It used to be written that the Velká Pardubická is the toughest steeplechase in continental Europe, and in a sense this is true. For sure, it is a race with a long tradition and a highly interesting history. The race has its own special features and its own magic. It is the highpoint for any Czech jockey, who will dream, if not of winning the race, at least of riding in it. It is the social and sporting event with the longest tradition in the Czech lands. When our football league started up, the Velká had already existed for 50 years.
The Velká Pardubická was first run in 1874. For several decades prior to this, races had been held in and around Pardubice. From the beginning, Pardubice was known throughout the horseracing world, since a number of trainers and jockeys from England, the cradle of the turf, came to work in central Europ
The racecourse in its present location was established in 1856. The course first took its present-day form in the years just after the second world war. Before that, the course reached right out to Popkovice, and the horses also ran behind the grandstands, where the car park now is. After the end of the second world war, a military airport was set up there, and some of the land was taken over by the army.
Over the years, the course of the race has been changed several times, most recently in 1998, when there was a change in the direction in which the final phase of the race was run. The repositioning of the winning post and the change to a right-handed run-in was connected with the location of the new grandstand. The course for flat racing and hurdles is 2200 metres in length, and the Velká Pardubická is run over a distance of about 6900 metres. The horses have to negotiate a total of 31 obstacles. The most famous of these is the Taxis Ditch, which is one of the most demanding jumps in the world. There are some other difficult jumps, which can often be decisive for the success or failure of the runners. These are the Irish Bank, the Popkovice Fence, the French Fence, the Snake Ditch, the Big Water Jump, the Garden Fences, the Big English Fence, and Havel’s Fence.
The surface of the course is mainly grassy, but parts run through ploughed fields, the amount of which has varied and mainly been reduced. In the first decades, almost half of the race was run over ploughed fields. This was later reduced to about one third, and now it is about one quarter. Some of the obstacles have also been adjusted in order to raise the level of safety for horses and riders. More recently, the biggest changes have been in the water jumps, where the original natural stream now runs through concrete troughs. Safety has been improved, but the difficulty of the race has “suffered” as a result. In the past, the Big Water Jump often used to be decisive for the outcome of the race, but nowadays it is easy to jump and a horse can even run through it. The Taxis Ditch has also been adjusted. The ditch has been made shallower, but the basic parameters of the fence have not been changed.
Since 1874, Velká Pardubická has been run 122 times. The race has failed to take place only during the two world wars, and once due to the weather conditions, when it started to freeze the day before and then snow fell. In 1968, the race was not held due to the political events in the summer of that year.
The first winner was the French-bred FANTOME/PHANTOME, ridden by Sayers. The list of winners contains the names of total of 89 horses and 78 riders.
The most successful horse in the history of the race was ŽELEZNÍK, the only horse to have won the race four times, from 1987 to 1989 and in 1991. Eight horses have won the race three times: BRIGAND 1875, 1877 and 1878, LADY ANNE 1891, 1894 and 1896, EPIGRAF 1957–1959, KOROK 1969, 1971 and 1972, SAGAR 1981–1983, PERUÁN 1998–2000, TIUMEN 2009-2011 and ORPHEE DES BLINS 2012-2014. There have been 13 double winners, including the mare SIXTEEN, which this year missed the chance to join those that have won three times.
Among the jockeys, Josef Váňa leads with six wins, four of them on ŽELEZNÍK and one each on VRONSKY and TIUMEN. Václav Chaloupka has a collection of four wins, three on KOROK, and one in 1978 on VÁCLAV. The outstanding German jockey Peter Gehm also won four times, on CHALCO in 2001, one year later on MASKUL, and the next two years on REGISTANA Peter Gehm is the only jockey to have won the race in four successive years. Jan Faltejsek whon three times with ORPHEE DES BLINS in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and once with CHARME LOOK (2016).
Six riders have won the race three times. The first of them was the Italian rider Hector Baltazzi, in the early years, when three English riders, Fletcher, Buckenham and Geoghegan, also achieved this feat. In the early 1980s, Pavel Liebich won three times on SAGAR, and Zdeněk Matysík was victorious on PERUÁN in the last three years of the 20th century. Fifteen riders have won twice, the most recent being Vladislav Snitkovskij, who rode ERUDIT in 1994 and CIPÍSEK in 1996.
In the course of history, a number of women have ridden in the race. The first was Lata Brandisová, who managed to win the race on the mare NORMA in 1937, the last running before the second world war. In the 1960s, Eva Palyzová rode several times, twice taking second place, on Cavalet in 1965 and on Metál in 1971. Other women to ride in the race were Charlotte Brew, from England, Jana Nová, Renata Charvátová, and Martina Růžičková. The seventh woman rider is Lucie Baluchová, who took third place in 1997 on GRETTY.
RIBELINO holds the record for the fastest time, when he won the 2015 race in 8 minutes 56.01seconds. The first time the race in less than 9 minutes was running in 2008 SIXTEEN. She is the first grey mare to have won the race, which she has now done twice.
In the early years there were few runners, often only about five. Once there were just three valiant participants. The horses were mainly foreign-bred, mainly English, German and Hungarian. The same is true for the jockeys. In the first decades, English, German and Italian names featured. The first Czech winner was not until 1902 – when Ulrich Rosák was successful.
In addition to the names of Josef Váňa and Václav Chaloupka, who are still active participants in Czech horseracing, the list of winners contains famous names like those of Rudolf Popler, born in Vysoké Mýto, not far from Pardubice, who was tragically killed in a fall at Pardubice racecourse, Lata Brandisová, Miloš Svoboda, born in nearby Přelouč and a historian of the Velká Pardubická, Volodja Prachov, the Russian trainer who worked for a time in Pardubice, and also František Vítek, who would later be many times champion trainer on the flat. A special mention should be made of the English rider George Williamson, who is the only jockey to have won both the Velká Pardubická and the Aintree Grand National.
Josef Váňa now stands alone as the most successful trainer of all time. He has won the race 7 times, twice with SIXTEEN, and once each with CIPÍSEK, VRONSKY, CHALCO, DECENT FELLOW and now TIUMEN. Josef Váňa has also six times trained the second horse in the race.
Until this year, he shared first place among trainers with Dr Čestmír Olehla, who has won the race six times, four times with ŽELEZNÍK and twice with REGISTANA. František Holčák has won five times (VALENCIO, LIBENTÍNA, RIGOLETTO, ERUDIT and MASKUL). Four-time winners are Václav Chaloupka (KOROK three times, VÁCLAV once) and Václav Čermák (SAGAR three times, FESTIVAL once). Lenka Horáková was the first successful woman trainer, with PERUÁN. The second was the trainer - woman Martina Růžičková (2016 - CHARME LOOK).