February 2020 newsletter

January 2020 was a month without snow here in Prague. Maybe you will tell me that a few flakes fell in the middle of the night, somewhere in the middle of the month, but they did not settle, and I did not see any traces of them when I went out in the morning. There was quite frequent moderate rainfall, but little ice formation. Very little grit seems to have been used on the streets of Prague, maybe none at all so far this winter. This is my 28th winter in Prague, and it has been by far the mildest January so far. Plenty of people have spent many more winters in Prague than I have, but none of them has observed a snow-free month of January here. It would have been possible to race on turf here each weekend since our season ended, which was 11 weeks ago, before mid-November. To be honest, though, most of those Saturdays and Sundays would have been chilly and overcast, and only our limited number of hard-core racing fans would have gone to the racecourse.


Pardubice racecourse is again in the news. Richard Benýšek, chairman of the board of Dostihový spolek, organisers of events at Pardubice racecourse, resigned from his position on January 21st. Through his company, Čiperný Grunt, Richard Benýšek is the second largest shareholder in Dostihový spolek, owning 23% of the shares. He has not attempted to sell his shares.


The Seznam portal published an article about a fall-out between Benýšek and the Town of Pardubice, the other major shareholder in Dostihový spolek, claiming that this conflict threatens the existence of the Velka Pardubicka. Petr Kvaš, deputy chairman of the board of Dostihový spolek and deputy mayor of Pardubice has vigorously denied that the departure of Richard Benýšek is an event of dramatic consequence. https://www.seznamzpravy.cz/clanek/velka-pardubicka-je-v-ohrozeni-majitele-se-rozhadali-


Petr Kvaš points out that the Velka has solid financial support from the Slavia insurance company and from the Czech state, and of course from the Town of Pardubice. The departure of Richard Benýšek, he says, is regrettable but far from being a threat to the Velka Pardubicka, whatever the Seznam portal may say.


The fact is that stories about bitter disputes at Pardubice racecourse, and about the demise of the Velka, are reported at frequent intervals. The disputes are usually tied up with local political rivalries in Pardubice as well as personal animosities, and are all too real. One party, or set of parties, in the dispute claims that the racecourse is being mismanaged, while the other party or set of parties, claims that it is doing its best in difficult times.


My view is that the times have always been difficult for Czech racing, that we should be thankful to people who have stepped up to take on leadership roles; nevertheless, those who complain that the leadership provided by Dostihový spolek and the Town of Pardubice has been chaotic do have a point. The demise of the Velka has long been a favourite topic for prophets of doom, who always ignore the determination of our racing community to keep its greatest tradition going.   Take it from me, the Velka Pardubicka will continue to be run on the second Sunday in October, and the race will even continue to bring all sides in Pardubice together, for a few minutes or for a few hours, once in every twelve months.


Not many Czech-trained racehorses have been sent to run abroad in January 2020. Václav Luka junior sent four horses to run on the flat in France at the beginning of the month. Miroslav Nieslanik sent a couple of horses to run at Dortmund in mid-January. Josef Váňa junior won 5 of the 9 steeplechases that were run in Italy in the course of the month. The only chases run in Italy in January were on the three racedays held at Pisa. Of the four races over fences that young Josef did not win, Czech trainers Pavel Tůma and Zdeněk Seménka won one each – not leaving much for the Italian trainers to share out!


Váňa junior and Seménka have horses entered to run at Pisa early in February, and Nieslanik has entered three horses to run at Dortmund, but the rest of our trainers are now in hibernation mode. By the end of end of February, if the weather continues like this, other Czech trainers will start having horses ready to run in France, Italy and Germany, well before our Czech racing season begins, on Sunday, April 5th at Prague Velká Chuchle.


Today is February 1st, and yesterday evening the British prime minister announced that he had “got Brexit done”. The entire progression of Brexit, since the vote that took place on Czech Derby day three-and-a-half years ago, has been consistently in the wrong direction. I have been saddened and fascinated by it all. The majority voted by a narrow majority to leave the EU, leaving the politicians to determine how that was to be done. The main political parties were afraid to do the right thing, which would have been to ignore the result of the referendum. The impossibility of achieving a better situation for Britain outside the EU than inside the EU has put the political system in Britain under great strain, and will continue to do so. In the general election in December 2019, the Conservative party won by appealing to angry Brexit supporters who had traditionally voted for Labour. The Conservatives theoretically owe something to these new voters, but would only be able to deliver favours to them by betraying the interests of the party’s traditional moderate middle-class and pro-business voters.


The oppposition to Brexit has been grossly mismanaged and inept, beginning with prime minister Cameron’s decision to call the referendum in a failed attempt to silence his opponents in the Conservative party, and so Brexit has been “got done”. It is now a matter of concern that the negotiations on future relations with the EU and on trade deals with the rest of the world are in the hands of a party with a large majority in parliament, but with dodgy leadership, a very weak negotiating position and, let us face it, a very weak negotiating team.


Britain and the EU will be weakened by Brexit, but I hope the Brits in the Czech Republic will be able to ignore Brexit as far as possible, and to a great extent just continue as we did before. I draw comfort from the following consideration. In my daytime job as a university international officer, I know that universities in Britain and in the Czech Republic are far from seeing Brexit as a new opportunity for a new relationship. Our links in education, above all through the Bologna process and the Erasmus programme, and in research through European programmes, have been progressing very satisfactorily. The Czech universities will, of course, not respond to Brexit, as we will continue to implement our present agenda. The British universities will surely do their best to maintain their links with us. EU universities now cooperate with each other within well-defined frameworks, and we have no interest in changing the rules, and no interest in weakening our cooperation with British universities.


In horseracing, the links between Britain and the Czech Republic are cordial, too. The relationship is not one of equal partners, however. Czechs buy horses in Britain. Czechs go to work for trainers in Britain, but very few Brits buy horses here or come and work here. Our trainers only rarely send their horses to run in the UK, mainly because the distance and the channel crossing, and also the lower prizemoney, make the UK much less attractive than France and Italy. I hope the British authorities are not planning to reintroduce barriers, such as diverging quarantine rules for horses, or harder access to work permits for Czechs working with racehorses. The Czechs will continue to apply EU rules and regulations, of course, and Czech fans of high-level horseracing will continue to regard Britain as the cradle of horseracing. British visitors will continue to be very welcome at the Czech racecourses.


I intend to consider Brexit as null and void, certainly as far being resident in the Czech Republic is concerned. I will continue as a British citizen to comply fully with EU laws, rules, norms and standards, and in my small way I will continue to develop the European project. As far as I can, I will passively resist all efforts to move Britain away from the EU.