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.
But back in Svetla Hora, he put his faith in science. He poured over body-building literature and always tested the workouts on himself first.
“I had to know what it was doing with [the horses],” he said. “I figured if it got me in shape it would them too.”
In 1982 the stable bought a small, skittish, bucktoothed, 3-year-old chestnut with a sore hind leg. Zeleznik didn’t show much promise, but the attention and the specialized workouts at the small stable bore fruit, and the horse carried Vana to victory in the Great Pardubice in 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1991.
“[Vana] was incredibly dedicated,” Cestmir Olehla, Zeleznik’s former trainer, recalled. “We shared a room at meets, and I’d wake up in the middle of the night to a lot of heavy breathing and there he’d be, doing sit-ups.”
Few who saw it will forget Zeleznik’s last victory.
It was in 1991, and they were holding the lead when another horse sent them crashing to the ground. Vana remounted, and they charged after the disappearing horses. In five jumps they closed the gap, in six more they were fighting Drak, a big Russian black, for the lead and beat him in the stretch by half a length.
Ironically, Zeleznik didn’t like Vana much. Not, as myth would have it, because he was harsh with the horse, but for a simpler reason:
“Back then race horses had to be shod, and he was extremely touchy about the leg he’d hurt,” Vana recalled. “Unfortunately, due to my prior experience, I was the only one who could hold it.”
Age Isn’t A Factor
In 1990 Vana and his wife Pavla Vanova moved to Baden Baden, Germany, where he got a job as a jockey and trainer in the same stable as British jockey Lester Piggott, considered the greatest flat race rider of all time.
“He was nearly 60 then,” Vana recalled. “When he didn’t win, the owner would blame his age, so Lester quit and won the July Cup in England. He proved that age isn’t a factor in racing if you’re fit.”
Vana continued to have good results with his scientific training, but in 1992 he shattered his heel, and his horses were given to a German trainer.
“He managed to cripple all but one using the old Baden methods,” Vana said, still bitter.
They moved back to the Czech Republic to found their own stable, but their main client left them high and dry. Boarding six horses, they barely kept their heads above water. At one time Vanova didn’t send their two boys to school because she couldn’t afford slippers for them to wear in class.
But worse was to come.
In 1994, in Iffezhaim, Germany, a horse fell on Vana, fracturing his pelvis, breaking five ribs and slicing off part of a lung, which blocked his heart, causing repeated clinical deaths.
“I just remember a horrible dream about people driving horses up a waterfall and beating them to death with logs,” he recalled.
“He woke up from the coma yelling, ‘What day is it? I have a qualification race coming up!’ ” Vanova said.
He had no health insurance, and they spent the rest of their money on rehabilitation.
Four months later, he started in the Great Pardubice, as usual.
He won the race for a fifth time on Vronsky in 1997. “Now that was a horse you could turn with a thought, like Tiumen,” he said with a smile.
Vana has only missed one Great Pardubice, due to a life-threatening injury, in 2007.
That year the favorite died on the Taxis, sparking the theory that horses don’t die on the jump when he is in the race.
“He brings order to the ranks,” said the head of the Czech Racing Association, Mirek Petran.
A Belief In His Own Good Vibes
Today, the Vanas board 65 horses, and their stable is considered one of the best in the country. In 2009, their youngest son, Josef Vana Jr., also a jockey, rode in the Great Pardubice—well behind his father.
Along with training, the Vanas buy injured horses and put them back on the track. In their huge pastures in the rolling hills of West Bohemia, they let nature do its work.
“It’s about the time,” said Vanova. “German trainers need running horses in their stalls and clients paying for them. We can afford to wait.”
The Vanas use esoteric and classical healing methods: each horse has a paper pyramid to ward off bad vibes in its stall and gets homeopathic drops when it goes off its feed. This may tilt some eyebrows, but as they say at the Vanas, “What shows is what counts.” Their horses have either won or placed in every Great since 1996.
The only tiny cloud on the horizon is Vana’s hair-trigger temper.
“He blows up, chews out everyone in sight, and 10 minutes later he’s forgotten all about it,” said Vanova. “But for those 10 minutes, there’s hell to pay.”
After his fifth victory, Vana cut back on racing, sparking rumors that he no longer had the touch.
“People at races would whisper to me, ‘You’re letting Vana ride?’” said Tiumen’s owner, Ivo Kohler, who boards all five of his race horses with the Vanas.
Now those whispers have ceased. Rather, the question is whether Vana’s fans will let him stop.
“Czechs can’t imagine the Great without him,” said Dusan Korel, spokesman of the Pardubice racetrack.
There is one exception. “It’s horrible to sit in the stands and wonder when another horse is going to land on him,” said Vanova. “He’s accomplished what no one else had before him, and now it’s time to go. The only thing is, he can’t live without it.”
Though enigmatic about his racing plans, Vana believes in his own good vibes.
“My mother prays for me,” he said with a gentle smile. “I’m not real religious, but I believe there’s some force looking out for me. Every time I go falling into some huge hole I know I’m never going to crawl out of, it snatches me by the seat of my pants and says, ‘Not this time.’ ”
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