Czech Television's VP coverage ignores the majority

For several years now, I have spent many hours in the days after the Velka Pardubicka watching the Czech Television coverage of the race day, after which I have written my comments. I have always praised the photography. Czech Television always sends out a large camera crew to cover this major social and racing event, and also the autumn colours. I have tended to praise the humans who present the event on the screen, which this year involved six hours and twenty minutes of uninterrupted coverage. The worst-performing presenters and experts from years gone by have gone, and have been replaced by more knowledgeable experts and more competent presenters. However, this year’s coverage was elaborate, but basically charmless.

Libor Šimůnek continues to be the best available television expert. He is a former jumps jockey, very fully informed, and he knows everyone and everything in our small racing community. He is too serious – but I think the problem is that all the other main actors are also too serious for well over six hours of uninterrupted coverage. There is a need for some light relief, from time to time. Libor is coupled with Petr Kubásek, a Czech Television full-timer. I imagine Petr fighting hard for months to keep his prestigious position as Velka Pardubicka day continuity man, and then spending the day of the great race wondering why he lets himself in for such an ordeal every year, and breathing a sigh of relief when it is all over. He is pleasant enough, and at least he does not pretend that he knows much about racing. He just gets on with continuity the best he can, which earns him a grade of about 4 out of 10.

The second pairing is race commentator Marek Svačina, together with Pavel Fučík. Marek is a prominent Czech Television commentator who covers athletics, tennis, cycling and Nordic skiing. He has been Czech Television’s Velka Pardubicka commentator since the early 1990s. He is a genuine horseracing man, and he is seen at the racecourses within a 100 km radius of Prague on a regular basis, even when he is not being paid for it. This year, he was well prepared for VP day, and did not stumble through the commentaries, as he has sometimes in the past. Pavel Fučík was an amateur rider as a teenager, and is a horseracing enthusiast. He is charged with interviewing owners, trainers, riders and other personalities, before and after the races. He has been doing it for Czech Television for over 20 years. Though he is a particularly accomplished performer on television, turning in a professional-type performance, his daytime job is in a bank. His television work is a hobby - for which I hope he is decently paid. He is the safest of safe pairs of hands, always courteous, always asking good questions, never seeking to embarrass the interviewee or to upstage him (or her). His faux pas this year was a shock, and he immediately made a full apology.

The third duo, which has also collaborated for a few years now, brings together Barbora Černošková and Martin Šabata. Barbora is a professional Czech Television sports presenter, and was a Czech champion synchronized swimmer for many years. Her smile is not just a legacy of synchronized swimming, but her animated face is in contrast with the straight faces of the rest of the very earnest and humourless Czech Television team. She was given only women’s work this year – wearing a fine hat and a fine blue dress, and feeding pre-arranged questions to the historian. Martin Šabata is an acknowledged expert on the history of the Velka Pardubicka. A few years ago, Martin appeared as a geeky expert in an anorak. Nowadays, he has been transformed into well turned-out, camera-angle conscious TV performer, but the history of the Velka Pardubicka seems to be an excessively serious matter for him.

A good feature this year was a pre-recorded interview with each of the jockeys (except Jan Faltejsek, who, it was implied, had declined to participate). The jockeys explained how they had got into horseracing, about their family, their hobbies, and how they kept fit. It was interesting stuff. A curiosity was the interview with Leighton Aspell, who rode Talent in the VP. In what appeared to be an attempt to be understood speaking in (Irish) English, Aspell abandoned English grammar and produced a very strange succession of short utterances. The Czech subtitles were useful.

An unsuccessful feature was a succession of snippets comparing Merano racecourse and the Grand Premio di Merano with Pardubice and the Velka Pardubicka. Senior Italian men gave PR responses to every question, and the long-term problems of that beautiful racecourse went uninvestigated. It was all pointless. It is not easy to fill all the spaces in an uninterrupted six-hour twenty-minute television programme, of course, and this was an unfortunate set of fillers.

So why was I disappointed in Czech Television’s coverage of VP 2019? Firstly, it was the lack of innovation and freshness. Everyone just seemed to be one year older and one year sadder – including myself, no doubt. Secondly, the whole thing was too serious, too earnest. The Velka Pardubicka is, after all, just an afternoon at the racecourse. It should be fun for the viewer at home, and this really was not. And thirdly, one thing got to me. Let me explain that I have been re-reading Richard Askwith’s book Unbreakable, which has just appeared in a Czech translation, under the title Nezlomná. This book is an outstanding and inspiring biography of Countess Lata Brandisová, who rode the winner of the Velka  Pardubicka in 1937, and her life and times. A major theme concerns what she went through to ride in the race, and to win it, as a woman.

Eighty-two years later, women in Czech racing seem in some ways to have been pushed back to where they were all those years ago! Almost all the students at the school for apprentices may now be girls. Most of the people who muck out horses may be female, and all junior jobs at racing stables and throughout our “racing industry” may be done by females. However, more or less all major roles in Czech racing are assigned to men, and a “men’s club” mentality was nowhere more evident than in the Czech Television presentation of our top day’s racing.

The only interesting short female contributions until almost the end of the day were when Josef Bartos’s mum told us what an ambitious boy her son was, and when jockey Jiří Kousek’s teenage daughter said some nice words about her father. The last twenty minutes, it is true, were dominated by pictures of Pavla Váňova caring for VP winner Theophilos. Pavla trained Poderoso, winner of the Czech Derby in 2002. However, her caring “female” roles as Theophiloss surrogate mother, and as the wife of Josef Váňa senior and the mother of Josef Váňa junior were what really mattered to Czech Television.

For the first three and a half hours of the broadcast, women in Czech racing were just ignored. Then there was a challenge to male hegemony: the winners of the most important side races on VP day, the Vltava Stakes (5-y-o Evžen) and the Labe Stakes (6-y-o Lodgian Whistle), were both trained by Štěpánka Myšková and ridden by Jaroslav Myška, who is her husband. When the winning jockey was interviewed, on each occasion, the interviewer asked him about future plans for these very promising young crosscountry horses. Instead of mumbling “You’ll have to ask the little woman”, or at least, “You’ll have to wait until I’ve discussed the matter with my better half”, he gave full answers, as if he were the trainer himself. Well, it is known that they are a power couple of Czech racing, and that Jaroslav also has a trainer’s licence. It seems that he does wear the trousers, and that Štěpánka’s name on the licence must be some kind of aberration. However, I seem to remember Štěpánka Sedlačková winning 27 races over fences and 10 on the flat, in a riding career between 1996 and 2012, and I suspect she does more for the family business than fill in its tax returns every March.

Libor Šimůnek wisely avoided the general Czech Television consensus that Jaroslav is the real trainer, and made a point of saying that Štěpánka knows what she is doing. Petr Kubásek just assumed that the man was in charge. Marek Svačina pointed out repeatedly that the real brain behind the operation is Jaroslav’s.

When Pavel Fučík belatedly conducted a rather brief interview with Štěpánka, he introduced her as the jockey’s wife. He realized immediately that he had made an embarrassing slip-up, and he apologized profusely, and explained that she is, of course, the  trainer. It was a very rare mistake by a courteous and skillful interviewer.

Nothing to do with horseracing is or should be a male-only domain, and I hope Czech Television will think seriously about how to include the other half of our racing community in its coverage as from the 2020 racing season.