Martin Cáp: Human memory has its limitations – part 1  

This interview with Martin Cáp was conducted by Jana Šejnohová. Martin’s eagerly-awaited history of the Czechoslovak/Czech Derby, under the title Dostihy o Modrou Stuhu (Races for the Blue Riband) appeared in January 2024. It is a first-class edition, illustrated by many photos taken by Martin himself – he is a journalist by profession, and he has expert skills and enormous passion for horseracing in multiple roles: as a writer, a photographer, a television presenter, a commentator and a publicist, and as a member of the syndicate that owned Mikesh, over a series of years our best sprinter, and now standing as a stallion. Jana Šejnohová’s high-quality interviews for the Czech language pages of Dostihový svět are a key feature of our website.


Exactly 568 pages, more than a hundred historic press cuttings and documentary photographs, bustling work over a period of 25 years, which has morphed into an exceptional book, not only in terms of its extent and range, but also with its bold graphic conception. What led to the publication of Dostihy o modrou stuhu (Races for the Blue Riband), which maps out the history of the most prestigious flat race that every Czech jockey, trainer and racehorse owner wants to win? What was the hardest aspect of creating the book,  and were there some moments when the project seemed to be heading for the rocks? Answers to these questions are supplied by the author himself – racing publicist, presenter, member of the Kelso Stables syndicate, and above all one of the good guys, with a broad mind and an open heart, Martin Cáp…


Martin, when did the idea first come to you that you were going to write a book about the Derby?

In 1998.  In the year when, at the age of 16, I published my first article in Turf Magazine. From the beginning, I was attracted not only by the horses, by the special atmosphere, and by the fact that I just liked horseracing. I was interested in the history, too. While I just swallowed everything that was written about it, I didn’t know so much about it, and for me at that time history had a mystic touch. A secrecy that according to a famous quotation from Albert Einstein is the driving force behind progress.

There must be something in that quotation, because you yourself were motivated by a lack of information and by not knowing the stories of some Derby winners to undertake many years of research, which was supported by the environment that you grew up in…

Studying at the Austrian Gymnasium (high school) in Prague was quite inspiring. It was not only a bilingual or trilingual high school, but the teachers gave us a lot of support for things that are nowadays completely taken for granted. As school students we worked on various projects. For example, we would go to old people’s homes, and we would interview old people about their life stories. That is a standard part of studies at school nowadays, but at that time it was something innovative and special.

Let’s go back to the book – you started collecting materials and searching for details about the history of the Derby. Which sources did you draw on?

I started by looking at old magazines like Turf Magazine and Dostihové zpravodaje. I started going to the library, and I could not wait for my eighteenth birthday, when I’d be able to get a pass and  carry on with my research in the National Library in the Prague Klementinum. Whenever I saw something in an old book or magazine about the Derby or about some of the runners and riders, I made notes and started going round the monuments. I spent some long afternoons with Mr Jaromír Bohuněk, who at that time lived in Jižní Město [a suburb of Prague]. He was over 80 years old, very ill and evidently lonely. His link with horseracing was through deliveries of Czech and foreign magazines that he had subscribed to. Just occasionally he was visited by one of his horseracing friends.  When I visited him as an 18-year-old, he would start eagerly telling me stories. I remember once arriving at 10 in the morning and leaving at 7 in the evening. I recorded his stories on the big cassette dictaphone that we had at that time, and then transcribed them at home. It was funny how, when he got going with his stories (I should add that readers of old horseracing  journals will remember him under his pseudonym as Mirek Bojar), he would begin to tell me something completely different from what I’d asked him about. And when after two sentences on a topic he strayed on to something else, it was impossible to get him back on topic. I spent many hours in his company that broadened my horseracing horizons. And there were many such cases.

Have you checked in the meantime whether everything these sources told you was what really happened?

Not at the time, no. But later I found that people’s memories have their limitations, as many of us have recognised. Sometimes you could have sworn that such and such a thing happened, and then you look into it, and when you check with contemporary sources you find that it just doesn’t correspond  with the facts. Of course, when I was 16, 18 or  20 years old I had the feeling that everything people told me was a hundred percent true, and nothing but the truth, and it was only later that I adopted the method of subjecting everything that I was told to a thorough check. But memories, too, even if they are inexact, are important in their way, because they convey an atmosphere. An atmosphere which, in combination with someone’s personal viewpoint, can enrich the text just as  much as facts can.

With visits to your sources, and with your activities as a journalist and as a photographer, you slowly but surely penetrated  behind the scenes of horseracing. What kind of feeling was that?

When you are a young racing fan, as you will know yourself, what you want above all is to get behind the scenes.  Today, too, people on the outside, maybe a generation younger than I am, who are interested in the sport, say that they are envious of me for knowing everybody and belonging to the ‘inner circle’. And that is exactly how it was for me. The heroes of my childhood were racing commentator Miodrag Mertha and for example journalist Jiří Křepelka. I got to know him, and he even invited me to call him by his first name, which was a big deal for me. Quite shortly before he died, after main years of trying to persuade him, I finally got him to share his memories with me, and so I recorded some of Jiří’s memories and I used them in the book.

Apart from collecting historical materials, you were a regular contributor to the monthly Turf Magazine, not just as a writer, but also with photos. What was the first Derby like, when you took photos alongside the professionals?

I remember it clearly. It was 1998, when Tomáš Hora and Jirka Zlámaný, who were then already two big names at Velká Chuchle racecourse, gave me a pass to the racetrack in return for some photographs published in the raceday programme. That was the Derby won by Temirkanov, ridden by Dušan Andrés, and to this day I remember the excitement  of being on the racetrack for the first time. And meeting two photographers, Marek Skála and Otakar Kroužecký, who were wonderful people that I made friends with quite quickly. Although they were some generations older, they gave incredible support to us youngsters. And I also remember my first faux pas, when Katarína Mišíková scolded me out on the racecourse because there was a rear view of me in a photo of the finish of the Gold Cup...

At that time photos were taken on cinefilm, and each wasted snap was annoying…

It wasn’t like today, when people click away a whole memory card. As a student I used to weigh up very carefully how many films I would buy, and whether to buy 36 frames or 24, and how I’d ration them. And then there was the wait to collect the prints. I used to go to the shop on Na Příkopě street next to Dětský dům, which was open on Sundays. It was this Sunday opening time that inspired Mílo Vlček from Turf Magazín to decide that Ray of Light’s Derby (1999) would appear in the July issue. That was a breakthrough. I have a clear memory of sprinting to na Příkopě, where they guaranteed that the prints would be ready within an hour, which would collide with their upcoming closing time. And then I ran with the ready photos to Mílo, who quickly scanned them, finalized the magazine and took it to the printer’s. Something that is routine for us today – writing an article on the day of the race – was still exceptional at that time.

Your book on the Derby, which came out in January 2024 under the title Races for the Blue Riband, weighing almost 2.7 kilogrammes, has a very reader-friendly free framework in which the text is supplemented by various interesting items and documents. Was this airy style clearly there from the beginning, or wasn’t your original idea for the book rather different?

The concept emerged gradually. In 1998, when I set up my first file, I was at the beginning of my career, and, to be honest, I didn’t know much about journalism. I simply wasn’t in a position to think out a concept for such a book. Nevertheless, at the turn of the century, using a programme that could break up blocks of text, I was able to set up a framework that gradually developed.  I know that I ‘d originally thought the high point would be when there was one page of text with one or two photos for each Derby. Around 2009, the concept was thought out, but all the time I really didn’t know what would or wouldn’t be possible. The resulting format is the work of graphic artist Barbora Solperová, because it really was incredibly difficult to pack everything in.

Your original idea that you’d approach international models and standards as closely as possible with your book took on…

When I was young, I dreamed of my book looking like the corresponding English and German publications of Michael Church, Roger Mortimer and Harald Siemen. Gradually, however, I found my own form, which is of course a good thing. The last thing a person should want to be is a plagiarist. 

Which material used in the book does the author rate most highly? Which period of history does he find particularly attractive? Is he already thinking about a second edition? You can find out more about this and about many other interesting things in the second part of this conversation, which will soon appear here in Dostihový svět.