Wonder horse who gave a nation back its pride
His breeders wrote him off. A trader bought him by accident. Now the world's fastest race-horse is the talk of Hungary, reports Daniel McLaughlin
Saturday 25 April 2009
As Gabriella Jesensky steps towards the paddock rail with a rosy apple for her favourite horse, a black-clad security guard blocks her path. It is not just any nag rolling in the dirt and kicking up huge clouds of ochre dust behind him. This is Overdose, perhaps the fastest – if not the prettiest – horse in the world, and a horse carrying the hopes of the Hungarian nation.
Bought almost by accident at a sale three years ago in England for just £2,100, Overdose is now worth millions after winning all 12 of his races in stunning fashion. He is credited with revitalising not only Hungary's ancient equestrian tradition, but the spirit of a country wearied by its political and economic woes.
Last weekend, on the heels of a government collapse, the announcement of a harsh austerity budget and predictions of the worst recession since the fall of communism, Overdose streaked to victory at Kincsem Park in Budapest, the country's last surviving racecourse.
About 20,000 people flocked to watch him – more than 20 times the usual attendance and thousands more than its official capacity – and laid bets with such abandon that the 30-year-old bookmaking system collapsed under the strain. Overdose broke the course record on his way to the finishing post, although the antiquated timing system also seized up on the big occasion.
Such is the popularity of Overdose in a country that has few world-beaters and is suffering a dearth of good news, that he has already been called Hungary's Seabiscuit, in reference to the legendary American horse that inspired a nation wracked by the Great Depression of the 1930s.
"Before Overdose, Hungarians had forgotten all about horse-racing – we had great traditions but no present and no future," said Zalan Horvath, the secretary of the Association for the Future of Equestrian Sports in Hungary. "Last year, the government wanted to sell Kincsem Park, our last racecourse, to raise money. But, after what Overdose did there at the weekend, it would very hard for them to do that now. He really is Hungary's Seabiscuit. Everyone loves him and he can open a new golden age for Hungarian racing."
Overdose lives and trains at a ramshackle stable complex in Dunakeszi, just outside Budapest, under the watchful eye of his trainer, Sandor Ribarszki. The stables are a family affair. Two small children play in the shade of a huge oak tree, stopping on occasion to watch the glistening horses being put through his paces nearby, to listen to the banter between stablehands and jockeys, and to greet their father when he rumbles up in his old car. A stocky, ebullient man who speaks several languages, and often includes words from all of them in one sentence, Mr Ribarszki was less than overwhelmed by his first impressions of Overdose, or "Dozi" as he calls him.
"He wasn't ugly, not quite, but he was bony, he had small bones and didn't look very strong. But I've seen before how a horse can change. He arrived in November and, by the next April, he just wanted to run and run – we had to hold him back," the trainer recalled. "A race to him is like it is to me. He gives everything, from the heart. He feels stress as the race approaches, he knows what he must do and, whether it's a big race or a small race, he only wants to win. America had Seabiscuit when everything was shit – we have Overdose."
Hungary would have missed out on Overdose had it not been for a steel trader with a love of the auction ring and a weakness for racehorses.
When Zoltan Mikoczy saw the one-year-old with the skinny legs led out at the 2006 year-end sales at Newmarket – traditionally a place to offload horses that have failed to sell earlier – he raised a hand in jest, convinced that not even this puny specimen could go for £2,100. But no one else made a bid, leaving Mr Mikoczy with a horse he didn't really want. He looked for possible co-owners to split the costs, but none were found.
"A horse like this comes around once a century. There hasn't been a horse like this in this part of Europe since Kincsem," said Mr Mikoczy, recalling the Hungarian horse of the 1870s, which retired undefeated after 54 runs and gave its name to the Budapest racetrack.
"I'm not interested in the money. I'm interested in having one of the best racehorses in the world and hearing the Hungarian anthem played at the racetrack. Getting Overdose is like having hit the jackpot in the lottery and I know I'll never have a chance like this again."
His joy at Overdose's success is shared by his beleaguered compatriots, who saw their unpopular government collapse last month, sunk by the economic crisis. Hungary was the first EU member to seek an emergency loan from international lenders last year, but unemployment is rising, deep recession is looming and budget cuts are inevitable, despite that $25bn (£17bn) cash injection.
Few Hungarians know that Overdose started life in the English Midlands, at Whatton Manor stud in Nottinghamshire. He was born on the farm of Peter Player and his wife, Catherine. "When the foal arrived – by Starborough and Our Poppet, which is good pedigree – it was disappointing to say the least," recalled Mr Player. "In automotive parlance, you could say he had a very poor set of front wheels, with two flat tyres and badly out of balance. He had a big back end but overall a poor frame. We decided that it would be better to get rid of him."
When Mr Mikoczy bought the horse and took it to eastern Europe, Mr Player thought it had been given its best chance. "I thought it had no chance of winning against the smart stuff in England and France," he said. "But the trainers have done superbly well, and Overdose is simply a freak. So far, he has never been headed, never been put under real pressure. But of all the horses running at his distance, he is the one to beat. He could be one of the all-time greats, another Seabiscuit or Phar Lap."
Eighty years ago, Phar Lap cheered Australia and New Zealand through the early years of the Great Depression, and his heart is now preserved in the National Museum of Australia. Hungarians have shown similar adoration for Overdose and his international reputation could be sealed when he travels to England. He is due to run at Haydock Park on 23 May, ridden by the star Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon, before heading to Royal Ascot in June and to Newmarket for the July Cup.
"We watch him wherever he goes, and I've already marked the dates on my calendar when he will be racing in England," said Ms Jesensky, a superfan, putting away her apple as Overdose's "bodyguard" edged her and her friends away from the paddock rail. "Overdose makes Hungarians feel good," she said. "We are so happy that he's here."
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