“Ace King was the first of eight horses that day to be prodded down a narrow concrete-and-metal chute to his death. A bolt was fired into his brain before he was hoisted up and his throat was cut…”
Two years in the life and death of a racehorse:
April 17, 2017, a sunny morning in Ocala, Florida, marked the start of the largest sale of two-year-old thoroughbreds in the country. Ace King, a bay colt then still unnamed and known only as hip number 200 from the sticker attached to his side, was one of 1,208 entered in the catalog. The auction itself was still a week away, and first Ace King and the others had to breeze a short distance—an eighth of a mile or a quarter-mile—in front of onlookers at the Ocala Training Center. Like horse racing’s version of the NFL scouting combine, these workouts give buyers a chance to study the mechanics of the unraced prospects.
Right before a quarter to eight, hip number 200 took off sprinting. He wore a black hood known as blinkers, meant to keep him looking ahead and undistracted, and an evergreen saddlecloth bearing his hip number. His rider pushed him vigorously, occasionally showing him his whip. They crossed the finish in 20 2/5 seconds for a quarter-mile—one tick off Ocala’s all-time record. Another 180 horses breezed the same distance and weren’t able to top him.
His workout made headlines, and over the next week, interested buyers visited his barn not far from the sales ring. They analyzed his black-type pedigree, which, not surprisingly, boasted speed on both sides of his family. He was a son of Florida’s leading stallion, Wildcat Heir, a fast but brittle sprinter that died unexpectedly in 2015, and his maternal line featured top-class runners going back three generations.
Being the quickest at age two can be a mixed blessing. It often means the horse has just matured faster than his peers. There were also other factors to consider, like his conformation and his temperament. But he’d already changed hands for $35,000 in Ocala the previous August, so there was no doubt he’d sell for more now.
At Ocala’s first of four full-day auction sessions, Ace King sold for $170,000 to K.O.I.D., a South Korea–based company that had become a familiar presence at Ocala and other big U.S. sales, where it handles logistics like shipping for the horses selected for purchase by Korean owners and trainers. Similar outfits like Triple Crown and the Seoul Racehorse Owners’ Association were also there at Ocala looking for quality American bloodstock.
Racing in South Korea is still a relative newcomer on the international stage, but it’s growing, and it looks a lot like the American version. Races are run on dirt surfaces and speed tends to be valued over stamina. So to fill their races and build their bloodlines, Korean interests have been buying more and more American stallions, broodmares, race-ready two-year-olds and yearlings. In 2017, Ace King was one of 419 American horses sold to Korean interests.
For close to two decades, the Korea Racing Authority (KRA), a federal agency, had placed price caps on most imported horses, but by the time Ocala’s 2017 spring sale rolled around, they’d been discarded. Korean horsemen thus opened their wallets for better horses, spending almost $3 million on at least 51 juveniles at this Ocala sale alone. Ace King was their most expensive, and among their most promising.
He and most of the other purchased horses arrived in Korea in early June. He joined a stable at Seoul Racecourse in the city’s southern suburbs, where expectations were high. But there on the other side of the world, Ace King just didn’t pan out.
That summer and fall, the best he could do in four races was a third-place finish. In early 2018, he finished second, a sign, perhaps, of his natural talent emerging. But his veterinary log filled with entries for exercise-induced fatigue and arthritis, and in his next starts he was nothing but cannon fodder. Finally, in a race on January 27, 2019, he staggered to the finish line last of 12. Two other graduates from his auction finished eighth and ninth.
The next day, he was diagnosed with a fracture in his right leg, according to KRA records, and two days after that he was retired. Within two weeks he was ferried south to the island of Jeju, a mountainous resort destination for millions of Koreans and Chinese, and the epicenter of South Korea’s livestock and horse-breeding industries. There would be no return from the island.
On the morning of February 18, he was trucked to South Korea’s largest slaughterhouse. Its owner, an enormous conglomerate called Nonghyup, controls agricultural and livestock businesses along with banks and other financial services. Ace King was the first of eight horses that day to be prodded down a narrow concrete-and-metal chute to his death. A bolt was fired into his brain before he was hoisted up and his throat was cut. He was the 109th horse killed at that slaughterhouse since the start of the year. His meat was then processed, packaged, and likely sent to one of the Nonghyup-owned grocery stores on the island…(CONTINUED)