This eccentric trainer scored his sixth win in the Czech Republic’s most famous race just before turning 57.
With nine days to go before his 57th birthday, riding on a rank outsider, jockey Josef Vana jumped the dreaded Taxis for the 22nd time.
Considered to be the toughest jump in Europe’s toughest steeplechase, the five-foot hedge with a huge ditch lurking behind it has killed 27 horses in the 119-year history of the Great Pardubice in the Czech Republic.
But last October, aboard the big, calm, brown Tiumen, Vana cleared it easily and settled into the middle of the galloping herd. He looked grim, and he had reason to be. He’d won the Great Pardubice a record five times when he entered the 2009 event, but the critics were saying he was all played out.
“He’s not here to win today,” the television announcer said. “Just to erase the bad impression he made at Albertovec two months ago.”
The Albertovec (Czech Republic) qualifying race was a fiasco. The horse he’d planned to ride was not well, and they’d come in last. He had to switch to Tiumen, a placid creature with no great pedigree and a split hoof.
He’d healed quickly, though, thanks to hourly doses of homeopathic drops, and Vana rode him every day, discovering his hidden strength. He even talked to him when there was no one else around.
“We can do this,” he told him before the race, and he meant it.
In his 29-year career, every bone in Vana’s body had been broken but never his will to win. He did not come to lose.
Vana knew every one of the 31 treacherous obstacles of the meandering, 4.28-mile course like his own dinner table. He knew exactly where to cut a curve or turn tight.
Jump after jump, bend after bend, he followed his own path. “Vana’s trail,” the younger jockeys call it, trying to imitate him. Every meter counts in a race where horses can drop dead from exhaustion.
For 26 jumps he held Tiumen back. Then, at the 27th fence, as the favorites struggled through a plowed field, he made his move.
“He’s taking out his whip! He’s urging Tiumen on! He’s riding splendidly, splendidly!” gushed the announcer, forgetting he’d written him off 10 minutes earlier.
Relentlessly, Tiumen closed the gap with the leaders and sailed over the last fence with the grace of a cat.
Then, finally, Vana let the brown horse go.
Propelled by the momentum of the leap, Tiumen shot into home stretch like an arrow.
“Tiumen and Vana launch their attack!” the announcer’s voice cracked with excitement as the great horse streaked past the two leaders and pounded down the end straight.
“Vana on Tiumen wins the Great Pardubice! It’s amazing! It’s astounding! This ‘youngster’ is a racing god!” shrieked the announcer, as Vana, sitting slightly askew, broke the ribbon for the sixth time.
The crowd roared. Torn-up betting forms flew in the air. The jockeys hoisted Vana shoulder high—even the Czech president pushed in for a photo op. Barely out of breath, Vana planted a gleeful kiss on Tiumen’s sweaty cheek.
“Any fool can win this race on a good horse,” he said.
A Little Light Flickered Again
“Can’t do it, I’m in Rome all week,” he snapped when asked for an interview two months later. Then he relented. “I’m getting a check-up in the hospital next week. Come on by.”
In a rare calm moment, regal in a plush blue bathrobe, he belied the myths the media like to spin about him.
He is not old: the lines on his face are not from age but from a life spent outdoors. At 5'9" and a muscle-packed 140 pounds, he is no midget, either, despite a curved spine from three cracked vertebrae. And he is certainly not curt: he talks a lot, and fast, in a soft, raspy voice tinged with the dialect of his native Moravia.
His deep-set brown eyes peer from under a rough thatch of brown hair with benign amusement—and an occasional warning flash.
He was born in 1952 in a Moravian village called Slopne.
“Growing up, I’d ride anything that had four legs: cows, goats—even a pig in a pinch,” he recalled.
He was supposed to be a plumber, like his father.
“I rebelled,” he said. “So Dad took a bottle of home-burned slivovice and got me apprenticed at a prestigious Czech stud farm.” Two weeks before final exams he was expelled for fighting—ostensibly to save a lady’s honor.
“It was about a girl,” he said as his eyes flashed. “It’s not important.”
A 44-pound weight gain in the army killed his racing dream. He ended up running the ski station on Moravia’s highest mountain. He spent his spare time climbing, running, racing—he won several national downhill races—and laying the foundation for the iron physique that would sustain him through countless injuries.
Then he won an ad hoc horse race in a neighboring village. That led to a summer job managing a new stable in the village of Svetla Hora.
“The moment I got back on a horse, that little light called racing flickered back to life,” he said.
He lost 40 pounds and got his amateur jockey’s license at the ripe age of 28.
“When I was starting out, the jockeys I’d been to school with were retiring. But I had an advantage: I was physically and mentally mature, and I hadn’t broken anything yet,” he said.
That didn’t last long. In 1987 he broke his shoulder and, frustrated because he had a race later in the week, he visited a faith healer.
“Don’t ask me how, but the instant she put her hand on me, I felt tingling and warmth,” he said.
The healer, who asked not to be named, told it differently: “I told him not to ride for a week. Three days later he was at my door with flowers and a box of candy, telling me he’d won the race.”
She’s been healing him and his family and teaching Vana about esoteric healing ever since.