September 2020 newsletter

It really is not getting any easier to write these monthly newsletters. I have not been racing this year, as my wife and I are in the over 70s age group (without a pre-existing condition). Neither of us is personally awfully scared of catching the virus – but neither of us wants our partner to be infected. Traveling to and from the racecourse by public transport and spending an afternoon with racegoers, who are very sociable people, seems a bit risky – especially when there will be good coverage of the meeting on television, and it is a rather hot or rainy midsummer day. 


A month ago, I reported that August 2020 in the Czech Republic began with two or three rainy days. I can now tell you that the month is also ending with two or three cool and rainy days. The main part of August was unpleasantly hot, though not quite as unpleasantly hot as in some recent years, and the heat led to some thunderstorms almost everywhere. Some of the storms caused local distress. Generally, however, the summer weather this year, at least in Prague, has been a good mix of warmth and precipitation, with only a limited amount of extreme heat, extreme rain and extreme winds.   


Due to the coronavirus situation, Pardubice racecourse packed five of its nine race meetings of the 2020 season into July and August. All four of the VP qualification races were run in the midsummer months, but each of these races was run after recent rainfall, mainly on reasonably cool afternoons, and the ground staff were able to ensure that the course was in good order. That was very fortunate, as Pardubice is normally pretty hot and dry in the summer season.


Every effort is being made to run the Slavia Insurance Velka Pardubicka on Sunday, October 11th. However, it is very far from certain that the race will be run before a large crowd. I was notified recently that a crowd of just 1 000 will be admitted on September 6th for the Czech Derby. As I have reported in previous monthly newsletters, spectators have been allowed to go to race meetings since the last weekend in June. However, the numbers of spectators have been limited, and I have not been quite clear on what basis. The television coverage of the race meeting at Pardubice on August 29th showed quite a good-sized crowd, considerably more than 1 000. 


In the month of August, tourism, hospitality, pubs and other parts of the economy began to open up. We are told that the numbers of people tested and found to have Covid -19 in the Czech Republic have gradually begun to rise. However, the numbers of people dying of or with the disease still seem to be low. Near the end of the month, the Czech Republic made its way on to the list of countries to which the United Kingdom recommends only essential travel. As from August 28th, travelers entering the United Kingdom from here are required to go into quarantine for two weeks. In August, mask-wearing in the Czech Republic was mandatory only on the metro, but from the beginning of September there will be stricter rules. Most of us older people never stopped wearing our masks, and we try to keep our distance in crowded indoor locations, so the ever-changing details of the new rules will make no difference to us. If in doubt, I will wear a mask, though to be honest I do not like wearing a mask much and I doubt whether it provides much protection.  


Children here all begin their school year on September 1st, and it is a charming annual national event. The youngest brightest-eyed children, their teachers and their proud but anxious parents are the stars. The teachers receive flowers or a small present. I look forward to the coverage on television tomorrow!  


I was pleased recently to be able to translate and post on this website an announcement on the web pages of the Jockey Club of the Czech Republic that a charitable foundation has been set up to offer help for injured and retired racehorses, injured jockeys and stable staff, and to support disadvantaged children who want to get involved with racehorses, the spread of hippotherapy for physically, psychologically and mentally impaired people, and any other horseracing-related good causes. There is surely a need for such a fund, or perhaps a number of more focused funds, and the needs will far exceed available funding. The president of the Czech Jockey Club, Josef Bečvář, is on the board of the foundation, and it seems he intends to be actively involved in this good venture.


A month ago, the Jockey Club of the Czech Republic announced that it has signed a cooperation agreement with Tipsport, which is one of the main betting offices in the country. Tipsport specializes in online sports betting, and has been setting itself up as the main company for fixed-odds betting on Czech horseracing and on Czech sport in general. Betino, which had organized on-course betting in a virtual monopoly for about 20 years, seems to have given up. Frankly, Betino is not much regretted. Betino’s odds were always extraordinarily unattractive. To be fair, however, the overheads for cash betting on horseracing were always enormous. Changes in the Czech law on lotteries a couple of years ago made it non-viable to organize betting on just a small number of racedays at various small racecourses.


The Jockey Club announcement suggested that the agreement with Tipsport was a major coup. However, I am not sure that privately-owned bookmakers are philanthropic organizations, or are reliable long-term benefactors of horseracing. It seems that Tipsport have sponsored a few races in the past and have promised some more sponsorship in the future. Tipsport has been offering less unattractive odds than Betino offered, but I will reserve my judgment on whether the Jockey Club’s agreement with an online bookmaker is a step in the right direction.


The four qualification races for the Velka Pardubicka held this year in July and August have produced some good races, with a remarkably small number of non-finishers (the qualification requirement is simply that the horses complete the race). It seems unlikely that any of the Czech- or Slovak-trained contenders will run again before the Velka. There may be one of two supplementary entries of Czech-trained and foreign-trained horses that were not entered for the race back in May but that have fulfilled the qualification requirements. Catch Life, for example. Supplementary entries can be made until midday on September 24th, and 10 a.m. on September 30th is the deadline for declarations to run. 


One of the few non-finishers in the qualification races was Ange Guardian, last Saturday. He was pulled up after the third fence from home, when he seemed to be likely to go on and win the race. He suffered a leg injury and had to be put down. 12-y-o Ange Guardian is one of those iconic steeplechasers that seem to have been around for ever, and to have become a part of our lives. He won a race for 2-y-os on the flat in 2010. He won 5 Velka Pardubicka qualification races, including the 2nd of this year’s qualifiers. He shares the record for wins in qualification races with Trezor. He came to prominence when he won the First of May Steeplechase at Lysá in 2015 and in 2016. He won a total of 14 races, 8 of them at Category I and above, and he finished 2nd behind Charme Look in the Velka Pardubicka in 2016, 5th in 2017, 6th in 2018, and 5th in 2019.        


The autumn months offer a rich programme of horseracing this year. In September, Prague Velka Chuchle offers four good quality meetings, including Derby day on September 6th, Autumn Festival day on September 26th and European Jockeys’ Cup day on September 27th. The two-day Velka Pardubicka weekend is on October 10th and 11th, with the Velka on the Sunday. In the past, our season has come to an end abruptly after the VP, but this year a lot of meetings that could not be held in April and May have been moved to late October and to November. As many as seven of our racecourses will put on a total of 8 race meetings between October 24th and November 17th.


Everyone has been wanting our racecourses to extend their season into November, when softer ground is likely to provide good conditions for steeplechasing and for 2-y-os to have a couple of outings. Nevertheless, these meetings will be risky for the racecourses, several of which offer limited shelter. Even in these times of climate change, November days here can be frosty or snowy with blue skies, or grey and rainy. I hope big crowds will be allowed to go to these meetings, and will actually turn out, whatever the weather. But it is not a sure thing!