Racing: The worst Taxis ride in the world

Three runners from the British Isles face a steeplechasing ordeal this afternoon.
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The Independent Online
PARDUBICE, in the Czech Republic, is not kind on the eye. Or the nose. The grey, flat, East Bohemian City is the home of the Semtex plastic explosive and countless other factories spluttering chemicals into the air.

On Pardubice's fringes lies a leafy and verdant area of land, a plot ring-fenced from the industry around by tall poplar and beech trees. Orange leaves have been lying on the grass this week, creating an impression of tranquillity among the coughing towers.

This afternoon, however, 26 horses will find that Pardubice racecourse can be a dangerous place indeed. Three horses from our islands will contest the 108th Velka Pardubicka, a race run over terrain and obstacles which suggest the field should have a pack of beagles whirling around their hooves.

Over four and a quarter miles of grass and deep-ploughed field, the Pardubicka is a unique challenge even before the introduction of the dreaded Taxis, the most formidable of the 30 hybrid obstacles. Risk Of Thunder, the three- time winner of the Irish equivalent, the La Touche Cup at Punchestown, Superior Finish, third in the 1996 Grand National, and Irish Stamp, who has completed this course, have much to commend them. But when it comes to the Pardubicka, the distance, the puzzling fences and riderless horses careering around the pastures, nothing is certain.

The local approach to this year's race has been mercifully clean of hyperbole. The suggestion that Sean Connery might attend to watch his Risk Of Thunder did make the back-page lead of the Prague Post, though, under the headline: "Bond Actor in Steeplechase".

Owing to film commitments in the Philippines, Connery will not be here, though his noble representative may feel the need to borrow some equipment from Q's laboratory. An inflatable saddle cloth perhaps, or jet-propelled horse shoes.

Water remains one of the demanding features of the Pardubicka, though the Prikops are not the terrifying obstacles of yesteryear. The equine warriors of old had to cross wide, slow- running streams, virtual swamps. Victims carried away in this sludge had to be fished out down stream.

The first of the Prikops is before the Taxis and the Irish Bank, a green Swiss Roll blocking the runners' path. Horses that get to the huge mound, the fifth, have already done a job. They have cleared the Taxis.

The approach to this most feared of fences looks innocuous, a line of apparently suburban privet barring the field's progress. It is only when they are airborne that horses realise that the landing-side ground drops steeply away and a cavernous ditch is also waiting to swallow them.

Chris Collins, who won the 1973 Pardubicka on Stephen's Society, says: "When I saw the Taxis for the first time I thought those who claimed it was jumpable were joking. The Taxis is without doubt the toughest of the tough, it takes the biscuit. It's probably the hardest obstacle in the world."

Film of the Pardubicka is often graphic and deceptive, suggesting the contest stretches to Slovakia and back. Coverage of the race is reminiscent of the movie-making technique of clambering through a bush in various directions to create the illusion of a jungle trek. The land is used economically at Pardubice, the horses swarm around a relatively small plot.

The labour of piloting an increasingly tired conveyance over 30 of the 50 obstacles which are jammed into Pardubice is the most onerous assignment a jockey can undertake. The 10-minute mission for Richard Dunwoody, Paul Carberry and Ruby Walsh will be stimulating and exhausting today and, all the time, they will have to contend with rival horses of dubious calibre and rival jockeys not even qualified to ride the dubious.

The Velka Pardubicka was first run in 1874. It was won by a German stallion called Fantome, ridden by a British jockey. The date, 5 November, is probably the most apt one in the calendar for the birth of the contest.

Nowadays the great race is run on the second Sunday of every October. About 8,000 will watch the survival test this afternoon, among them a 70-year-old riding instructor who has watched brave men examine themselves against the Pardubicka since he first saw the race from his father's shoulders in 1933.

Vladimir Matousek has seen blood on the ploughed ground, he has witnessed jockeys being knocked from their seats on the point of victory by riderless horses, and he has only just formulated the art of success in this part of East Bohemia.

"There are three rules," he says. "First of all, you must be in the first wave and not follow another horse into the Taxis. Later, you must never try to pass on the ploughed land. And, most of all, you must be lucky. It is good to be on the best horse, but it is most important to be on the lucky horse."