Czeched in the Stretch

By Paul Deblinger
When the Breeders' Cup announced a few years ago that it would become the World Thoroughbred Championships I thought, why would a successful brand change to an unwieldy new brand? Would there really be an effort to make it a true world championship?

The answer is no. The races are still dominated by American horses with horses from Great Britain, France, and Ireland in the turf races. I can think of fewer than a handful of horses from the Southern Hemisphere that have competed in the Breeders' Cup, and they'd already had successful careers in the U.S. And the races have always been run in North America and always will.

I reflect on the meaning of World Thoroughbred Championships because I watched the first 19 runnings either on location or on television in the U.S. This year I watched the Breeders' Cup in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.

I decided to move to this incredible city after spending time here last summer at a creative writing workshop. The old city has everything for urban dwellers and particularly low prices for those of us used to U.S. levels. When I made my decision to move, the only thing that made me worry was horse racing, or what I thought at the time would be the apparent lack of.

Luckily I was wrong. Before leaving I typed "Czech horse racing" into Yahoo and found the site for the Czech Jockey Club and Prague's Velka Chuchle racecourse. I have been a regular at Czech racetracks and even ventured to Pardubice to see the legendary 6,000-meter Velka Pardubicka Ceske Pojistovny cross-country steeplechase.

I was worried about the Breeders' Cup, though. Until a friend showed me the Fortuna Club a week before the races, I didn't think I would be able to watch the races, let alone bet on them. The Fortuna Club, near Wenceslas Square, scene of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, is a large complex, part of the Fortuna sports betting organization.

Walking into the darkened amphitheater, my friend casually said, "I think you can bet all kinds of racing here." She was right. They carry races from England, Ireland, France, and South Africa. I asked a teller if they carried American racing, and he replied, "Kentucky Derby...oh, and Breeders' Cup."

He assured me they would show and take betting on all the races. I wasn't too worried about past performances since I still had my Daily Racing Form and BRIS accounts, but Fortuna Club did provide patrons with a program sheet and sold past performances for 10 crowns (about 35 cents).

The simulcast center at the Fortuna Club would rival any at American tracks, off-track sites, or Vegas race books. Arrayed in front of two large screens were desks with comfortable chairs seating perhaps 250 patrons. Screen after screen showed racing or results from tracks around the world.

The television coverage was provided by the British racing channel At the Races. While the pictures came from the U.S., the commentary was all-British and very succinct and meaningful. They provided ample footage of Breeders' Cup prep races with insightful commentary. The channel showed the American simulcast coverage for the Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT). While the Americans focused on Islington's sweating, the Europeans dismissed it as an everyday occurrence.

A friend translated the program at my first trip to Velka Chuchle and showed me the betting language, so I was able to handle my "vitez" (win) and "misto" (place) at the simulcast.

My perception of European bettors saw them cheering on their own horses, but I found the patrons at the Fortuna Club cheering on the longshots including a hearty "" as Pleasantly Perfect came charging down the stretch.

While the racing in the Czech Republic is on a par with smaller American tracks, it is well presented and has the opportunity to grow along with the rest of the Czech economy after its admittance to the European Union next year. There are 15 racetracks in the Czech Republic and I plan on visiting as many as I can. I can't wait for the day when a Czech horse participates in a truly World Thoroughbred Championships.

PAUL DEBLINGER is the former marketing manager for The Blood-Horse.