Czech steeplechase’s iconic, infamous “Taxis Ditch” softened after racing horse’s death

Taxis Ditch

The Grand Pardubice steeplechase, widely regarded as Europe’s toughest cross-country horserace, was first held in 1874. Over the past century, more than two dozen horses have died on the “Taxis Ditch”, a treacherous obstacle that riders are forbidden to practise jumping. A move is afoot to make it safer while preserving its iconic character.

The “Taxis Ditch” is named for the 19th-century German prince who persuaded organisers to perverse the dangerous jump. Originally, it consisted of a ditch two metres deep, hidden behind a hedge a metre and a half high. Nearly three decades ago, the dimensions of the famous – or perhaps infamous – jump were shortened, and the landing edge softened.

Still, in last year’s steeplechase, yet another horse died after making the leap.

Jaroslav Müller, head of the Pardubice Racing Association argues that racing is inherently dangerous, and it would be a pity to alter the “Taxis Ditch” much further: The obstacle, he told Czech Radio in an interview after the start of this year’s racing season on Saturday, is synonymous with the steeplechase itself.

Jaroslav Müller | Photo: Jakub Schmidt,  Czech Radio

“The question is whether the ‘Taxis Ditch’ is really the most difficult obstacle in Europe. I don’t think so. Above all, it is a symbol of the Grand Pardubice. We have planned all possible modifications with the aim of preserving that symbol and, at the same time, in accordance with what modern times require. Things that both spectators and organisers can accept.

“The proposed changes will be quite minimal. We do not want to interfere with the height and size of the jump. We want to maintain the proportion set in recent years. We focused mainly on increasing safety. We believe the most dangerous element is the landing edge, which was modified and softened in 1994, but we saw there was still a big element of danger. So, we adjusted the shape of the ditch and removed the landing edge.”

The Grand Pardubice steeplechase, which takes place in October, remains a punishing test of endurance for both horse and rider. There are a total of 31 obstacles along the nearly seven-kilometre course, and never in its history have all of the contenders in a given race been able to finish it. For many a jockey, the “Taxis Ditch” is where the race ends. For at least two dozen racing horses, it is where their life ended.

Last year, a horse named Sottovento died while jumping over the obstacle, a tragic moment captured on film by the award-winning photojournalist Roman Vondrouš – who has been barred accreditation for the 2021 race. Why? Pardubice Racing Association head Jaroslav Müller again:

Grand Pardubice steeplechase | Photo: Charlotte Tomešová,  Radio Prague International

“That wasn’t the only accreditation denied, and for a number of reasons. You know, it’s quite complicated… We have a code of ethics and these values are immeasurable. Of course, as organisers we know that racing comes with risks. Unfortunately, fatalities can occur. However, we believe that the images published crossed a line.”

Vondrouš’s employer, the Czech News Agency (ČTK), said in a statement last month that it has rejected the horse racing association’s offer to consider granting accreditation to another photographer, objecting to what it called the censorship of independent media.

“The photo series is balanced, capturing victories as well as losses, joy as well as grief. The disputed photo from the Taxis Ditch is both professional and ethical. The horse that lost its life at the most difficult obstacle was not disgraced in any way,” said Radka Matesová Marková, editor-in-chief of the ČTK news desk.

The news agency does not modify the content of its photos, and any tampering of its photos is unthinkable, she emphasized in the statement, published on May 21.

“Tampering also includes censorship, and this is unfortunately how we can view the steps taken by the Horse Racing Association towards our photographer. By not granting him the accreditation, it punishes him for capturing the reality.”