Racing: Tourists await Taxis challenge

Three runners from Britain and Ireland face one of the toughest tests in Europe. By Richard Edmondson in Pardubice
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THREE FAMILIAR jumping horses do battle over alien and dangerous territory tomorrow in the Czech Republic. Risk Of Thunder, Superior Finish and Irish Stamp contest the notorious Velka Pardubicka, which is not so much a race as a four-mile survival course in East Bohemia. Completion will be considered a grand success.

The 108th Pardubicka will not, in fact, be as perilous as those that have gone before. Animal-rights activists have ensured that some threatening obstacles have been modified. However, the banks, walls, ploughed fields and infamous Taxis hedge and ditch that punctuate a course of Scalextric maziness continues to provide a formidable examination.

Risk Of Thunder, who is part-owned by Sean Connery, has already endured a sapping journey just to get this far. The nine-year-old embarked from Enda Bolger's Howardstown stables in County Limerick last Saturday before making contact with his fellow challengers in Lambourn. From there, their box went through Dover to overnight stops in Cologne and at Waidhaus on the German-Czech border. The caravan reached Pardubice on Tuesday.

Risk Of Thunder has familiarised himself with the environment this week, though he has not been asked to clear any obstacles. His banks-course credentials, however, are undoubted. The gelding has won the La Touche Cup, Punchestown's equivalent race, for the last three years.

"Any intelligent horse should be all right around here," Sara Bolger, the trainer's wife, said yesterday. "You get horses for courses and hopefully my horse is right for this course."

Risk Of Thunder will be ridden by Richard Dunwoody, who flies in tomorrow, as does another of the horse's owners J P McManus. He may provide quite a challenge for the local Tote betting mechanisms.

Superior Finish, who was third in the 1996 Grand National, is the top- rated contestant from our islands. The 12-year-old has been given some idea of what he may experience with schooling sessions at Cirencester's cross-country course. For the real thing he will be partnered by Ruby Walsh.

Irish Stamp, who will be ridden by yet another Irish jockey, Paul Carberry, at least knows what he is letting himself in for. Ferdy Murphy's representative was runner up to Cipisek here two years ago. "He's by no means top class in England but he could still come out here and finish second," Paul Murphy, the trainer's son, who has been riding the gelding at work, said yesterday. "You couldn't just bring over your everyday chaser. You need something to do the job."

Murphy, who won over the Aintree mountains when Gee-A took the Foxhunters' Chase in 1990, believes the Pardubicka to be less of a challenge. "The National is harder to jump," he said. "This is a glorified three-day-event course and any horse that can jump is quite capable of getting round.

"The ploughs are the worse part. They're very, very deep. There's a particularly bad one just before the finish which catches a lot of horses out. Even when they walk across them in the mornings the horses struggle to get through."

It is the menace of just one of the 30 fences, the Taxis, which will attract the attention of most of the expected 8,000 crowd. The fourth obstacle comes after three easy ones and looks unprepossessing from the take-off side: a wide hedge of mixed foliage which appears as if it could be tended by a pensioner's secateurs.

From jump to landing, however, covers a span of 24 feet and the unwary are collected by either the landing-side drop or a ditch a metre deep.

Polish riders used to contest the Pardubicka until the Taxis carnage of 1984, after which they vowed never to come back. Irish Stamp, at least, has returned in company with two horses of great ability. One of them, Risk Of Thunder, is 6-4 with one Irish bookmaker to succeed. Any of the 26 runners should be at least that price just to get round.