The Velká Pardubická and the Grand National: the story of two horse races

I am currently rereading the best book ever written on the Velka Pardubicka, and I happened to find a review of it that I wrote six years ago. It is a bilingual English-Czech edition, and would make a very good Christmas present. In the Czech Republic, the book is available online, and in specialist bookshops, at a discounted price.

Outstanding book on links between the Velka Pardubicka and the Grand National

Anyone who has looked at all carefully at the list of winners of the Velka Pardubicka will have noted that the majority of the winning jockeys, from the first race in 1872 until the first world war, had English or Irish names. That’s interesting – I wonder how that came about, we asked ourselves, and left it at that. In 1999, however, John Pinfold, racing historian and author, for example, of Gallant Sport: the authentic history of Liverpool Races and the Grand National, and Foreign Devil Riders: The English and Horse Racing in Nineteenth-Century Hungary,1made his first visit to Pardubice. He not only asked himself the same question but, being a historian, set about finding answers, which have now appeared in The Velká Pardubická and the Grand National: the story of two horse races, written in collaboration with Kamila Pecherová. The book deals with links between the Velka Pardubicka and the Grand National from before the first running of the Velka Pardubicka, in 1872, until the present day.

This bi-lingual English and Czech book is beautifully produced by Pardubice publisher Helios, and contains many pictures and much information never previously published for the English-speaking world, or indeed for those able to read Czech.

It tells the reader about the Anglophile Austro-Hungarian aristocrats who took hunting and steeplechasing to Central Europe in the 19th century and about their employees: not only British jockeys and trainers, but also vets, grooms, farriers and others. A particularly fascinating character for me was Francis Cavaliero: horse dealer, secretary of the Austrian Jockey Club, clerk of the course, starter and official handicapper, who in his spare time wrote reports on Central European racing for the English racing press and taught English to the emperor.

The Velka Pardubicka is shown to have been very much modeled on the Grand National, which made an enormous impression on the Austro-Hungarian aristocrats. The present-day Pardubice race is in many ways more like a 19th century Grand National than the Liverpool race now is. The Austro-Hungarian aristocrats included Count Karel Kinský, whose castle was just outside Pardubice, and who owned Zoedone and rode her to victory in the Grand National in 1883.   

After the first world war, though not exactly as a result of the first world war, John Pinfold argues, the British racing community in what had been Austro-Hungary dissolved. The Austro-Hungarian aristocracy that had employed the British found themselves living in new republican nation-states. For over half a century, Central European steeplechasing and the Velka Pardubicka were lost from memory in Britain. There were a few unsuccessful Czechoslovak bids to win the Grand National between the world wars.

British interest in the Velka Pardubicka was re-awakened by Chris Collins’ epic win on Stephen’s Society in 1973, after which several British amateur riders tried to emulate the feat. The other British win in the modern era was by Charlie Mann in 1995, on It’s a Snip. The extraordinary stories of both these winning jockeys are told in detail.

The story of Czech horses and riders going to Aintree in the modern era, beginning with Vaclav Chaloupka on Essex in 1986, has been of horses being given top weight and being outclassed over fences very different from the obstacles at Pardubice. Since Slovak-trained Quirinus went over for the Grand National That Wasn’t, in 1994, no Czech or Slovak owner or trainer has taken a horse to Liverpool.

Sadly, it is hard to imagine a Czech-trained horse mounting a serious challenge for the Grand National nowadays. The big and solid artificial fences at Aintree, and the high quality of the field, are a major problem for horses trained to jump through the top of natural hedges. In recent years, Czech owners and trainers have been more interested in races on the crosscountry course at Cheltenham.

On the other hand, Czech horses specially prepared for the Velka Pardubicka nowadays take some beating at Pardubice. British owners and trainers need a good-quality, handy horse and to prepare him as carefully as their Czech counterparts prepare their horses, perhaps by sending the horse over to the Czech Republic for the summer.

This book is a treasure on at least three levels. You can leave it on your coffee table and enjoy the illustrations, you can dip in to it and enjoy fascinating and amusing stories, or you can read it as an academic history book. The Velká Pardubická and the Grand National: the story of two horse races succeeds on all of these levels.


The book is on sale at the Helios bookshop on the Old Town Square in Pardubice. It may also be on sale at Cheltenham racecourse and at Aintree.