November 2020 newsletter
In October 2020, all the COVID-19 indicators for the Czech Republic went up and up, until we were informed that our figures were the worst for any country in Europe, perhaps with the exception of Andorra, and then the indicators just kept on going up. Finally, in the last couple of days of the month, the figures went down a little. The way back down will take longer than the way up.
There was plenty of COVID weariness here, and Czech people did not like to be told for a second time to isolate themselves and wear a mask, especially after the first effort that we made came to nothing. Nevertheless, the contrast between March/April, when the state of emergency led to very low infection rates, and September/October, when infection rates soared, came as an unpleasant surprise.
As far as horseracing in October 2020 is concerned, meetings were held behind closed doors here until and including Velka Pardubicka day (October 11th). Since that day, there has been a 3-week state-of-emergency period in which all meetings have been cancelled or postponed. Some of our racecourses, most notably Pardubice, do not want to hold meetings behind closed doors in November, and have closed for the season. Others, including Prague Velká Chuchle, want to ensure that their main races of the season take place, and that horses are given a chance to run, trainers are given a chance to train, and jockeys are given a chance to ride, even if it is almost certainly behind closed doors.
Most racecourse, which put on our first meeting of the season at very short notice on May 12th, has announced that it will rearrange a meeting as soon as possible after the state of emergency is lifted. The main shareholder of Most racecourse is a subsidiary of former president of the Jockey Club of the Czech Republic Jiří Charvát’s company. Dr Charvát will be doing his best to provide an opportunity to give horses another outing before winter comes to north-west Bohemia.
Although racing in the Czech Republic closed down in mid October, out trainers have continued to be able to take horses to run abroad. The Czech Republic is in the Schengen zone, and is entirely surrounded by Schengen countries: Poland, Slovakia, Austria and Germany. None of these countries have excluded Czech-registered horseboxes. Czech-trained horses did well abroad in October, for example winning two big races in Poland. Our most highly-rated flat horse, Nagano Gold, trained by Václav Luka, won the Graded-1 Wielka Warsawska Stakes, and Cosmic Magic, trained by Radim Bodlák won the Crystal Cup series race at Wroclaw. Cosmic Magic was ridden by Lukás Matuský, who had ridden Hegnus to victory in the Velka Pardubicka a week earlier.
Josef Váňa continued sending horses to run and win in Italy, as if it were just another ordinary month. Right at the end of the month, the connections of horses running at Halle, in Germany, were advised that they would have to arrive early, and then take and pass a COVID-19 before being admitted to the racecourse for a meeting that was, in the end, cancelled at the last moment. Czech-trained horses are still being entered for races in the Schengen countries. Good luck to all the connections!
Our jockeys’ championships this year have been affected by the limited numbers of races that have been run. On the flat, the leading jockey is currently Jan Verner, who concentrates on riding here, even in these hard times. He is unlikely to be caught, even if some race meetings can be held here in November or, who knows, even in December. Second-placed Tomáš Lukášek has already arrived for the winter in Qatar, where he has already spent several winters, and he has already ridden some winners there before the end of October. A very welcome new name currently in third place in the flat jockeys’ championship is Simona Laubeová. Simona graduated from the school for apprentices at Velká Chuchle in 2019, and I think she now works for trainer Allan Petrlik at Pičín. She has ridden 12 winners in this shortened season, and has impressed people who are better judges of a rider than I am.
The big talking point feature of every October in Czech racing is the Velka Pardubicka, and I have already written plenty on this site about the 2020 renewal of the race. Not everybody loves the race, of course. ‘The toughest race in continental Europe’ is not a title that resonates even with the majority of racing fans in the 21st century, and the ugly fatal fall of Sottovento at the Taxis this year has rightly raised questions. A commission is now being set up to look into ways of making the Taxis and Pardubice racecourse as a whole safer.
The last major safety overhaul at Pardubice was in the 1990s, when the ditch on the far side of the big fence was made much less deep and the landing area was made less hard and less treacherous. The three open jumps over the stream that crosses the course were given less hazardous take-off and landing areas. The Big Water Jump, which had been a formidable obstacle on a muddy day, is now only a problem for horses that underrate it, or, more likely, do not see it well, and put a foot in. As for the extensive area of ploughed fields, I think that nothing substantial was done about them in the 1990s.
The main issues with the crosscountry steeplechasing course at Pardubice are quite clear:
The Taxis is still a death trap, and the ditch still kills horses that, for whatever reason, fail to make a long enough jump.
The ground that the horses race on is too varied (some turf; some ploughed fields, which can be muddy/slippery and can be hard/ dusty; and a lot of semi-tended ground, which can be in parts hard and stony, or slippery and soft, and uneven in places. Racehorses’ legs are not well constructed for carrying a horse and jockey at speed on such variable ground.
Open ditches without a fence catch horses out, and even the apparently no longer dangerous water jumps (obstacles 3, 16 and 17) still claim victims.
What to do about it is a harder question, and the expert commission will struggle with it. An over-simplified answer would be:
Fill in the Taxis ditch, and take several inches off the top of the fence
Get rid of most of the ploughed fields – leave just a small amount of well-tended plough, for old times’ sake
Preferably remove the water jumps by putting the stream into a pipe. Alternatively, put small fences in front of all the water jumps (the tiny fence in front of Obstacle no. 3 seems to have made the obstacle considerably less dangerous).
These measures would not make the race safe, because they would make it faster, and the race would be for less strongly-built horses, built for speed and not for jumping.
The main problem with the simplified suggestions is that racing at Pardubice without the old-fashioned Taxis, without the old-fashioned ploughed fields and without the old-fashioned water jumps would not be racing at Pardubice as we know it – a racecourse built in the middle of the 19th century by aristocrats who went to Liverpool and came home inspired to set up their own Aintree of the 1870s in east Bohemia. After the changes that I have suggested here, the racecourse would lose everything that makes it special.
There are a lot of clever people who care about the history of the Velka and care about making the race safer for the participants. I will follow and report on the proposals that they will put forward, which will, I hope, be much better than my suggestions in this newsletter.