Martin Pecka has now completed his second season as manager at Prague Velká Chuchle racecourse, which nowadays goes under the name Chuchle Arena Prague. The main topics in the interview with him that we have prepared for you are his views on the season that finished recently, and more specifically the plans for the future, as regards organizing the programme of races, the numbers of races, the prizemoney, as well as the development of the racecourse area and something about developments in betting on racing.
How do you evaluate the recent horseracing season at Velká Chuchle, and how successful were the other events and activities in the racecourse area?
As far as racing is concerned, the season went as expected and as planned. It turned out that the racecourse managers’ meeting that we had initiated last summer to agree on racedays in a way that would avoid clashes worked out very well. We organized 14 days of racing, with 113 races, and the main thing is that we managed to put a stop to the long-term fall in the average number of horses per race running on the flat. In 2019, the average was 10.41, which is 1.37 horses per race more than in the previous year, and the highest number since 2012. In flat races, we paid out more than CZK 15.5 million (EUR 615 000) in prizemoney. That is almost 60% of the prize money paid out for all flat races in the Czech Republic. The biggest event this year was the European Jockeys’ Cup, with a world class star jockey, Christophe Soumillon, participating in it. His presence in the competition was noted by all the main racing media abroad. The main negative feature of the season was the absence of betting on horseracing in the first half of the season. It was all resolved, but later than we had originally thought it would be.
What innovations are you preparing for next season? The calendar for the racedays has been published already, but not the race conditions for 2020. Are you preparing any changes in the way that the prizemoney will be allocated? Any rises in prizemoney, or changes in the proportions, like last year, when the prizemoney for the Czech Derby was reduced and was redistributed to other big races?
We are preparing the race conditions for 2020 on the same basis as this year. We are definitely not reducing the number of racedays or races, and we are preserving this year’s innovation, which we consider to have been important and advantageous for Czech horseracing. That is, we restored three traditional races to Category I status (the Jaroslav Mašek Memorial, The Nora Jeane Stakes, and the Harry Petrlík Memorial). We are also keeping the July and November racedays. We think of these racedays as mainly something that is necessary for Czech racing. We are now thinking about an accompanying programme to attract other spectators to these racedays, so that they will also make sense financially, as far as possible.
I would like to add at this point that there is an option to increase the number of races, but only on condition that the situation in Czech horseracing creates a demand and a need. For the present time, however, the number of horses in training keeps going down, and we have no intention of organizing racedays on which the starting stalls are half empty.
Are you preparing any more improvements to the racecourse area for 2020?
Our long-term aim is the increase the attendances, and this year our assumption was confirmed that we need to have some attractive accompanying programme. For example, the Easter theme, and Children’s Day in June. We are preparing some more changes for racegoers, especially near to the grandstand, round the paddock, and that kind of thing.
In a conversation that we had together a year and a half ago http://www.dostihovy-svet.cz/cs/node/8117, you stated that the planned extensive reconstruction of the Velká Chuchle racecourse area [a sketch of which is shown if you click on to the link above] is conditional on getting ownership of the land owned by the state (ownership of the land and buildings at Velká Chuchle, and at many of our racecourses, was a very complicated issue after the Changes in 1989. To cut a long story short, the majority shareholder for the last two years has been Radovan Vítek. However, the Czech state still has a small but crucial holding holding). Despite the declaration of Marian Jurečka, who was the Minister of Agriculture at that time, and who rejected the sale of the state's holding, you believed that the stalemate situation would be resolved, and I quote your words “At this time, we think that some understanding should be shown in official places, because the technical state of the racecourse area is dismal, and some investment is needed. For the owners, this would be feasible only if they also obtain the land.” Has any progress been made in this direction? And if not, how do you see the future of the racecourse area and your future activities, if the land remains owned by the state?
There have not been any developments, despite our best efforts. The future of the racecourse area is strongly tied up with this topic. Not because Mr and Mrs Vítek [the majority shareholders] are against going ahead with developing the area. Dostihové závodiště Praha (Prague Racecourse) as a state enterprise has been going through the liquidation process since 2016, and at this stage it just is not possible to carry out construction work, for legal reasons. This is a matter that we have been pointing out since we first started our operations at Velká Chuchle!! We are all doing our utmost and in the future, we all believe, we can get what we need.
Apart from the money that has been invested, a considerable cost item is the expenditure on operating the racecourse, including ensuring that prizemoney is provided. Finding sponsors for races is getting harder and harder, so how are you able to manage, and how much of the prizemoney are you forced to provide from the racecourse owner’s funds?
The total prizemoney paid out this year was more than 16 million crowns [EUR 650 000], out of which the racecourse had to provide 7 million [EUR 280 000]. Thanks to the great understanding of our partners, the long-term goodwill of our long-term partners, and the attention and the interest of new sponsors, we have been managing until now. Unfortunately, though, it has not been as much as is needed, and direct support from the owner of the racecourse area has been going not just towards developing the racecourse, but also towards prizemoney for the races. The amount provided for prizemoney was of the order of about CZK 3 million [EUR 120 000].
You have almost two years behind you at the head of the central flat racecourse in the Czech Republic. Have there been any changes in your ideas and expectations about how to manage and develop the racecourse area, and about the role that horseracing will play in it?
Of course, everything undergoes a natural course of development. However, there has been no fundamental change in outlook. The racecourse at Velká Chuchle, which since September has been known as Chuchle Arena Prague, is a fine place and a splendid opportunity. Racing has the dominant role there, and that will continue to be so, and there is no doubt about that! There is still a lot of work to be done, but we all firmly believe that we may quite soon make progress in our negotiations with the state in such a way that we will be able to start on the necessary renovation of the area.
You are the owners of the TOTO CZ betting office, which operates under the trading name Betino. There was an unexpectedly big growth in the betting turnover for this year’s Velka Pardubicka meeting, at which Betino, Tipsport and Fortuna took bets totalling more than 20 million crowns [EUR 780 000]. That was 6 million crowns more than the previous year. Unfortunately, all that Czech horseracing gets from Tipsport and Fortuna is a negligible payment for the right to use the list of runners. Can the growing interest in betting on horseracing be an impulse for further developing Betino, maybe via on-line betting, which has been gaining in popularity?
I would like to point out that the Velka Pardubicka is not a reliable indicator for betting on horseracing. Due to the late start, Betino’s betting operations were less effective this year [for the first more than two months of the season, Betino was waiting for the Ministry of Finance to issue a licence that would allow them to accept bets]. For example, there was a rise in the fixed costs of our betting office in connection with providing reports and other required information in connection with our new licence. As such, Betino has no ambition and cannot have any ambition to develop its own system for providing online betting. A few dozen racedays in the Czech Republic simply would not be enough to pay off the costs for such a system. However, we are negotiating with the Jockey Club of the Czech Republic and with other betting offices about a joint future. I, too, think that, through the new racegoers that we want to attract, we will get more players who will have a bet on the races.
This interview by Miloslav Vlček first appeared in Czech language on December 6th, 2019, on the Fitmin – Turf Magazín website, which he edits. Translation by Robin. Robin will comment on this interview in the January 2020 newsletter, which will appear on this site at the end of December 2019
Photo of Martin Pecka: Chuchle Arena Prague