Racing: Thrown from the saddle: In the week that Czechoslovakia staged the ultimate steeplechase, Brough Scott reports from Prague on the troubles facing the country's racing in the post-Communist era

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The Independent Online
IT'S A dreadful fence they have to face. So daunting that only the brave will try. So deep its ditch that even a decent attempt may still prove fatal. The Taxis? No, that's just a steeplechase jump. The real impossibility is to see how Czech racing can stay upright in the spiralling economic chaos of the post-Communist state.

The Taxis is the symbol. At five feet high, eight feet wide and with a 12-foot drop, it's the mightiest fence in world racing. But it's been jumped in the Grand Pardubice for 102 years. What was different last Sunday was that it faced politics on the loose. An animal rights protest that was eventually cleared, but the other obstacles loom ahead which make British racing's problems seem like squabbles in the hen-house.

The ironies are acute. Only three years after the triumph of the 'Velvet Revolution', Czechoslovakia's most famous race was all but ruined by a group of student activists who wouldn't have been allowed a squeak in the bad old days. What's worse, the whole Keystone cops tragi-comedy was acted out in front of some Martell bigwigs who had just followed their sponsorship of our Grand National with support of this much needier Czech equivalent.

Sympathy swung first one way and then the other. Initial annoyance at the rag-tag intrusion turned to fear as the baton-wielding, boot-kicking police battered away in defence of The Taxis right ahead of us. But that switched to horror when the race got under way and met a line of demonstrators within the first half-mile.

With logic unseated long ago, this last act now doubled the very danger the protest was about. 'It was awful,' said Marcus Armytage, who rode the fancied Czech horse Cortez. 'We lost all momentum, and this isn't the sort of fence to go at without conviction.' Cortez, along with the local star Zeleznik, was one of five horses to turn over at the Taxis.

At the end of the day there was an almost 'after rugby match' feel. A tall, long-haired youth came by. He thought his gang had started their move too soon but that this had still been much more successful than his last outing, an anti-beefburger picket on the new McDonald's in Prague.

The Taxis loomed huge and daunting against the darkening Bohemian sky. It's not an obstacle a British public would accept, but in truth the Grand Pardubice needs a jumper first and a racer second. Hence Chris Collins' 1973 success on the hunter-chaser Stephen's Society, and Sunday's fourth place by Boreen Prince, ridden by Bob Crosby.

We were walking with a senior local trainer Frankie Vitek, a national hero when he ended years of red-silked, wolf-pack, Russian domination by winning the Pardubice in 1965. His son Roman is also a trainer and one of the deep thinkers in their game. 'I think the first protest was just protest,' he said, 'but the second protest was crime. Yet,' he added accenting his English 'the most biggest thing for Czech racing has nothing to do with the Grand Pardubice.' Next morning at Chuchle racecourse, just five miles south of Prague, with the wind coming raw off the Vltava river, Roman Vitek sketched out the black hole of financial abyss to which his business is headed.

He was watching his horses limber up before work. 'The figures don't really add up at all,' he said, echoing the words of many an English trainer at Newmarket last week but this time from the very bottom rung of the ladder.

The about-to-be-privatised (but who would want to buy it) State Racing Board is in the unholiest mess imaginable. Last year's pledge of 23 million crowns ( pounds 500,000) prize money for the 1,700 Czech horses in training has to square with betting revenue running at just 10 million crowns, and (wait for it) a debt on Chuchle's big new grandstand of another 250 million.

While we digest these statistics, two bulky, bossy, quite expensively-dressed men walk up, They are German agents. They want to buy Roman's best horse. Like a condemned man requesting a cigarette, he asks if he could finish watching his two-year-old gallop. That done, he leads them off, another victim to the mighty deutschmark.

It should be all gloom. Good stable lads can earn five times as much in Germany. Chuchle's impressive track has been disfigured by a banked, grey-sand arena plonked in the middle as part of a misguided, and some say corrupt, attempt to import trotting to Prague. Yet the candle refuses to die. And when you look at what other things Czechoslovakia has faced, and when you talk to Roman's principal owner, the remarkable Dr Fidelis Schlee, you can still believe that anything is possible.

Dr Schlee is quite a player. Imprisoned for three years by what he quite implacably calls 'The Bolsheviks' he is now close to Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, owns Prague's evening newspaper, and drives the only Rolls Royce in the city.

'We have had 40 years of darkness,' he says, looking out of his newspaper office on to the busy railway station far below. 'There are still bad things here if you look and listen and (with a dramatic gesture of finger to nose) if you smell. But people and government are prepared to change. Racing has too much to offer to die.'

There are a million and a quarter people in Prague. There is an enormous untapped betting market to be wrested away from illegal bookmakers. There is a great tradition of racing and breeding which has survived the century. Somehow, with new investors, new concessions, a deal has to be put together.

Outside the trams still run beside the river but they too are under threat. With a 100 per cent increase in costs since the revolution, and no money for improvements, the whole system could foul up within the year. Under the Communists, however cowed, however drab, the trams, like the races, ran on time. In the brave new world there is no such thing as a free ride, let alone a lunch.

If Dr Schlee and Roman Vitek crack this one we shouldn't just give them a medal. We should send them a ticket. We could do with them here.

(Photograph omitted)

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