Racing: Czechs make changes: Julian Duplain on moves to lessen the Pardubicka's dangers

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The Independent Online
IN THE Czech Republic this week the question is not what will win the Velka Pardubicka, the biggest race of the year, but whether there will be a repeat of the violent demonstration which preceded the steeplechase last year, when animal-rights' campaigners invaded the course and were beaten back vigorously by security guards.

Like the Grand National, the Velka Pardubicka is a gruelling test. At over 4 1/4 miles it is the longest steeplechase on the Continent. The fences are tough, and a section of the race is run across a ploughed field. Aintree has The Chair and Pardubice has the Taxis, the focus of complaints about the course. The fence comprises a sloping bank leading up to a low jump, with a sheer drop into a ditch.

Since last year, an international team including Peter Scudamore and Charles Barnett, a director of Aintree, have been advising on course amendments. The ditch at the Taxis has been partly filled in, and its edge planted with contrasting vegetation to make it more visible to jockeys and horses. The fence at the top has been rebuilt with birch branches, so that horses will have to clear it with a clean jump, rather than falling through brushwood into the ditch, which was a common cause of injuries.

The size of the field has also been reduced as it is now open only to horses who have reached the first five at Pardubice in the past year and just 15 are likely to come under starter's order.

Jockeys must have ridden at least 10 winners, including one at Pardubice, in order to take part but this will not be a barrier to Marcus Armytage, who partnered Mr Frisk to win the Grand National and will be aboard a local horse, Sirena. In another welcome change, no jockey will be allowed to remount after a fall.

The Velka Pardubicka, which was first run 103 years ago, became a major European sporting event between the wars, only to fall into obscurity in post-war communist Czechoslovakia. But since 1989 there has been an attempt to regain an international profile and attract runners from outside the country.

The adverse publicity of 1992 seems to have deterred foreign competition though, and four Russian runners - including the fancied Dogovor - are the only non-Czech competitors in a race in which Genora, who won on the Flat in June, may start favourite.

Last year, the event secured the sponsorship of Martell, the French cognac company which also backs the Grand National. This time, no firm can be found to link their name with an occasion which may again end in violent conflict.