Racing: Local knowledge conquers monster

Racing: British and Irish survive the 108th Velka Pardubicka but a Czech horse falls fatally at the sixth obstacle
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PERUAN, A local horse, won the 108th Velka Pardubicka here in Pardubice yesterday. Five other animals from the Czech Republic, and a sole runner from Russia, won as well, because to complete the monster Pardubicka is to succeed.

Fifteen horses were yesterday brought down by the course's combination of fearsome obstacles and questioning intricacies, including the three representatives from Britain and Ireland. Risk Of Thunder, Superior Finish and Irish Stamp were all charging around without human company while the contest was still in its infancy. They did, however, survive the greater battle. Their jockeys too will take back just bruises.

British racegoers did not know Damion, a Czech horse, and will now never get the chance. He broke his hip in a quite horrible melee at the sixth obstacle, which brought the race to an end for eight horses. Cipisek, a past winner of the Pardubicka, was also sucked into this whirl of flesh and hoofs and was last night fighting for his life.

They have made the Pardubicka a much safer race in recent years but it will always be a journey of considerable peril.

"It could have been worse," Ruby Walsh, who had been the brief partner of Superior Finish, said. "I could have been hurt. I'm walking out of here, and any day you walk out is a good day."

By the time it came to run the last race on the card yesterday the skies had become filthy and drizzle had set in. It was the sort of hostile weather in which the Pardubicka should always be run.

The jockeys bunched together for a team photograph before mounting, a band that included the only woman in the race, Martina Ruzickova. She wore a collar to support a broken neck. Her mount, poor Damion, could have done with some protection himself.

He perished in a sylvan corner of the racecourse at the Czech version of the Canal Turn, a seemingly innocent obstacle sighted in a thicket. It became a bad place after Superior Finish decided that the hedge and ditch should be the last barrier of his journey.

"At the last stride he went to run down the fence instead of jumping it and I was going sideways," Walsh said.

"The horse behind cannoned into my horse's shoulder and turned me and Irish Stamp upside down into the ditch. I brought them all down after that and I ended up under a tree."

The floundering pile of horses and riders left Risk Of Thunder and Richard Dunwoody, even further in front. "After that jump I heard this great big crash behind me," the jockey reported. "The only worry I thought I was going to have from that point was going the right way."

Risk Of Thunder was favourite for this race largely because of his sustained success in Ireland's equivalent, the La Touche Cup at Punchestown. He had already experienced just about all the Pardubicka could throw at him, except, crucially, for the in-and-out, the eighth and ninth hedge fences separated by track just 20 feet wide. It proved his undoing.

"I wanted a bit of momentum and he pinged into the middle, the first bit, but in mid-air he saw the other hedge and he was turning his body from then on," Dunwoody said. "He shot back up the path towards the stands and I ended up in the bottom of the hedge."

Following a late arrival, Dunwoody had been unable to make a reconnaissance on foot. Walking the course is a necessary, if unnerving, pursuit for British and Irish jockeys as there are small graves pitted around the plough and pasture. As with the track itself, however, with its attendant hidden drops and jumps to elevated landing sides, all is not quite as it seems.

Adjacent to the dreaded Taxis, which is named after a Czech prince who risked his noble head on horseback here, is a tended memorial to Kamil Kuchovsky. The local rider was taken from us last year, but it was no bone-shattering end in the bottom of the dyke. The old boy died at home on his bed.

Further out in the country is a clutch of headstones, an apparent consequence of some bloody pile-up. The three men down below, however, are victims of the speedway track that once offered a different sort of horsepower to Pardubice's spectators.

In those pre-war days the Pardubice horses used to gallop through fields of potatoes and sugar beet behind the modern-day grandstands. The large fields which surround the course remain as a legacy of collectivism and the racecourse Tannoy music also suggests a lingering Soviet influence. The retreating Russians clearly left their record collection behind if the regular works of Shakin' Stevens and the Rubettes pumping out are any measure.

There were strange collisions other than those between horseflesh here yesterday. A huge crowd emerging from roads, fields and copses were met by a huge security presence determined to swat any potential semblance of animal-rights protestations. A signal that the Czech Republic, which separated from Slovakia in "the velvet divorce" five years ago, is now comfortable in its single and free-market role came when the Russian Ambassador was refused entry at the main gates. His calling card, which would have sent the gatemen scurrying just 10 years ago, was deemed insufficient proof of identity.

Inside, the informality of the family stands was within sight of a long series of pre-racing parades, pageants, fanfares and anthems. Tied to the peeling paint of the grandstand stanchions were great bunches of red and peach roses.

The laurels at the end of the day belonged to Zdenek Matysik and Peruan who is likely to display his courage before us next month in the Sporting Index Chase, Britain's cross-country equivalent at Cheltenham.

The British and Irish horses are on their way back today and the fact that we can count them all in is the sole return from the weekend. Of all the beasts in the wagon the most successful was Charlie Mann's Time For Action. He finished last in Saturday's Czech St Leger. But at least he finished.