time.”