František Holčák hands the training centre over to his son Radek. The time has come, he says
František Holčák, trainer of more Czech Derby winners than anyone else and one of the greatest personalities in Czech horseracing, announced his retirement as an active trainer in April 2021. He will continue to train just three of his old favourites.
This article, by Martin Cáp, first appeared in Czech language in jezdci.cz in April 2021. František Holčák předal stáj synovi Radkovi. Nadešel správný čas, říká | Jezdci.cz. Martin is a professional journalist and an outstanding writer on Czech and central European racing, an accomplished announcer at various racecourses, race reader and television presenter, and a very knowledgeable researcher into the history of Czech flat racing. He is now completing work on a major book that will be published in the autumn.
František Holčák has been the most successful trainer in the Czech Republic and Slovakia from the 1980s until now, although other trainers have a higher profile. This interview shows what a remarkable personality he is.
One of the most successful careers in the history of Czech horseracing turf has come to its conclusion. František Holčák has handed over the training centre in Velké Karlovice to his son, Radek. This marks the end of an era not only for the Valencio stable, but also for Czech horseracing.
"I have nothing left to prove, and I'll just be talking to the horses. Sometimes it will hurt a little. It has been a beautiful time, and I'm proud of it. But it is now time to hand the training centre over to the younger generation, who are better able to keep up with the pace of today's world. Radek can do it, I have no doubt about that," says the trainer of seven Czech Derby winners, and of four winners of classic triple crowns.
"My dad has given me the training centre and everything that goes with it. He has kept only three of his old favourites - Mr Right; another old boy, Mustamir; and his last Derby winner, Troop Commander - so that he can still have some fun and not fall completely off the horseracing carousel. I have taken over the training of the other horses, and everything will be under a single baton," Radek Holčák adds.
Until now, there have been two centres in under the banner of the Valencio training centre - František, 70 years old in June, trained horses down in the village, and Radek's stable was located up in the Na Sihle hills.
"The upper stable remains in operation. We have over sixty horses, including many new ones, and they wouldn't all fit in to the one stable. Up on the hills we mainly have two-year-olds, beginners and convalescents. Luckily, I can rely on a top team, headed by my assistant Zuzana Vokálková," Radek explains.
The changes at the Valencio headquarters came in April 2021, just two months before František Holčák celebrated his 70th birthday. It was at a time of intensive preparations for the 2021 racing season, but there was also some time for reflections on the past. "My dad has done so much for me personally, and also for racing in the Czech Republic. There's a huge job behind him. I appreciate being able to learn from him for so many years. He's a great guy. Following in his footsteps will be a huge challenge," says the new boss of the Valencio training centre.
He won virtually everything
Since 1977, František Holčák has notched an incredible 1049 winners, 676 of them on the flat and 373 over fences. He was twice Czech champion trainer on the flat (1996 and 2008), and he also added six more titles in Slovakia (on the flat 2002 and 2019, over fences 1994, 1998, 1999 and 2003).
His seven wins in the Czech Derby will remain a historic milestone for a long time, as will the unique concentration of triple-crown winners in the classics that he trained. Glowing (1996), Tribal Instinct (2001) and Age of Jape (2009) in the Czech Republic were joined in Slovakia by the triumphant Arcturus in 2019. During his father's health problems in the summer of 2019, Radek contributed greatly to the preparation of Arcturus for his classic wins.
František Holčák's long list of achievements contains virtually all the goals that a Czech trainer can dream of. Between 1986 and 2005, he prepared five winners of the Velka Pardubicka, and he was also behind the international achievements of Royal Mougins, the best-ever classical steeplechaser trained in the Czech Republic. However, the focus of František Holčák's work gradually transferred to flat racing.
Over the past twenty-five years, Holčák has been a major specialist in winning classic races. In addition to twenty classic triumphs in the Czech Republic, he has collected thirteen more in Slovakia, two in Austria and one in Italy. His win with Autor in the Group 3 Italian St. Leger is probably the greatest international achievement of the Wallachian Wizard. Troop Commander, which ran in the same colours, was his second black-type winner.
Among the classic races in the territory of former Czechoslakia, only two are missing from Holčák's collection – the Czech Oaks and the Slovak One Thousand Guineas. Although he trained double classic winner Ecologically Right, Holčák has never made any secret of the fact that the specific environment in the Wallachian hills is more suitable for colts and geldings than for fillies and mares.
"Mares need to be tough here, they need to be mannish. It's also the hilly environment, and it's hard here for the more delicate kind of filly. I also like to train good fillies and mares, but the fact is that I have always done better with colts. Here, the horses have to acclimatize, we have to go uphill in our work, and then come down again. We have good conditions here, but I guess I just have not been lucky with fillies," he explained a few years ago.
Humble beginnings in the Wallachian hills
A native of Karolinka, in Wallachia, František Holčák has been among horses since he was a child, when his father rode them on the state farm. Under trainer Rudolf Miškář in Velké Karlovice, he came across thoroughbreds for the first time and fell under their spell forever.
As a young enthusiast, he was one of the four founding members of the JO JZD Velké Karlovice state breeding establishment, and at the age of sixteen he obtained an amateur rider’s licence. The first thoroughbred, running in the colours of a small stable, was Parabola, in whose saddle Holčák made his debut in a race over 1600 metres at Ostrožská Nové Ves on July 17, 1967. In the following seasons he rode in two dozen other races, including over fences at Lysá nad Labem.
After attending the agricultural secondary school in Rožnov pod Radhostem, he completed the horse-breeding course in Kladruby nad Labem and a two-year course for trainers in Boskovice. However, there was no thought of setting up a professional racing stable in Velké Karlovice, so František Holčák started out as an agronomist and head of associated production.
After the tragic death of Rudolf Miškář, he took over the training of several Velké Karlovice horses in his spare time. The beginnings were difficult. Holčák's first winner as a trainer was on May 1, 1977 at Šala, a provincial racetrack in Slovakia. Ceremoniel, a full brother of a good mare, Century, originally finished third over 2200 metres under Jaroslav Puspöky, but the first two horses past the post were disqualified for not following the course.
In the following years, horses from the breeding establishment began to appear more and more often among the horses trained by Holčák. The first mare at the Velké Karlovice state breeding establishment produced Valencio, winner of the Velka Pardubicka in 1986, which went on to run in the Aintree Grand National. This son of Derby winner Seal was born in 1977. When Valencio won the high point of the Czech steeplechase season under amateur rider Karel Zajek by a distance, easing up, he made his stable and his birthplace famous all over Czechoslovakia.
"You have to imagine that back then nobody in Prague knew where Velké Karlovice was, or what it was like to live there. We became famous for our horses. After Valencio's victory, we were greeted back home with music, it was incredible. People in the houses opened their windows and they went completely crazy. The guys in the pub were shouting to each other, "Did you see what happened?" recalled Holčák, who still values his break-through success above all his later victories.
Valencio's career ended in 1987 after an injury. He spent his retirement in the immediate vicinity of his birthplace in Leskovice, Halkov and finally at Sihle in Velké Karlovice. He lived to the age of 31.
Libentína rescues the novice private trainer
In 1985, the Velké Karlovice horses moved to the present-day yard in the heart of the village. In addition to Valencio, Dozan - winner of the St. Wenceslas Prize, and the first of a long line of top sprinters in the hands of František Holčák - established himself at the highest level. The half-bred Utah grew into a top hurdler, and Valencio's half-sister Vánice produced a horse that finished fourth in the Czechoslovak Derby.
However, the Changes in the social order in November 1989 marked a quick end for the JZD Velké Karlovice stable. The racehorses became a burden for the crumbling state farm organisation. "After the Velvet Revolution, it took maybe three weeks for everything to be dissolved. The kindergarten where my wife worked as a cook was closed down, and so was the racing stable... the chairman gave me a choice - take a new job in production, or go to the horses. I said I'd stick with the horses. A Liaz car was rented to me. We could either rent the saddles or pay 35 thousand for them... We had nothing - it was a crazy blow. I naively thought, "We have to win, and then hopefully we can keep it going. But it was a utopian dream. It was back to scratch again," said Holčák.
The first private horse trainer in the country - according to his trader’s certificate at the time he was a “privately-trading farmer” - was helped in the beginning mainly by Libentína's victory in the 100th running of the Velka Pardubicka, in 1990. "Thanks to Libentína, we were able to eat carp at home for Christmas. Motešice gave us four or five horses to train, and the situation slowly started to improve," says Holčák, adding that he had to sell his car hastily to pay for the stables.
The success of Barbatan, owned by Zbrojovka Vsetín, in the record-breaking Czechoslovak Derby in 1992, was another turning point. František Holčák had now established himself as a leading Czech trainer. Preparing racehorses in hilly terrain, which had not been taken seriously as a policy by many until a few years ago, become a respected formula for trainers.
Another achievement that earned recognition for the trainer from Velké Karlovice was with Latén, from the Napajedla stud farm. This horse had been held back by protracted health problems, but he unexpectedly "came back to life" after moving to Velké Karlovice, and he went on to run until he was ten years old. His victory in the Bratislava Mile, ridden by Lester Piggott, the most famous jockey of the 20th century, was forever etched into in the memory of all the spectators who were at Bratislava racecourse on that day.
Nine years after Piggott, Holčák's horses were again ridden by the current most famous jockey in the world, Frankie Dettori. This was again at Bratislava racecourse, and the popular Italian preformed his famous "Dettori dismount" twice - from the backs of Bellaboy and Tribal Instinct.
They came for skiing, and they took away horses
František Holčák became a specialist in purchasing high-quality racehorses from Poland, which went on to win top races on the flat and over fences for Czech owners and trainers. However, he soon moved on to his famous system of purchasing classic reinforcements in the British Isles and especially in Ireland.
Through the Valencio stable, a number of successful entrepreneurs, especially from Moravia, came into horse racing in the following way. "Often it started inconspicuously. People came to Velké Karlovice for skiing, and they caught sight of horses walking somewhere in the snow. They came to have a look, the word got around, and they got a thoroughbred of their own," said Holčák.
This is exactly how successful cooperation began with owner Rajmund Pavla, who imported a number of successful horses for his FCC Folprecht Brno stable, and later for Ray Racing. The most successful of them were the popular Ray of Light, triple-crown winner Tribal Instinct, top miler Blueridge Dancer, and Sharp Focus, another classic winner. Pavla’s colours were later worn by five-time champion sprinter Scyris, the virtually unbeatable grey sprinter.
In total, Holčák was the trainer of eight Horses of the Year in the Czech Republic (Law Soziri, Latén, Glowing, Blueridge Dancer, Ray of Light, Tribal Instinct, Scyris, Age of Jape). With them and with other stars, he achieved 14 victories in the Bratislava Turf Gala and 8 triumphs at the former Central European Breeders' Cup meeting.
Even in his times of greatest success, he never needed to worry about finding a successor to continue his work. Since the late 1990s, his son Radek has been a trainer. In addition to numerous wins over fences, he has already prepared two Czech Derby winners. František Holčák’s son-in-law Kamil Píchal also remains close to the family business. This former successful jockey is the father of Ondřej, a student with ambitions take over the baton and carry the family business on into the next generation.