The General Secretary of the Czech Jockey Club answers questions about funding Czech horseracing in Covid times
In January 2018, not long after the Vítek family took over the Velká Chuchle racecourse area, Martin Pecka was appointed racecourse manager. After spending less than three years at the racecourse that is the headquarters of Czech racing, Martin Pecka left Velká Chuchle in November 2020, only to return there just three and a half months later - but this time in the role of the General Secretary of the Czech Jockey Club, which has its headquarters at the racecourse. What led him to return, what tasks is the Jockey Club dealing with today, and what is the Jockey Club doing to stem the downward trend in the statistical and economic indicators for Czech horseracing?
This interview was taken by Miloslav Vlček, editor of the Fitmin-Turf website, on which the original Czech language version appeared on June 9th, 2021. Miloslav Vlček is a leading writer and editor on all aspects of Czech horseracing, and he is an especially expert writer on racehorse breeding in the Czech Republic and central Europe.
What appealed to you about the offer to become General Secretary of the Jockey Club, and what motivated you to accept the post?
The offer to cooperate was presented to me in February 2021 by Mr. Josef Bečvář, the President of the Jockey Club of the Czech Republic. The most interesting aspect of the offer was certainly the potential to develop the Jockey Club of the Czech Republic, and to follow up some possible opportunities. The current bad situation, which has affected our entire society to some extent, also presented a challenge. However, I do hope that the situation will stabilize in the foreseeable future.
The main activity of the Jockey Club Secretariat is to administer the operation of Czech horseracing and thoroughbred breeding in the Czech Republic. In recent years, however, the Jockey Club has become involved in the marketing of Czech racing and in securing funds for Czech racing. Is this now a part of your job?
First of all, it is important to remember that the Jockey Club of the Czech Republic is a company like any other. This means that it is necessary to ensure both its normal operation and the functioning of all professional sections, not only of the Secretariat of the JCCR, to ensure the smooth and successful functioning of horseracing in the Czech Republic. One of the essential activities in any company is to ensure that its operations are funded, so this is also part of my job description. We are working intensively to create the conditions for further marketing development, both at the level of the Secretariat and in cooperation with each of the racetracks in the Czech Republic and with the partners of the JCCR. I believe the first results will emerge this year.
This is related to cooperation with Tipsport (the leading Czech-based betting company). Can you describe or evaluate the state of this agreement, how it will continue and how it might expand?
We are currently in the process of finalizing the terms of the contracts with the Tipsport group and with the racetracks, and all documents are being prepared for signature. The details of our cooperation will be published once all contracts with all interested parties have been signed, and when we are fully convinced that all this cooperation will only be beneficial for Czech horse racing.
The opening race days of this season had to take place without spectators, and although the situation is improving, the organizers still cannot make full use of their spectator capacities. How difficult has it been for the Jockey Club to agree with the organizers to host “Covid races”, and how much has this financially burdened the Jockey Club's budget?
The truth is that the situation that has been prevalent in the Czech Republic and elsewhere for more than a year is non-standard, and brings with it a lot of unknowns and unknowables. Last year, the racing season took place in a different spirit than usual, and this impacted the financing and the cash flows in horseracing. The priority last year and this year has been to ensure that at least a minimum range of races take place and are funded. Of course, the whole situation has reflected the unpredictable development of measures aimed at dealing with the epidemic. This year the racing season began on about the normal date, though there have only been a limited number of race days. From July, we expect more or less normal operation, and we are preparing some contingency measures for the autumn, when restrictions can be expected again. We just hope they are not on the same scale as they were in the spring. The JCCR has already released a significant part of its reserves after a fairly quick and constructive agreement with the racecourses, and we therefore consider it is important to look for external sources of income for the future.
Will the JCCR's financial involvement in “Covid races” lead to restrictions on other programmes, such as owner’s prizes and breeder’s prizes, support for the racecourses in the post-covid period, etcetera?
This season, like a year ago, owner's prizes have been cut back. We believe that for next season we can find resources so that we can get back to standard operations and have the tools to set up a system for financing horseracing. We are very happy that we have found great understanding and great willingness to cooperate, not only with the organizers at the racecourses, but also with racehorse owners and other participants in horseracing. We are in rather difficult times, and future ventures will always be easier if we all continue to work together. However, we must wait to find out how this present season is going to end. At the moment we can elaborate theories, but unfortunately the way things turn out in practice can be different.
You entered horseracing as the director of the largest racecourse in the Czech Republic, and now you are running the secretariat of the Jockey Club. Have the transition to a new role and the new experience that you have acquired changed your view of Czech racing?
I do not think that my departure from Chuchle Arena Prague last year affected my perception of Czech racing. I’d say that I am following up on my previous activities, know-how and experience. What is certain is that due to the turbulent times brought about by the Covid pandemic, we can see some opportunities, but there is also a threat to the entire horseracing industry. Now and in the future, we need to be able to respond to a number of things in a relatively rapid sequence. We can only hope that the next few years will be more stable, and that we will be able to do more work with a view to the future, rather than finding responses to changes and limitations that have occurred, as has been the case last year and this year. The time sequence of our standard racing season has been more or less settled for many years, and the current forced changes to the fixture list certainly do not bring anything positive.
For many years, Czech horseracing has been facing a decline in most economic and statistical indicators. Is the Jockey Club working to change this negative trend? Do you see some ideal way to stop the trend?
For something to be ideal, it means it has to suit everyone, always and everywhere. And that can rarely be done. It is true that, if we look at the bare statistical data on horseracing, we will note a steady decline in almost all indicators. Setting a path that can at least stabilize the situation is one of our current priorities. We certainly want to try to increase the attractiveness of Czech racing for spectators, because they are a potential source of finance. A larger community of people betting on our races could bring in money, and that is why we are looking very positively at working with Tipsport. Last but not least, it is important to remember that the whole of Czech horseracing has been helped significantly for many years by a number of people from the environment of racehorse owners, horse experts, breeders, officials of the JCCR, and by other people. We are also are currently preparing for an important meeting with the Ministry of Agriculture of the Czech Republic, which is currently planning some grants running from 2023, and we will be seeking an increase in the Ministry’s contribution to horseracing.
At the turn of 2019/20, JCCR President Josef Bečvář started to prepare a so-called concept for racing and thoroughbred breeding until 2025. Then, unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic came along and work stopped. What stage have the concepts reached now? Will the concept serve as a starting point for turning round the negative trend in Czech racing that we have been speaking about?
The concept is a prerequisite for successful development. This year we are building on the preparations that were initiated last year. By the autumn of this year the materials will be evaluated by all the working groups of the JCCR, the Presidium of the JCCR and the Council of the JCCR. We consider it absolutely crucial to increase the amount of money available to the JCCR for supporting horseracing. We need a system for dividing the funding between the racecourses, the organizers of race meetings, breeders, owners and others, and it is always easier if there is something for us to divide up, and if the amount of money is larger rather than smaller. At the moment, however, we are struggling to finance the present season. In the future, the JCCR’s long-term concept for the Czech Republic will be presented to the professional and lay public.