Racing: Awesome Taxis awaits Armytage: Richard Edmondson on the fearsome obstacles of Czechoslovakia's Pardubice

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The Independent Online
THERE can be no more appropriate race in the build-up to Hallowe'en than the Velka Pardubice.

Run over 4 1/2 miles of rough Czechoslovakian countryside, this most ghastly of steeplechase races incorporates the most destructive obstacles that are ever put before racehorses. By comparison, the Grand National is as dangerous to health as the London to Brighton vintage car rally.

Foremost among the demanding fences is the Taxis, a word that causes as much trepidation among jump jockeys as it used to with Lester Piggott. Conceived by hunters for hunters, the obstacle offers a 5 1/2 ft hedge that masks a six-feet deep, 13-feet wide ditch on the landing side.

The danger is so great that competitors have to nominate where they are going to jump the fence before the start. Horses and jockeys fall regularly here, some never to rise again.

The Taxis' toll has been such that when this year's race is run on Sunday, the riders will find slight changes to the fence, most notably the introduction of a slope on the take-off side to remind competitors that they have to jump long as well as a high. This, however, is a modificiation about as comforting as a lift up to the scaffolds.

'It's still going to be very frightening,' Marcus Armytage, who rides the locally trained Cortez at the weekend, says. 'It should be a little more inviting, but it still won't exactly be welcoming us with open arms.'

Cortez is Armytage's third ride in the Pardubice and offers the best prospects yet of enabling him to become only the second man to win both this event and the Grand National. This enduring feat was completed for the first time in 1899 by George Williamson when he rode Manifesto to victory at Aintree, having captured the Czechoslovakian race twice earlier in the decade.

'If I can win I think it would be nearly on a par with winning the National (which he did in 1990 on Mr Frisk) as I'll have sat on the horse only once or twice,' Armytage says. 'It's certainly tougher than the National.'

Pardubice itself is an industrial town 60 miles east of Prague, best known for its production of the plastic explosive Semtex, a substance which the race officials may have been tempted to incorporate into the 31-obstacle event.

Little has changed in the 102-year history of the race until this year. As well as the fence alterations, there is to be seeding of the ploughed area of the course which has been reduced to a quagmire in previous runnings.

There are movements too away from competition itself. The track, formerly state-owned, is now controlled by Century Agency, a private company, while the Pardubice will be sponsored on Sunday by the same company that backs the Grand National, Martell. The jockeys may be minded to steel themselves with some of the sponsors' product before they pull down the goggles.

As well as Armytage, the Britons pursuing the prize of 1m Czech crowns (about pounds 60,000) will be Charlie Mann, the jockey, and Robert Crosby, who trains Boreen King. The main stumbling block appears to be the local horse Zeleznik, a 14-year-old who has proved his hardiness with four previous successes.

The visitors will probably be taking advice from Chris Collins, who attends the Pardubice for the first time since riding in the race in 1974. Collins won the event the previous year, in course record time on Stephen's Society, and is the last Briton to have won.

Armytage himself is in the line- up only because Cortez's regular rider was injured in a fall at Bratislava last weekend. 'It's great to get a ride,' he says, 'because the Pardubice gives you a real kick.' A more dangerous course of stimulants would be hard to conceive.

(Photograph omitted)