October 2020 newsletter
In the second half of September, the COVID-19 data for the Czech Republic were heading in the wrong direction. The numbers of people being tested and testing positive were rising, though the numbers in hospital and the numbers dying with the virus remained fairly low (but, admittedly, rising). Several districts in the country, including Prague and most of its suburbs (but not Pardubice, which is 100 km east of Prague), were put on the red list. Tourism to the Czech Republic and flights to and from the Czech Republic have remained at very low levels.
Czech racing has been able to continue, thanks to determined organizers, and our trainers have mainly been able to continue sending their horses to run abroad, in Slovakia, Italy, France and Germany. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to deny that big efforts have brought only limited returns for the organisers. 2020 has been a very difficult season, and has not made many people happy. Continuity and survival of horseracing in the Czech Republic has been ensured, but that is about all!
At the end of September, the Czech government announced that stricter measures against the virus will come into force on October 5th, for a period of two weeks. Under Czech law, the government is not allowed to impose repressive measures for an unlimited period of time. However, it seems very likely that the stricter measures will be extended, and even tightened, for a further period in mid October.
The main impact on horseracing, as from October 5th, is that only 130 persons can gather for an outdoor event. This presumably means that racing will have to be behind closed doors. The organisers at Pardubice racecourse have announced that, if the racecourse is divided off into separated areas, they will be allowed to put the Velka Pardubicka day on, and the whole day’s racing will be shown live on Czech Television’s Sport Channel (only the Sunday – the Saturday raceday at Pardubice has been cancelled). Whether the other race meetings announced for October and November will be held depends on the virus, the Ministry of Health, the government, and, not least, the ability of organizers to find sponsors for their races and to sustain further financial losses.
The financial losses have presumably been considerable, especially for the racecourses and for the owners. Czech racing has always been funded, directly and indirectly, mainly by racehorse owners, most of whom know very well that racehorse ownership is an expensive hobby. Racehorse owners should not rely on making a profit out of owning fine racehorses, any more than they should expect to make a profit out of owning a fine car, a fine house or a fine yacht.
Racecourses, by contrast, need to balance their books, if they are to avoid going out of business. Even in good times, our racecourses are chronically unprofitable. In the Covid-19 era, the problem is much more acute than ever. Their outgoings are clearly much greater than their income. In some cases, the owners and managers of our racecourses are philanthropists ready to cover a part of the costs. In some cases, most notably Pardubice, the local authorities are major sharehoders with a strong interest in supporting the famous local racecourse. As the Covid-19 era extends itself, the problem of keeping the racecourses going will only get worse.
I have not read anything about the number of racehorses in training. The number does not appear to have fallen catastrophically, yet. I presume, therefore, that trainers, their staff, and all the other people who make all or part of their income in connection with horseracing have in most cases not become unemployed. I understand that the Jockey Club has extended the period of time before prizemoney has to be paid into owners’ accounts, and this means that trainers (and presumably riders) may have to wait nervously for much needed income.
An issue that has been raised by Pardubice racecourse recently is need to take into account the inability of some traditional sponsors to provide financial support for racing. For the first part of our season, the prizemoney for our races was maintained at the level in previous years (which is admittedly very low by international standards). The minimum prizemoney for a race has been set according to the category of the race, and the Jockey Club has attempted to ensure that this minimum level has not been allowed to drop. The organizers at Pardubice racecourse got special permission to reduce the prizemoney for all the races on Velka Pardubicka day by about 40%, to cancel the meeting on Saturday, October 10th, and to transfer three high-category races from the Saturday to the Sunday (meaning that there are now 10 races on the card for Velka Pardubicka day. This has involved rewriting the race conditions.
September 2020 began and ended with some wet weather, but the main part of the month was dry and pleasantly warm. September normally offers pleasantly mild weather here, after the excessive heat and the dryness that has become normal in the summer months over the last 25 years. The summer of 2020 has not been quite as hot as in some recent years, and it has certainly been a lot less dry. Much of the rain has fallen in storms, but there has been only local flooding. The grass remained green all summer and into the autumn. It has required less effort by racecourse ground staff to provide good ground for racehorses this year than in any recent season.
As October begins, the days have got noticeably shorter, and it feels as if summer is over. With any luck, however, there will be more sunny racedays this season, in October and even into November. Our brave organizers of horseracing have scheduled more meetings than ever before to be run between now and November 17th. The virus has not been kind to brave organizers of events, and I fear that the worst is not yet over. It is far from certain that each of the racedays that have been announced for October and November will take place.
What about some more or less happy events in September 2020!
1. The 6th European Jockeys’ Cup meeting was held, and some jockeys from France, Germany and Slovakia came over and helped to provide some good racing and a happy atmosphere on what, surpisingly, ended up as a sunny late afternoon. The Czech Derby was also run in Septembers
Martina Havelková became the first female jockey to be invited to ride on European Jockeys’ Cup day. I complain from time to time that women’s positions in Czech racing are assumed to involve mainly cleaning and caring. However, it has to be admitted that a good enough female jockey can get rides. Martina, as an experienced and dependable lightweight rider, has had considerably more rides than anyone else this year, and over the last half dozen years. However, there have arguably been some Czech Derby days when owners and trainers have preferred to bring in an old jockey from abroad, rather than offer a ride to Martina. In 1937, a Czech lady rider won the Velka Pardubicka, and in 1973 a Czech lady rode the winner of the Czechslovak Derby. It is high time for a talented girl to achieve here what other girls have achieved in other countries – indeed, to achieve what a graduate of the School for Apprentices at Velká Chuchle, Eliška Kubinová, has achieved in the United States.
Our jockeys’ championships are in an interesting state 7 weeks before the end of the season. This year, some of our top riders who have spent a number of years riding abroad decided to base themselves here this year. They rightly thought that it was unattractive to be based abroad and frequently flying back for rides in the Czech Republic – and risking being put in quarantine away from home. Tomaš Lukašek, who has ridden in Poland in recent summers, went straight to the top of our flat jockeys table as soon as our season began, and has remained there. Now that October is here, Tomaš and also our most promising young jockeys, David Liška and Adam Florian, are thinking about the winter, when there will be no racing here, and when they will want to get on with their careers. That means going abroad, and all three are likely to get good offers. Tomaš Lukašek has established himself in recent years as a leading jockey in Qatar, which is an excellent place to spend a winter. I spent nine good years in Qatar myself. After the top jockeys leave, Jan Verner, who likes central Bohemia best, will probably be able to pick up our flat jockeys’ championship.
Our jumps jockeys’ championship is also not keenly competed for – most our top jockeys ride as much in Italy as they do here. Jan Faltejsek, who has based himself here this year but has driven down to Italy many times, rode the winners of all three jumps races at Lysá-nad-Labem at the end of September, and now leads the championship with 10 winners. Jaroslav Myška has had seven winners. Faltejsek, 5-time winning jockey in the Velka Pardubicka, is without dispute a top jockey, but he has never won the Czech championship. Myška won the jockeys’ championship several times earlier in his career, but nowadays gives top priority to the family’s training centre near Pardubice. No doubt, both will want to win the 2020 championship, though not at all costs. Lukáš Matuský and Adam Čmiel are currently sharing third place with 6 winners. Adam has been around for a number of years, and in the past three seasons he has emerged as a dependable rider.
Let us hope that the virus will stop making life so difficult and so discouraging for organisers of events, and will spontaneously go away. Soon! Until that happens, take care, and remember the three Rs: ruce - roušky - rozestupy (hands, masks, distancing)