October 03 2009
If you are a devotee of thoroughbred colts and fillies, you are probably in Paris this weekend for the Prix De l’Arc De Triomphe. But tomorrow’s Longchamp showpiece is not the only big racing event in Europe this month. A week today, dedicated steeplechasing fans and lovers of a spectacle will converge on Pardubice in the Czech Republic for the annual Velká Pardubická, which, other than the Grand National, is just about the most dangerous and action-packed jumps contest in the world.
The 4.25-mile cross-country race is run over a mixture of turf and lightly ploughed fields, and the 31 fences are an eccentric combination of natural hedges, walls, post and rails, water jumps and the Irish Bank, which the runners canter up on one side and jump down on the other. There is also a fearsome Aintree-style obstacle called the Taxis which is six-foot-high and six-foot-wide with a chasm of a ditch on the landing side.
The race dates back to 1874 and was originally designed for the kind of thrusting Austro-Hungarian cavalry officers who otherwise spent their leisure hours chasing wild boar around the local forests and slashing the tops off champagne bottles with their sabres. Visiting English jockeys joined in and in 1899 one of them, George Williamson, won both the Pardubická and the Grand National. He went on to have an affair with Daisy, Countess of Warwick, but unfortunately she was also desired by the powerful Count Batthyány, president of the Hungarian Jockey Club, who ensured that Williamson was forced to return to Britain, his career in ruins.
One of the most revered Czech riders was Captain Rudolf Poplar, who won the Pardubická on a horse called Gyi Lovami! in 1930 but was killed in a fall there in 1932. The fence where he met his end was renamed in his honour and is still jumped today.
During the Cold War era the event was monopolised, depressingly so from a Czech perspective, by runners from the Soviet Union, who rattled off seven consecutive triumphs. It used to be said that the Russian jockeys tied themselves to their reins making it easier for them to remount – or be dragged along the ground – if they fell off.
The profile of the race began to change in 1973 when the English gentleman amateur Chris Collins overcame bureaucratic objections and rode his own horse, Stephen’s Society, to a famous victory. The only catch was that, because of the strict currency restrictions imposed by the Czech regime, he was unable to take his prize money (which this year will amount to the equivalent of nearly £150,000) out of the country.
All of that changed with the end of communism and in the past 15 years or so a steady flow of intrepid English and Irish challengers have made the journey to Bohemia. Only one of them – It’s A Snip, in 1995 – has been successful, but the regular influx of foreign riders, along with enthusiastic parties of British and Irish racegoers, has transformed the Pardubická into a major social as well as sporting occasion.
Pardubice, which is only about an hour away from Prague by train, is an interesting town with fine old squares and an atmospheric late Gothic castle. It’s also home to the factory that makes Semtex, but the surrounding countryside is beautiful and the hospitality at the racecourse most welcoming. Czech food may be a bit heavy, but the local gingerbread (pernik) is delicious and the plum brandy, sloe gin and many excellent beers will keep you feeling chipper on even the chilliest autumn afternoon.
Back in May, 54 horses were entered in the Pardubická, including Czech trainer Josef Vana’s grey mare Sixteen, who won in 2007 and 2008, and Silver Birch, who landed the 2007 Grand National. Betting had yet to commence at the time of writing, but the market on tomorrow’s Arc has been busy for months. The favourites are likely to be Fame And Glory, who won the Irish Derby in June, and the crack French filly Stacelita, trading at 4-1 with Hills and 5-1 with Coral respectively. Both should go well but Conduit, a winning tip in the King George in July, will be staying on strongly in the closing stages and looks good each-way value at 8-1 with Coral.