The British Grand National has long been revered as one of the hardest cross-country races, with Aintree’s 28 fences proving a stiff test of the 6.5km, two-and-a-half-furlong race.
It’s the longest jump race in British horseracing, but it doesn’t quite compare with the most gruelling cross-country race in Czech horseracing.
The Velka Pardubicka Steeplechase, also known as the Grand Pardubice Steeplechase is the Czech Grand National. It lays claim to not only being the world’s oldest cross-country event but the toughest too.
Outside of the Czech Republic, the Velka Pardubicka Steeplechase is rarely covered by the leading tipsters and handicappers at oddschecker, whose daily tips typically cover the UK and Irish racecards.
Nevertheless, this article is designed to shine a spotlight on this iconic event for locals that are yet to experience this 147-year-old race as well as horse racing enthusiasts reading and living further afield.
Unlike the British Grand National, the Grand Pardubice Steeplechase has more obstacles totalling 31. It’s one of the main reasons why Czech racing enthusiasts are drawn to Pardubice, which is situated 100km from Prague.
The Grand Pardubice Steeplechase is also slightly longer than the Aintree Grand National at 6.8km. Historically, this event is scheduled for the second Sunday in October annually, with the best thoroughbreds in the Czech Republic and beyond having four bites at the cherry to qualify in the lead up to October.
Only World Wars I and II, the 1968 Russian invasion, and a particularly harsh snowstorm have prevented the race from happening on this day each year.
One of the most shocking statistics of the Grand Pardubice Steeplechase is that no race has ever completed without at least one falling horse. The biggest challenge of all at Pardubice is the “Taxi Ditch”.
It’s an obstacle that’s so severe that it is never used at any other racetrack in the world. Furthermore, horses and jockeys are implored not to use the Taxi Ditch for training purposes in the build-up to race day.
The Taxi Ditch pays homage to Aintree’s Becher’s Brook obstacle, but many racing enthusiasts argue that the Taxi Ditch is a more fearsome and unusual hurdle to overcome. The Taxi Ditch certainly separates the contenders from the pretenders. It enters the fray as only the fourth obstacle out of 31, giving jockeys and horses precious little time to ease their way into the contest which usually lasts between nine and ten minutes.
Although the Taxi Ditch measures a similar height to Becher’s Brook at approximately five feet, the differentiator is a chasm-like ditch on the landing side. The ditch extends some four metres beyond the initial hedge, making it very difficult for horses and jockeys to negotiate and maintain their footing.
Former jockey Andrew Glassonbury, who has raced at both Aintree and Pardubice, told Horse & Hound that Becher’s Brook and Taxi Ditch have to be treated very differently. Glassonbury spoke about the “sheer drop” beyond Becher’s Brook which is the main problem to overcome. With Taxi Ditch, it is more the “distance you have to make up” to reach the end of the ditch “on the landing side”.
Taxi Ditch, therefore, requires jockeys to encourage their horses to enter Taxi Ditch at genuine speed to build momentum that clears the fence and most of the ditch. Glassonbury likened Taxi Ditch to “jumping into outer space” given the time it feels like you are in the air clearing the fence and the ditch. Horse & Hound’s very own racing journalist Marcus Armytage has also ridden Aintree and Velka Pardubice during his previous role as a jockey.
Armytage once gave Taxi Ditch the humorous tag of the “love child of Becher’s Brook and The Chair – on steroids”. Nowadays, the Taxi Ditch has been altered somewhat for safety purposes, with the ditch only one metre deep instead of two.
Another reason why the Grand Pardubice Steeplechase rivals the Aintree Grand National is the stamina tests in other obstacles. Runners and riders are forced to negotiate ploughed fields, as well as hefty water jumps, not just standard fences and ditches.
Other iconic obstacles in the Grand Pardubice include the French Jump, which sees two hedges spaced within a matter of feet apart and must be jumped in one fell swoop. That’s followed by a three-meter-long water jump. Meanwhile, the Irish Bank is another stiff test of a horse’s stamina, charging up and down steep artificial banking.
It took 28 years for a Czech jockey to win the Velka Pardubicka Steeplechase, with the nation rejoicing after Ulrich Rosak’s success. A host of female jockeys have also entered, with Lata Brandisova making history in 1937 by becoming the first to win the race.
What other races worldwide have the same “fear factor” as the Grand Pardubice Steeplechase?
For a genuine test of endurance and a battle of wills, the Mongol Derby has to be up there with the toughest of them all. Many consider the Mongol Derby the “Le Mans of horse racing”. This 1,000km race sees runners and riders race for up to 14 hours daily, hot-footing it across the Mongolian Steppes.
The treacherous terrain is so rugged and demanding that entrants require multiple horses to swap in and out during the race. No horse is used for more than 40km at a time. Unlike the Grand Pardubice Steeplechase, which is over in ten minutes, the Mongol Derby usually takes ten days to complete.
It’s also worth mentioning the Tokyo Racecourse in Fuchu, Japan. This racetrack plays host to the Japan Cup as well as the now-legendary Japanese Derby. The Tokyo Racecourse is dubbed the “Racecourse of Racecourses”, with the circuit boasting five possible track options of differing turf tracks, as well as a jump course and an all-weather dirt track.
With the potential to host up to 223,000 spectators, the Japanese Derby can be one of the hardest to win purely because of the spectator and media scrutiny involved in the build-up to the race. Jockeys have to filter out the noise both before and during the race to prevail here.