The four countries belong among East European countries but they call themselves Central European, the proof in case being that they recently held (together with Austria) their cup called the Central European Breeders’ Cup. Sadly, this is all history but these four countries, formerly members of the Soviet bloc, have much in common, among other things also in racing and thoroughbred breeding.
Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, the four countries in question, have a long racing history. Namely Hungary, at the time of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, was really a stronghold of breeding, which gave birth to the unbeaten star in fifty-four races, Kincsem, and it was later home to one of the most important stallions in history, Bona Vista, whom the Hungarian breeders acquired two years after he had given birth to his key offspring Cyllene, the grandsire of the essential sire of modern breeding Phalaris. The Czech Napajedla Stud was, among other things, a successful supplier of thoroughbreds for leading Italian owners at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
WWII and post-war organisation of Europe, which put the four countries in question into the sphere of Soviet influence and communists took hold of governments, had a significant impact on the racing industry and thoroughbred breeding. This period, however, is gone and more than a quarter century after democracy and market economy were reinstalled in these countries, the breeding has changed profoundly. What do results of this year’s Derby races tell about it?
All winners have one thing in common – none of them is locally bred and all were imported from countries with more developed racing industries. The first Derby was the one in the Czech Republic, won by French-bred Gontchar, foaled at Haras du Mezeray. The son of Champs Elysees and listed Prix de la Seine placed Gontcharova was bought as a yearling for EUR 100,000 at Arqana August Yearling Sale and before its triumph in the Central European Derby with the biggest purse he showed not just Central-European class by placing fourth in the Prix de l'Avre (L) at Saint-Cloud.
French bred three-year-olds were successful in Derbys in Hungary and Poland, held on the same day, July 3. In Hungary it was Merion, bred by Dayton Investments Ltd, by Galileo’s son Soldier of Fortune and unraced Museum Piece (Rainbow Quest), the daughter of the Prix Saint-Alary (Gr.1) winner Muncie, who was bought to Hungary at Arqana Deauville Autumn Mixed Sale for EUR 3,500. In Poland, the favouritism was proved founded by this year’s unbeaten Caccini by American Post and out of the double French winner Courances by Simon du Desert. Bred by Bloodstock Agency Ltd, he too was purchased at Arqana Deauville Mixed Sale, but his price was higher than that of Merion – EUR 7,000.
The last one was the Slovak Derby this Sunday. Thanks to its date, but also thanks to close relations between Czech and Slovak racing before 1993 when these two countries were one (Czechoslovakia disintegrated and Slovakia developed its own calendar of classic races), this Derby is very attractive for the participants of the Czech Derby. This year, there were four of them. They did not, however, include any of the first four placed horses, but there was the Czech Derby favourite Timekeeper who disappointed, also due to the bad trip, by ninth place. He compensated well for this in Bratislava, where he won by 1 ½ lengths. Trained by legendary Josef Váňa, successful jumps jockey and champion of Czech trainers, Timekeeper is the full brother of the triple Gr1 winner Rip Van Winkle and same as the last year’s winner of the Czech and Slovakian Derby, Touch of Genius, he was bought by Váňa privately as a unraced two-year-old after the season in Coolmore.
The fact that none of the Central European Derbys was won by a locally bred horse can be taken as a rather non-appealing advert for the local breeders but I just think this would be too harsh. After the reign of communism and the advent of democracy to the Central European countries, very hard times arrived for the former pillars of thoroughbred breeding, i.e. for big national studs. The situation was made even more difficult by the entry into the EU – this eliminated all limits and obstacles for import of horses from abroad and the local owners were quick to find out that even cheaper horses imported from the Western Europe can be more than strong competition for horses bred in local studs, usually under-funded and lacking funds to invest into stallions and mares.
The most remarkable case in point is Slovakia, where former national studs floundered, the privatisation was unsuccessful and, therefore, today Slovakia has fewer than fifty broodmares while ten years ago there were more than two hundred. The breeding in Slovakia is held alive by a number of owners-breeders but even these often look for deals with commercial breeders in the Czech Republic and Hungary. Looking at the card of the Slovak Derby, you will not find a single representative of local breeding among the eleven runners.
A much stronger position for breeders is that in Hungary, as Hungarian-bred horses filled five of sixteen racing stalls in the local Derby and placed second and third through Sarkanyfu and Merzad. But even breeding in Hungary shows signs of decline – it consists of about two hundred broodmares and maintains its position by the lower willingness – compared to that of Czech owners – to invest larger sums into thoroughbreds on Western European sales.
Among the four countries, the strongest thoroughbred industry was in Poland, which – even during the communist regime – was the number one among Central European breeders, thanks to wise purchase of stallions such as Negresco, Mehari, Saragan, Club House or Dakota, and thanks to careful work with families, mostly based on Italian imports from the early twentieth century. Also in Poland, long after the demise of communism, the system built on large non-privatised studs survived and thanks to other agricultural business they managed to resist the imported competition. But the number of imported horses grows even in Poland and as the former system disintegrates, new owner-breeders gradually take over, as they have the opportunity to invest into new blood. Nonetheless, the Polish-bred horses made up a half of the fourteen-head field in the Polish Derby and achieved two best places thanks to Lebowski and Design.
Breeding in the Czech Republic came through stormy development. Czech owners, or rather the owners of Czech-registered horses, are generally most willing to invest large sums into racehorses, moreover the Czech Republic is one of the bases of foreign owners such as Valentin Bukhtoyarov, the owner of the Czech Derby winner Gontchar. The number of broodmares decreased significantly in the Czech Republic too (in 2007 there were 630, two years ago just 350), as did the achievements of locally-bred horses and the demand of owners for these horses. This year, thanks to the result of the Czech Derby among other things, may turn the trend. The former pillars of Czech thoroughbred breeding are largely gone, but they are new breeders, ofter rising from those who bred horses for their own needs. This is well attested by the card of the Czech Derby, which had recently unprecedented six Czech-bred horses and all wore silks of their breeders. Czech horses placed second and third thanks to Krasava and Bonys, and with the triumph of another Czech-bred horse Lagaro in the Czech 2,000 Guineas the local breeding has a very good score in the most important races.
The breeding in the Central Europe is unlikely to get back such a position it had under Austrian-Hungarian Empire when Kincsem was foaled, but the recent data do show that the worst is behind and that thanks to owners-breeders it could play a major role in local racing. And perhaps not just in the local one. The Czech Darhorse centre, established only recently, has already bred the above mentioned Bonys and Lagaro and this year, thanks to their stallions such as Zazou, Mikhail Glinka, Midships or Majestic Missile, attracted broodmares from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark and Italy, so perhaps the Central European breeding and its main protagonists could play a more important role in the pan-European perspective.