A day at the races in Velká Chuchle


“What’s a ‘chuchle’” was my first question, a reasonable question I think, when I first learned I would be going to see a ‘big’ one, many years ago. In the end it seems, the name of the premier Czech horse racing flat-track, Velká Chuchle, doesn’t have any literal meaning, but it is a synonym for a lovely Sunday afternoon.

It’s the surrounding villages rather than the stadium that are named Velká and Malá Chuchle, but to say ‘we’re going to Chuchle’ generally means a trip to nothing other than one of a hundred cottages or to the horse races, which have been a staple of Prague entertainment since 1906.

Petr Drahoš is the managing director of the racetrack.

“Our racecourse is 100 years old and is a very important place for people in Prague and for Czech racing, because we have about 22 racing days per year. There is a training centre, we have our betting company here, and many people go through our school for jockeys…

The Czech Republic has a strong tradition in horse breeding and racing, and several Czech breeds are known around the world. The big Czech race followed in the international press each year is the Velká Pardubická steeplechase, held at the east Bohemian track in Pardubice and famous among other things for some of its death-defying (or death-inducing) hurdles. But Chuchle is a different kind of place, though no less deserving of its popularity. Irena Rychlovská heads the racetrack’s business department.

“You know that the Grand Pardubická is the most famous race in the Czech Republic, but we have many racing days compared to the Pardubická – we have 20 to 25, in Pardubice it’s something like eight to ten. So we race quite frequently, between April and November. And this is the best flat racecourse in the Czech Republic. Pardubice is more for hurdles. So those who are best at flat racing are based in Velká Chuchle.”

Chuchle is not so much for big-time races as for a Sunday day’s out with the family or friends, and the atmosphere on a sunny summer’s day is especially enchanting. There is a variety of atmospheres to choose from and all of them are pleasant. There are dislocated clusters of excited betters scribbling down their every expectation, families in the restaurant chatting loudly, fathers with children mounted on their backs to watch the beautiful steeds on parade before they set out for the track, and there is an all-pervasive smell of trdelník, the sweet treat that marketeers have been touting as a traditional Czech specialty for only the last few years.

It was on a hazy day in October that I came to Chuchle, but the atmosphere was none the worse for it.

“Today is the closing day of the racing season at Velká Chuchle, and there is the traditional Prize of the President of the Czech Republic. The president will not be here today because he has a busy schedule, but usually he attends the races and awards the winners. Today they are closing the championships for the flat racing, hurdles and ladies’ cup.”

The President’s Prize can be traced back to the first Czechoslovak president, TG Masaryk, who was a great fan of the venue and could be found here many a Sunday. While a handshake from President Klaus would make a nice photo for the winning jockey and horse owner, the 250,000 crown booty that comes with victory is the more palpable of the rewards on offer. Horse racing and money are inseparable, but the latter was not first on the mind of jockey Jan Rája, who had just won 50,000 in the third race of the day a few minutes before I spoke to him.

“Velká Chuchle is first and foremost a racetrack with an enormous tradition. You could say that the support that the horses have here and the track itself is of the highest quality in the country, and I think all the jockeys here enjoy racing here. It’s the best course in terms of optimal performance for the horses and the jockeys, with the track being truly straight. Everything is really up and running here, so for us, the racers, it’s like being at home. Prague is like the cradle of our tradition.”

I stopped several of the tiny jockeys on their way off the track and they all had the same feelings about racing at Chuchle – this was their home base. Interesting then that the President’s Prize went, in the end to a quote-unquote foreigner, Slovak Ján Havlík, who is just learning to love the place.

“I haven’t ridden Chuchle very much at all, but this year I ran a derby for the same owner here in Chuchle and came in third. So I’ve only gotten to know the track a bit, but I like it. And as for today, with this mare, Bailanda, we knew we had a shot at winning, and we ran a perfect race.

In the crowd there were all sorts of spectators, some doing more spectating than others, but all having a good time of it.

In conclusion I will share my own betting secret, for those even less initiated than I, which is to put a small bid on the three top horses, in which case you will usually suffer minimal losses and nonetheless convinced that you’ve won. Keep that in mind, for what it’s worth, until April, when the snow starts melting and the races at the big Chuchle start up again.