June 2020 newsletter

May 2020 was warm and dry at first, but long-term readers of these newsletters may recall that I tend to warn them in advance not to plant their carrots until the days of the ice saints have passed. St. Pankrac’s day is May 12th , St Servac is celebrated on May 13th, and St. Bonifac on May 14th. According to a legend, these three saints, or kings, were frozen in when temperatures dropped while they were fishing at sea. On May 15th, St. Zofie came with a kettle of water and thawed the frozen saints, or kings, out, and the last of the wintry cold came to an end. In recent years, despite climate change, there has continued to be a cold spell, most years, just before mid-May.

This year, I was following instructions to stay at home and to avoid spreading the virus, and I was not fully aware of what was going on outside. However, I read that the weather did turn cold in the middle third of the month, and there was ice and even some considerable snow around that time, even in the lower-lying parts of the Czech Republic. It continued dry, however, and the opening race meeting in our season, held on May 18th, was run on firm ground at Most. The official going was 2,6. A week later, when the second meeting of the year was held at Prague Velká Chuchle on May 24th, it was chilly and rainy.

I thought it was a good effort by Most racecourse and the Jockey Club of the Czech Republic to put on a race meeting, behind closed doors, on the very first day, a Monday, that permission to hold a race meeting was given. There were a lot of runners, and there were high-quality fields. The second meeting was at Prague Velká Chuchle, six days later, again with large fields, behind closed doors. The main race, in particular, attracted a very strong field, despite the modest prizemoney.

I do not know how prize money was found for these race days. The entries + declarations to run will have contributed over half of the prize money, but Jiří Charvát, whose company owns Most racecourse, was probably well out of pocket.

Some trainers complained about the firm ground, and also about the state of the the horse boxes. The complaints were polite enough, and were accompanied by expressions of thanks to Most racecourse for being ready to put the meeting on at short notice. No doubt, conditions really were less than perfect. Nevertheless, I asked myself whether there would have been any complaints if it had been ten years earlier. It seems to me that our big trainers and big owners, who now very often run their horses abroad, have now come to expect high quality turf and good facilities here, too. A few years ago, they had to accept that that good ground was a privilege and not a right. There are nowadays more and more owners who pay good money to buy well-bred thoroughbreds, mainly in France or Ireland, and they want them to run on good ground.

In a normal year, many of the best Czech-trained horses would be expected to run exlusively in France or Italy, where good ground is to be expected. This year, however, these Czech-trained horses have not yet been allowed to run abroad, and their owners and trainers are happy to give them a warm-up race in the Czech Republic. In addition, the Slovak racecourses (Bratislava is the only major course there) are not yet open, but Slovak trainers are able to send their horses here. We hear that Czech-trained horses can now run in Italy and in Germany.

I have just read an article on the Dostihový svět Czech language website, in which Petr Guth interviews Josef Bartoš. Bartoš will ride in both of the steeplechases at Karlovy Vary on Saturday, May 30th, and then he hopes to be able to move on to Merano. He expects trainer Josef Váňa jnr., and I think his father, to have two or three runners in each race on the raceday there. Apart from Bartoš himself, Jan Kratochvíl and Jan Faltejsek will ride the horses. It is not certain that they will be allowed to take the horses and themselves across Bavaria and Austria into northern Italy, and then bring themselves and the horses back here. One thing is sure - as soon as our horses are allowed to enter races abroad, they will be entered, and as soon as they can run, they will run. Good three-year-olds are likely to try for the Czech and Slovak classics, but the best of them will be aimed at big races, especially in France, from this autumn onwards. But will everything go according to plan?

It is frustrating, of course, that races of outstanding quality, by our standards, are being run in the Czech Republic behind closed doors. I hope that, a few years from now, people will look back at the newsletters from spring 2020, and will consider the situation to be strange. Let us hope it is not going to be the “new normal”.

It is best not to predict what will happen even two or thee weeks ahead, but Pardubice racecourse is said to be preparing for a race meeting in the middle of June. The entries for the Velka Pardubicka have been announced. The big race is to be held on Sunday October 11th, as the last race of a two-day racing festival.

Czech racing has not had the opportunity to grow dependent on state funding or on income from betting in the past 30 years. Modest crowds bring in little income. Television provides useful publicity but no income. Very limited income has been the norm in our sport. The difference between no income and very limited income is less than the difference between big money and no money – perhaps, in a sad way, Czech racing is better prepared for hard times than, let us say, France, where owners and trainers may consider big prizemoney to be their right. Perhaps however, the extra stress imposed on Czech racing by the virus might be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Our racing has been funded since 1989 mainly by racehorse owners and by their companies, which are major sponsors of races. Loss-making racecourse owners are also major benefactors of the sport. We may not exactly be afraid that our racing will suddenly collapse in this year. However, there are always owners who want or need to save some money, or who get disappointed with the experience of owning a horse. Presumably, there are racehorse owners who will drop out of the sport, or reduce their investment, before the 2021 season. Will it be possible to replace them? And what would be the impact of a major decline in racehorse ownership, following on from a long-term gradual decline going back 15 years?

On the whole, May 2020 has not been worst-possible month for Czech racing. Nevertheless, we need to get back to some kind of normality, and as soon as possible, of course.