July 2020 newsletter
On Tuesday evening, June 30th, a long table stretched along Charles Bridge, and people sat outside on a beautiful evening and enjoyed the food and drink that they had brought along to share with each other. It was a celebration of the end of the school year, of victory over the virus, and, last but not least, a unique opportunity for Czechs to reclaim the finest location in Prague for themselves for a whole midsummer evening.
I was not there myself, as people of my age are advised to avoid Covid 19 fairly carefully, but I am glad that people made the most of the event. It was of course too early to announce victory over the virus – but why not celebrate good times. We cannot spend what remains of our lives hiding away from a virus.
June 2020 was a fairly wet and fairly cool month in the Czech Republic, with local flooding, mainly up in the hills. It does not take a very exceptional amount of rainfall to cause a threat of flooding somewhere in the Czech Republic. A small mountain stream soon begins to rise when there is a storm. The wetlands have been drained, hedges have been removed, the forests in the highlands do not retain enough water, and local flood prevention structures send the water cascading downhill to endanger lower-lying places. Homes have been built in the flood plains.
Pardubice racecourse held its first meeting of the season on June 20th (more than a month after the first flat race meeting of the season here), with a permitted crowd of over 2 000. It was an extremely wet day. You know, a man may write in one paragraph in praise of undrained wetlands out in the countryside and up in the hills – but that same man may in the very next paragraph express a strong preference for dry conditions underfoot in town and at the racecourse. He may dislike the dustclouds that the horses kick up on most days on the ploughed fields at Pardubice racecourse. However, he dislikes even more the ploughed fields at Pardubice on a very wet day, when they are covered with puddles and with slippery mud.
The ploughed fields are no doubt a specific feature of the Velka Pardubicka tradition, and they have to be retained for that reason. Nevertheless, two hundred metres of plough, in full view of the grandstands, would be more than enough for the author of this newsletter. Ploughed fields disappeared from racecourses in the advanced horseracing countries a long time ago, for very good reasons, and even a heritage racecourse like Pardubice should find safer ways of incorporating a smaller amount of plough into the races.
The lockdown in the Czech Republic began early (on March 12th), and the initial outbreak was prevented from spreading widely. Key workers and volunteers have made great efforts for the community and have earned the gratitude of everyone, especially of us older folk. Border restrictions are now being loosened, though quite cautiously. As in every country, there is a balance to be struck between limiting the spread of the virus, getting the kiddies back to school, and getting the economy going. A populist Czech government also has to bear in mind that the stereotypical Czech man will not for long tolerate any restriction on his access to alcohol. Well before the end of June, pubs and restaurants were open again.
Race meetings have been held here since Monday, May 12th. That was the first day on which it would have been allowed to hold a race meeting here, and the Jockey Club hurried to arrange a meeting at very short notice for that day. Since then, there have been meetings every weekend. At first, behind closed doors and, in the last two weekends in June, in front of crowds limited to 2 500. The gradual loosening of the restrictions seems to have gone smoothly.
The first two classic races on the flat were run late in June. Both races were won by well-fancied horses. Eternity won the Czech One Thousand Guineas, run at Most. She is German-bred, by Power, out of Edmee, a Green Tower mare. She is owned by Lokotrans, is trained by Luboš Urbánek, and was ridden by Bauyrzhan Muryabazev. Eternity went on to run in the Czech Two Thousand Guineas, in which she finished third behind the favourite, Rate. Rate had won the Gerscha Memorial for 2-y-os very easily and impressively on EJC day last September, and was clearly the best juvenile to have run here in 2019. French-bred Rate is by Reliable Man, out of Ragazza Mio, a mare by Generous. He is owned by Pegas, is trained by Čestmír Olehla, and was ridden by Milan Zatloukal. Rate will now be aimed at the Czech Derby, which will be run at Prague Velká Chuchle on Sunday, September 6th. His trainer thinks the extra distance may not be a problem for him.
Our steeplechasing season was slower to get under way than our flat season, mainly because our major steeplechasing course, Pardubice, was reluctant to put on meetings behind closed doors.
Readers of this website have been asking about the prospects for VP 2020. Will the 2020 Velka be run? Should international steeplechase fans make arrangements to come over to Pardubice for the second Sunday in October?
The Jockey Club of the Czech Republic and Dostihový spolek, organizers of events at Pardubice racecourse, are certainly determined to put the race on, and are assuming that it will go ahead. The Velka is a major annual national and television event, and it simply has to take place in some form! However, it is uncertain whether large crowds will be allowed to gather at the racecourse, and how fully the travel and tourism industry will be opened up three months from now. The airports are still more or less closed down. Tourism and non-essential travel are restricted, and there are still some quarantine requirements. However, the rules are currently being eased. Everyone hopes there will not be any setbacks, and that the Velka may even be run in front of a large crowd.
In recent years, there has been a major increase in the numbers of good racehorses being trained here but raced abroad. Among our very successful young trainers, Josef Váňa jnr runs his jumpers mainly in Italy and Václav Luka jnr runs his flat racers mainly in France. Older trainers, especially Josef Váňa snr, Greg Wroblewski and Čestmír Olehla, have been taking some of their best horses to run abroad since the 1990s. Many of our trainers now include running horses abroad among the options offered to owners, and the whole operation within the EU countries is straightforward. The favoured countries are still France and Italy, and Wroclaw racecourse in Poland offers good opportunities for jumps racing. Slovakia has never counted as “abroad” in horseracing terms. The whole process of running horses in the EU countries in continental Europe, even at quite distant racecourses, seems to run mainly smoothly.
In mid March 2020, the option to race horses abroad closed down abruptly, and there was great uncertainty about the future of taking racehorses abroad. Is transportation of racehorses considered to be “essential” or “non-essential”? Do racehorses count as “livestock” for transportation purposes? To what extent does transporting racehorses pose a threat to public health? Should people not be allowed to make up their own minds about transporting racehorses, if they want to? Do we want various ministries to regulate and monitor the movements of racehorses? The facts are that our first horses since the lockdown ran in Germany on May 30th, in Italy on May 31st, and in France on June 16th. By the end of June, considerable numbers of horses were running in these countries, and over 30 Czech-trained horses are entered for races in these countries on the weekend of July 4th/5th. On the last weekend in May there was a two-day meeting at Merano, Italy, at which Josef Váňa jnr trained five winners.
However, an article appeared on our Dostihový svět Czech language website recently, suggesting that steeplechasing at Merano is in a financial crisis again, and that a stop to racing there is imminent. The Czech racecourses have not yet announced publicly that they are in trouble, but they are presumably all incurring major losses this year.
A feature of the Covid 19 pandemic is that has hit the poorest people particularly hard and has killed off the weakest. The economic impact of the virus is likely to impact the poorest and the weakest links in horseracing. Will racehorse owners and racecourse owners want to and be able to continue pumping large amounts of money into the sport in the Czech Republic? Will all of our racecourses survive? How many racehorses in training will there be a year from now? In the short term, Czech racing will not give up, but the sport’s loss of income will create weak points. There will be topics to discuss in future newsletters, and not all of them will be pleasant. I will therefore make a point of writing about the good stuff, accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative, as far as possible. It is not my ambition to depress you.