An ever-growing trend for Czech-trained horses to run in races abroad

An ever-growing trend for Czech-trained horses to run in races abroad


A recent article on the Fitmin & Turf Magazine website Fitmin & TURF Magazín - Starty českých koní se stále častěji odehrávají za hranicemi naší země. Letošní vývoj směřuje k rekordu includes a table showing that, in the last two decades, there has been a gradual long-term rise in the proportion of their races that Czech-trained horses have run at racecourses abroad, rather than at racecourses in the Czech Republic. There has been a further steep rise in this ratio in 2020 and in 2021 as a direct result of the Covid 19 pandemic.


Even before anyone had heard of Covid 19, however, the percentage of runs by Czech-trained horses at racecourses abroad had risen from less than 4% in 2000 to over 26% in 2017. In 2021, early in July, more than 36% of the runs of Czech-trained horses in the current season had been at racecourses abroad.


The chart on the Fitmin & Turf Magazine website accompanies an article written by Miloslav Vlček, who is the editor of that website. He is a leading writer on many aspects of Czech horseracing, and is an authoritative writer on racehorse breeding, especially with reference to Czech horseracing.


You can click on to Miloslav Vlček’s article and on to the table. Fitmin & TURF Magazín - Starty českých koní se stále častěji odehrávají za hranicemi naší země. Letošní vývoj směřuje k rekordu. Google translate will give you the gist of the article – though, to be honest, google translate struggles with Czech racing terminology.


Instead of translating the article, however, I will attempt to trace for non-Czech readers the multiple factors that all seem to have led in the same direction: a) towards the steady, gradual long-term increase in Czech-trained runners at racecourses abroad, b) towards reduced numbers of Czech-trained runners in races organized in the Czech Republic, and c) towards reduced numbers of horses in training in the Czech Republic.


The Jockey Club of the Czech Republic (JCCR) has taken the view that its main task is to manage and strengthen horseracing inside the Czech Republic while, at the same time representing Czech horseracing in international organizations and trying to support the international reputation of our racing community. Ideally, of course, increasing numbers of higher-quality racehorses trained abroad would run in more attractive top races at higher-quality racecourses here. In reality, however, the JCCR and everyone else have had great difficulty in attracting horses trained abroad to run here. Everyone has had to work hard for very many years on dealing with a series of threats and thankless tasks in difficult times – culminating in the challenges set by the Covid era. Since the crisis began, any opportunity to run horses in races, anywhere, has been a bonus.      


Hard times


To find really good, easy times for horseracing in the Czech lands, it is necessary to go back to the all-too-brief period of the first Czechoslovak Republic, between the two world wars, when Prague Velká Chuchle racecourse, in particular, flourished. Then came the second world war, when Czech horseracing was closed down, except as an entertainment for nazi officers.


In 1948, the communists took power in Czechoslovakia. Some of the party leaders took the view that racing was the sport of kings, and should be suppressed. However, there were always supporters of horse sport in the military leadership, in the state farms and elsewhere, who argued that horses and horsebreeding were an integral part of military preparedness and of life and work in the countryside, and that sports competitions were generally to be encouraged. Racing survived until the Changes in 1989, but the sport had suffered long-term underfunding. In the years since 1989, underfunding has continued to be a chronic problem.        


After 1989


The transition from Czech racing before 1989 to racing after 1990 was extremely difficult. There were existential problems that needed to be dealt with quickly. For example, how was racing going to be funded?  Who did Czech racecourses belong to, and how were racecourses going to be managed? What about thoroughbred breeding in the Czech Republic? And a completely new set of private owners and self-employed trainers had to be established.


The political changes in Czechoslovakia in 1989 came about suddenly and without detailed preparation. It was widely agreed that change was wanted. However, after the euphoria died down it emerged that people could not agree what kind of changes were wanted, or how to implement them. The 1990s was a decade of confusion, in society in general and also in Czech horseracing.


Nevertheless, one thing was already clear in the early 1990s: there were a lot of new opportunities abroad. Czechs went to work in stables in the major European centres of horseracing. It was not easy of course, and not everyone has happy memories. However, those who were lucky enough to contact good people, and who were prepared to work hard, could do well. It was not long before some top trainers in Europe had Czech staff working for them, and recognized that they were likely to do a good job for them.


Accession to the EU


In 2004, the Czech Republic joined the EU. Harmonization of legislation, including horse quarantine rules, and moves towards the formation of a single employment market, soon made it much less complicated for racehorses, owners, trainers, jockeys and stable staff to travel to and work in the EU countries.


Increasing numbers of steeplechasers and hurdlers trained in the Czech Republic ran in Italy. Trainer Čestmir Olehla had started purchasing good steeplechasers for his owners early in the 1990s, and Josef Váňa had set up his training centre in 1994 near to the German border with a view to sending his horses to run in Germany and Italy. By 2004, these trainers and some others already had considerable experience of winning races abroad, especially with their steeplechasers in Italy. These trainers were well prepared for the improved opportunities provided by EU membership to run their horses abroad.


Horse racing, especially over fences, has been in decline in Germany since the boom in the 1990s. It is much easier to win good prizemoney in France and in Italy than in Germany. Czech-trained runners on the flat in France were infrequent until about 2013, when, in particular, Václav Luka junior decided to focus his attention on training flat horses in southwest Bohemia and racing them in France.


Beginning in the 1990s, a small number of Czech-based trainers took in horses of foreign owners for pre-training (at a fraction of the cost of preparing a juvenile racehorse, e.g. in France). Immediately after the Changes in 1989, some German-based owners began sending horses to the Czech Republic to be trained and then to be raced in the Czech Republic or over the border in Germany. About five years ago, Scuderia Aichner SRL began sending large numbers of good steeplechasers to be trained in the Czech Republic by Josef Váňa senior and, since 2019, by Josef Váňa junior. The title of champion trainer over fences in Italy nowadays regularly goes to a trainer whose horses are trained hundreds of kilometers away in the Czech Republic, and the competition to be the champion jumps jockey in Italy is among Czech jockeys!


The Schengen area


In 2007, the Czech Republic became a part of the Schengen area, completely surrounded by other Schengen members, and travel to the Schengen countries, even with a racehorse in a horsebox, became theoretically straightforward. Quite soon, it really did become straightforward to take racehorses over all the borders, to run them in races and bring them home, without delays and with minimum formalities.


A gradual decline in numbers of horses in training


Since about 2006, the numbers of horses in training in the Czech Republic has gradually declined – not dramatically at any time before the Covid era, but the cumulative effect of a long, gradual decline is considerable over a period of one and a half decades. The figures quoted here are taken from the table in Miloslav Vlček’s article.


Overall, the number of races run by horses trained in the Czech Republic was fairly stable, and hovered around 6 000 from 2000 until 2011. From 2012 until 2017, the number hovered around 5500. By 2019, i.e. the year before the pandemic, the number was well below 5000. In 2020, when everything was disrupted by the pandemic, the number dipped just below 4000.


Twenty years ago, the number of races run each season in the Czech Republic was more or less sufficient to allow the connections of most categories of racehorse to plan a satisfactory series of races for their horses, over hurdles and fences or on the flat, at different levels of ability, at different ages, over a range of distances, etc. However, the racecourses are not willing to organize as many races for 5000 runners as they organized in the past for 6000 runners. And for fewer than 4000 runners in 2020, under Covid conditions, it was very clearly reasonable to organize even fewer races. It has become difficult to find a series of suitable races for some categories of racehorses and, in the case of higher-category racehorses, racing abroad is now a good option, even a necessary option.


The availability of races for our horses to run in abroad has been helpful. However, not all Czech owners and trainers want their horses to run in faraway places, and our lower-category horses are unlikely to do well against the superior racehorses that run in low-category races in Germany. Since 2016, the handicap ratings in the Czech Republic have been coordinated with the German GAG system, so our racehorses can now run in handicap races across the border on the basis of the rating for their performance in races run in the Czech Republic.


The Czech horseracing season, running from the beginning of April to the beginning of November, has always been too short to support full-time trainers and riders. In France, Germany and Italy, there are races all year round. This enables Czech trainers to keep at least some horses in full training in the winter months, to find races for horses that need soft ground, and to keep key staff employed all year round. Smaller Czech trainers have to lay off staff for the winter months, and then they find that their people fail to reappear in March for preparations for the new season. Working abroad in the winter months is of course an attraction for workers with skills that are in demand, and that are much better paid in other countries than in the Czech Republic.  


The quality of the turf and the facilities at the Czech racecourses has improved since 1990, when conditions were generally rough and tough. However, owners and trainers and jockeys have seen that the quality and the safety of conditions at the leading racecourses in the advanced countries is still on a considerably higher level than in the Czech Republic. Some owners, trainers and riders are less willing than their counterparts 30 years ago to run their horses on dangerous tracks. We had an incident just a few weeks ago when several riders refused to ride on a slippery track at Brno. They were fined by the stewards, but on appeal the fines were lifted and the stewards were reprimanded for letting the races continue when the track was unsafe.  


Even 10 years ago, I used to write that the race meetings with enthusiastic crowds at the small courses, mainly on hard ground in the midsummer months, were an expression of the healthy grassroots of Czech horseracing. In the last decade, courses like Benešov and Albertovec have stopped functioning. Though I have good memories and some nostalgia for visits to the upcountry courses, I understand why some owners and trainers are increasingly unwilling to run their horses there, and why riders want to reduce the risk of injury to their horses and to themselves. There is a trend towards smaller numbers of better-prepared racecourses with better facilities for horses and jockeys, and more comfortable surroundings for racegoers.


Fans of Czech horseracing from abroad are often attracted particularly by the old-fashioned toughness of Czech racing, particularly on the crosscountry course at Pardubice, and plenty of Czechs miss those good old days, too. However, Europeanization has had a strong influence, especially since 2004. Animal welfare has become a factor inside and outside the racing community. The Czech popular press makes much of fatalities in the Velka Pardubicka, and our racing community was upset that a photo of Sottovento’s fatal leap at the Taxis won a major prize for sports photo of the year in 2020.  


Attempts to raise money for horseracing


Over the period since 1989, efforts have been made to bring money into Czech horseracing, e.g. by raising the profile of the sport on TV, by attracting more racegoers, by getting money from betting, by lobbying the Ministry of Agriculture for funding in support of racing’s contribution to rural activities and rural employment, etc. However, racing stands in a long line of impoverished sports aspiring to raise their profile and increase their income in the Czech Republic.


The CT sport channel shows quite a lot of racing, and does a good job. However, this is not a money-making exercise for Czech racing, and as far as I know only the Velka Pardubicka steeplechase attracts a big audience. Before Covid, the crowds on racedays were not small, but there were only very limited numbers of corporate guests and wealthy individuals who would spend a lot of money on a lavish afternoon out at the racecourse. Ever since 1990, the big dream has been to generate a lot of money from betting on Czech racing. The latest scheme has been to sign an agreement in 2021 with Tipsport, a leading Czech-based online and offline betting company. The other big dream has been to obtain funding from local and national government sources, and from EU funding.


Government support for horseracing varies from country to country. In Europe, of course, there is a long tradition of favourable conditions for the sport in France. In Ireland, thoroughbred breeding qualifies for support as a major export industry. In the Czech Republic, special favourable conditions have not been obtained for horseracing and thoroughbred breeding.


In the countries where horseracing is a wealthy industry, for example in France, large amounts of revenue are generated through betting. Some kind of pari-mutuel betting (pool betting), run by the racing authorities, with a percentage of the turnover set aside for racing and only a limited percentage taken out as a betting tax for the government, produces the greatest income for racing. On-course and online betting with a bookmaker is generally more popular with bettors, but it raises much less revenue for the sport. Online betting with companies based outside the Czech Republic presumably takes a lot of money out of the country but presumably brings in little or no revenue for the government.


The Czech authorities since 1989 have regarded betting companies, gambling addiction and gambling losses as major social and legal problems. Gambling dens established themselves extraordinarily quickly after 1989 (as did the pornography industry, organised prostitution, dodgy banks, fraud and cigarette machines). Casinos and fixed-odds football betting took root, and horseracing got left behind. It was the wrong time in the 1990s to lobby for favourable conditions for betting at our racecourses, and the Czech government has continued to look unfavourably on all forms of gambling. The Czech horseracing authorities have not been able in the past 30 years to convince the government that betting on our horse races is different from scratch cards and slot machines, that it is harmless, and that special legislation should be introduced to enable the sport to obtain considerable income through betting on races run here.


The biggest indirect contribution of the government to our horseracing has been to racehorse owners. I apologize in advance if the following notes are inaccurate or out-of- date – I acknowledge that I have no expert knowledge or opinion on racehorse ownership. However, I think it is true to say that many of our racehorses are purchased and owned by subsidiaries of companies, which can write their losses off against the profits of the group of companies as a whole. Any losses incurred by these corporately-owned racehorses are tax-deductible. Something like that. In some other countries, I am told, corporate racehorse ownership of this kind is not allowed or does not provide tax benefits.   


Future prospects


In 2020, Covid 19 attacked a vulnerable horseracing industry. The virus was able to reduce the number of runs by Czech-trained horses in the Czech Republic by about 20% in comparison with 2019, and the number of runs by Czech-trained horses outside the Czech Republic by a little more than 20%.


Brave efforts have been made by the whole Czech racing community to keep the sport going in spite of Covid 19 and in spite of lack of money. It seems that rival groups in Czech racing have been putting aside their disputes and have been cooperating to deal with the crisis. Opportunities for Czech-trained horses to run in races abroad have been welcomed – any opportunity to find a suitable race is a bonus. Race meetings have been available in Slovakia, Poland, Germany, and especially in Italy and France, at which our horses can run in these very difficult times. Transporting horses to and from racecourses abroad has gone ahead surprisingly smoothly throughout the crisis period.


I do not want to finish this article by predicting what will happen next. I have no worthwhile opinion on that. It is more appropriate to end by thanking the people who have kept horseracing going in the Czech Republic in bad times, and by expressing the hope that the sport will continue to close ranks in difficult times.