December 2019 newsletter
In the western and central parts of Prague, where I have spent almost the entire month of November 2019, the weather has been, by our standards, very wet and very mild. There has been plenty of gentle rain, no snow, and little frost. Winter weather has not begun yet, in the relatively low-lying parts of Bohemia.
I should explain for readers unfamiliar with the Czech climate that we used to have warmer Septembers and colder Novembers than, for example, in Britain, with an abrupt change in the weather round about Velka Pardubicka day – the second Sunday in October. Periods of strong frosts, heavy snowfalls and blue skies used to alternate with periods of milder temperature and grey skies from as early as November until as late as March.
In recent years, and particularly in 2018 and 2019, the Velka Pardubicka has been run mainly on warm, sunny days, and mild weather has continued at least into December.
For readers unfamiliar with the Czech topography, I should explain that the lowest-lying point in the Czech Republic – where the Labe/Elbe flows into Germany – is more than 200 metres above sea level, and quite large parts of the country are highlands with a highland climate. Many of our training establishments are based up in the hills.
The last couple of race meetings of our season were held early in November. On the final race day of the season, towards the end of the afternoon at Prague Velká Chuchle, the horses raced on soft ground - a rare experience for horses running in the Czech Republic in recent summers.
It would have been possible to race here throughout November, on chilly, overcast, gloomy or rainy Saturday and Sunday afternoons. However, there is no racecourse that is enthusiastic enough to volunteer to organize more race days in November, and the supply of sponsors for races in 2019 had run dry.
In some nearby countries, notably France and Italy, and also Germany, there is a year-round horseracing and horseracing betting industry. More and more Czech owners, trainers and jockeys continue to race there in the winter months. Indeed, racing abroad is a year-round activity for increasing numbers of Czech-trained horses and their connections. One month from now, at the end of the year, I will report on the impressive successes abroad this year of Czech-trained horses (mainly bred abroad); their owners (not all of them Czechs), their trainers (some of whom race their horses mainly or exclusively abroad), and their jockeys (the best Czech flat jockeys are nowadays mainly based abroad, but some of them get back here to ride quite frequently; the best Czech jumps jockeys are mainly based here, but may have considerably more rides, and earn much more money, abroad than at home). Two Czech flat jockeys are riding in the Gulf States. Tomáš Lukášek is now well established in his third winter as a jockey in Qatar, and young David Liška is in Dubai for the first time. Filip Minařík and Václav Janaček have ridden in the Gulf States in recent winters. I think some other Czechs will also be spending this winter as work riders in that part of the world.
Jumps racing in Italy, in Poland, and in Slovakia all nowadays depend on the presence of Czech-based riders. The jumps racing calendars in these three countries and in the Czech Republic are coordinated to ensure that the top jockeys, who are mainly Czech-based, will be available to ride in each of the countries. Indeed, our top Czech jockeys would rightly complain if there were to be a clash in the racing calendar, for example, that would make then have to choose between riding in the Swedish Grand National at Strömsholm early in June and riding a thousand kilometers to the south in Italy on the same day!
There is nowadays a single continental European horseracing market with an increasingly mobile workforce. This single market has a growing impact on Czech horseracing, providing opportunities but also posing some threats. In brief, Czechs with good skills in many aspects of horseracing can make considerably better money by working abroad, or by providing services in the Czech Republic for non-Czech clients, than by staying at home and working in Czech racing for Czech owners, trainers and others. Of course, it is not only a matter of money. Martin Cáp recently posted an interview that he took with jockeys Václav Janáček and Jan Verner. Václav rides mainly in Spain, where is placed to win the flat jockeys' championship again this year, but he takes every opportunity to ride in Central Europe, all year round; Jan, who finished second in the Czech flat jockeys' champoinship this year, says he is happiest when he is in the Benešov area and does not want to leave it. http://www.equitv.cz/video/janacek-a-verner-zustat-v-cesku-nebo-odejit-kazdy-zokej-to-ma-jinak.html. It is in Czech, I'm afraid!
Another trend in Czech racing has been the shrinking number of racecourses. Only about ten years ago, we used to race at 14 different racecourses. The calendar for 2020, which you can find just below on this website, announces events for only ten Czech racecourses. Mimoň is currently unable to cover its financial obligations as far as horseracing is concerned, and will not organize any meeting in 2020.
The four Grade A racecourses – Prague Velká Chuchle (also known as Chuchle Aréna Praha), Pardubice, Karlovy Vary and Most – will still be there. Lysá-nad-Labem, Kolesa, Brno and Slušovice each plan to put on two or more race days again in 2020, though all of these minor courses are under financial stress (Lysá had to cancel a meeting in 2019 for financial reasons). In 2020, there will only be two racecourses left that put on a single meeting each summer: Světlá Hora and Netolice. These meetings form a part of local festivals, and local sponsors and the local authorities have until now been ready to support a race day organized by local trainers and enthusiasts.
A few years ago, I used to write that the upcountry meetings were the strong and healthy grassroots of Czech racing. Within the last ten years or so, we used to have a meeting each year at Radslavice, at Tochovice, at Albertovec, and several times each year at Benešov.
Is the disappearance of our upcountry racecourses really an early warning that all is not well in Czech racing? Or is it perhaps just a sign that things are changing? The small courses were atmospheric, it is true. However, the going was often like concrete. The quality of the turf on the short circuits and narrow tracks was far from ideal. At Benešov, the last bend was very sharp, and when the surface was slimy horses would slip up or bang into the outside rail. In the sprint races at Benešov, one of the fearless young riders would somehow get his horse round that bend at full tilt, and would win the race, several other horses come home riderless, and more cautious older riders would come through and finish 2nd, 3rd and 4th.
If the horses that run in the Czech Republic nowadays are better and more expensive, and their owners and trainers, and their riders, prefer to race them on broader, smoother, safer, more carefully prepared, longer tracks, is that really a change for the worse? Ten racecourses is probably plenty for the Czech Republic – though it is unfortunate that all the major racecourses and several of the minor courses are concentrated in the western part of the country. Plenty of trainers, owners, breeders and fans live in Moravia and have to travel a considerable distance to reach any of our three well-equipped flat racing courses, Prague Velká Chuchle, Karlovy Vary and Most – and they have a long journey back home in the evening.
Our racing calendar for 2020 promises one meeting fewer than in 2019. This reflects the slight decrease in the numbers of horses running in the Czech Republic, the increasing numbers sent to run a racecourses abroad, and the loss of Mimoň racecourse.
The main events on the flat in 2020 are Derby day, at Prague Velká Chuchle, on Sunday, June 28th, the European Jockeys’ Cup meeting, on Saturday, September 13th. Over fences, the Velka Pardubicka will be run on Sunday, October 11th. On the previous day, Saturday, October 10th, Pardubice will put on a meeting that includes a couple of decent hurdles races, by our standards, and a big race on the classical steeplechase course.
The biggest change in the calendar for 2020 will be at Pardubice. Five two-day meetings are planned. Each of the four VP qualification race days, which are held on Saturdays, will be preceded by a mixed meeting on the Friday. I presume that these Fridays will be dedicated to providing Category IV and Category V races for horses that would have run at Mimoň.
Finally, there has been some good news this October. Firstly, Czech-trained horses have won some nice races abroad. Josef Váňa junior cannot stop winning good races in Italy. He only started training at the beginning of 2019, but in mid November he had already trained his 50th winner in Italy, and had more or less ensured that he will be the champion trainer there this year. President of the Jockey Club, Dr Jiří Charvát, trainer Pavel Tůma and jockey Jan Faltejsek won a very nice hurdles race with Cheminée at Auteuil on October 20th, followed by a win with Anaking at Angers the next day.
Secondly, last but not least, it is very good news that Slavia Insurance has decided to extend its cooperation with Pardubice racecourse for two years. I have no doubt that Dostihový spolek, organisers of events at Pardubice racecourse, are happy and relieved to have Slavia as a major partner. I think Slavia did well out of the Velka Pardubicka, too. Slavia Insurance and Dostihový spolek seem to be well suited partners.