AUG. 25 Swooping low over the lush countryside outside Moscow, the first impression, after countless other swoopings—into Los Angeles, Miami, New York—is that there are no swimming pools. Lakes drift by, some dotted with rowboats. Never a water skier or even a sailboat. My traveling companion looks down and grins, "What a golf course you could build down there." In all of Russia there is not a single golf course, although a few holes were said to have been built in expectation of a visit by President Eisenhower.
My friend is Joseph Cascarella, the executive vice-president of Maryland's Laurel Race Course, the track that features the Washington, D.C. International. The Russians have sent horses to compete in eight of the 20 Internationals, and on occasion their entries have performed admirably. Zabeg, for example, twice finished fourth and once third. Then came Aniline, who led for most of the way in 1966 before being beaten in the stretch by France's Behistoun. That year Aniline finished ahead of America's three contenders, Assagai, Tom Rolfe and George Royal.
Now Cascarella is seeking a new Soviet champion to invite to his race, which will be held on Nov. 11. He has heard that Nikolai Nasibov, who rode in eight Internationals (more than any other of the world's top jockeys), has a candidate named Herold.
AUG. 26 In Paris I once was of mild assistance, linguistically speaking, to American trainers Jack Price and Frank Whiteley. In Russia I need help. Every sign looks like biloximississippi spelled upside down with a mysterious 3 smack in the middle. We are assigned an interpreter named Dimitri (Mitya) Urnov who, we learn, had a short and frustrating career as a driver of trotters and has written a racing book entitled Straight from the Horse's Mouth. In a varied career Mitya has also found time to attend a Shakespeare festival in Stratford, England, deliver the famous gift troika to Cyrus Eaton's farm near Cleveland and lecture on modern literature in English in Havana. Currently, when not guiding visitors, Mitya translates the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, James Joyce, Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway. He is a member of the A. M. Gorky Institute of World Literature and vice-president of the Soviet-Bulgarian Club of Young Intellectuals.
November 6, 1972
We are also introduced to Eugeni Gottlieb of the Horse Breeding Department of the Ministry of Agriculture, who provides necessary background about Russia's racing and breeding. "We are not aiming at quantity, but rather at quality," Gottlieb says. While there are four million horses in Russia, almost all are farm animals; in comparison, the racing stock is negligible. In Czarist days horses were used by the cavalry and in various forms of harness—from the trotter to the three-horse troika to the four-horse tachanka. Trotters enjoyed wide popularity. So it is, even now. There are 20,000 of them in the country, of which 5,000 are broodmares and some 12,000 horses in training. Thoroughbreds total only 4,000, including 1,000 mares, some 750 foals a year and barely 900 horses in training. The one-sided ratio in favor of trotters is explainable partly because they can be bred artificially and partly because, unlike thoroughbreds, they can be raised on almost any sort of terrain. "At the Moscow Hippodrome," Gottlieb says, "there are 150 days of trotting a year, compared to only 32 days of flat racing, so trotters have established form and therefore the confidence of the people. A flat horse may appear only two or three times a year."
AUG. 27 Sunday, Moscow's big racing day. In a city of nearly eight million, maybe 15,000 turn up at the Hippodrome, an ornate structure that was destroyed by fire in the '40s and rebuilt, complete with columns and statuary, in the mid-'50s. The coatless, tieless crowd has paid 25¢ apiece for general admission; a seat in one of the few clubhouse boxes costs $1. No entries or past performances are printed in the newspapers (nor are results published the following day). And no odds are posted on the infield board or anywhere else. The minimum bet is one ruble ($1.20), and a fan can wager only to win or on the daily double. "In Moscow," says Mitya, "a man bets only because he thinks his horse will win, not because he believes he is getting a break on the odds."
This day when there are six flat races followed by 11 trotting events, the total handle is a paltry $280,000. From this amount there is a 25% takeout; 5% goes to the government and 20% to the Hippodrome. Not surprisingly, the purses are pitifully low, averaging $500 for a winning effort. Of this, 30% goes to the trainer, 30% to the jockey, 25% to the groom and what is left to the rest of the stable help. All the racehorses are the property of the state, which luckily does not claim a further share of the meager winnings. At present the owners' list is headed by State Farm No. 33, trainer N. Nasibov.
The race program begins at one o'clock, and, as a 10-horse field parades to the post with not a single lead pony in sight, martial music blares across the vast grounds. Besides the mile-and-an-eighth main track, the Hippodrome has a mile trotting track, a six-furlong training track and, deep in the infield, a show-ring with Olympic jumps. The well-groomed horses do not seem to mind the music. One jockey, a pretty Czechoslovakian girl, waves to friends in the grandstand in a most un-Robyn Smith-like gesture. It is her single triumphant moment of the day. She will finish so far back so often—and have so much sand thrown in her face—that by the final event she will wear her goggles over her eyes during the post parade.
There are no starting gates or tapes in Russia. Races begin with the drop of a flag. This often entails three or four false starts. Front-runners are rarely caught, even when 2-year-olds stagger six furlongs in 1:19[4/5] (U.S. colts run 10 seconds faster than that), and even then the last horse in the field may be beaten by more than 100 yards. There is much pomp and ceremony following stakes races with the first four finishers parading as the national anthem plays. Prizes (usually china or crystal, but sometimes just a suitcase) and long horse-show-type ribbons are awarded. The fans, who this day are betting only $2.30 per race (or less than one-fifth what Americans normally do), applaud politely before ordering another round of cognac. The track is one of the few places in Moscow where vodka is not readily available. Officials believe it would encourage drunkenness; cognac, because it is more expensive and less popular, seems to cause less trouble.
The mile-and-a-half Moscow Stakes is won with ridiculous ease by Herold, a 1-to-2 favorite. His time is very slow: 2:37[4/5] (Key to the Mint, for instance, needed just 2:28[2/5] in the Woodward Stakes over the same distance.) Trainer Nasibov explains his colt won the Russian Derby on the harder track at Pyatigorsk in 2:28. Nasibov tells Cascarella that if any horse from Russia deserves to be invited to Laurel, it is Herold. "Don't judge on today alone," the former jockey declares. "I'm running him again next Sunday, at two miles, and then you'll see how strong he is."
AUG. 28 We spend most of the day with Nasibov, who at 43 is now even more of a hero than he was as the country's leading jockey. Nasibov has been acclaimed in Pravda, featured in a promotional racing film and has even had brands of cigarettes and cognac named for him. He has been Russia's leading trainer in each of the five years since his retirement as a rider. Of his 115 starters to date this season, he has had 57 winners. He is No. 1 (of four trainers) for State Farm No. 33. He lives in a multiroom apartment overlooking the Hippodrome and drives a new Volga station wagon, which at corresponding U.S. prices would sell for $8,000.
Nasibov's English is considerably better than it was in 1958 when he made his first appearance at Laurel, carrying his riding gear in a copy of the Washington Post. "Here," he says with careful deliberation, "we consider Aniline the best horse to take part in international competition, and Herold may be only one second slower than Aniline. He's not what you would call a picture horse, but he is tough and strong. If he is asked to Laurel he will not disgrace himself."
Nasibov emphasizes the lessons he has learned in America. "I try to get all the speed possible into my 28 horses," he says, "but first I must get them fit. I do not race a 2-year-old more than five times and preferably only three times. And once a horse is fit I believe in long, slow workouts as you do in the U.S. Speed is then attained by a fiat-out 1,000 meters, and later by a fast 1,500 meters. The week before a race, I give my horses two short gallops, one long gallop and nothing but long canters on the other days. But you must understand about my success. You have this expression in America, 'Good horses make good trainers.' Many Russian trainers have not yet discovered that working horses isn't enough. They will learn, as I did, that you must have a real feeling for the animal as an individual. You cannot treat them all alike."
There are only 30 thoroughbred trainers in Russia and, according to Nasibov, about the same number of jockeys. They compete at four major tracks—Moscow, Pyatigorsk, Rostov and Tbilisi. Many jockeys seemed to have poor form. The two 18-year-olds who ride most of Nasibov's horses are different. Both Alexander Chuguevetz and Jury Shavuyev have had special training. "Eddie Arcaro was a most elegant man," says Nasibov. "I also admired Shoemaker and Ycaza, but it was Arcaro I tried most to copy, and it is Arcaro's crouch and seat that I try to teach these boys. But it is difficult for me and especially for them. In America a jockey has a chance to ride and improve his style every day. Our jockeys race once a week, and you cannot acquire style when there is such little opportunity. We pick up boys at stud farms and teach them as best we can. I am luckier than most because I know what I want to teach them. Perhaps you noticed Shavuyev, who has won 45 out of his 75 races this year and who rode Herold yesterday. Then you understand."
Nasibov is asked about Russia's systems of identification and testing for drugs. He laughs: "We have no tattoo or any other system of identification because there are so few thoroughbred horses on the tracks that we cannot possibly get them confused. As for drugs, they aren't part of the scene. We take no precautions because we have no problem. Doping simply doesn't exist; nobody's ever heard of it."
AUG. 29 We fly nearly 1,000 miles south to Pyatigorsk in the foothills of the Caucasus. In Russia this is Lexington and Ocala rolled into one. Crossing hundreds of miles of farmland, we see nothing but narrow dirt roads separating the dark, rich soil of one collective farm after another. Only an occasional combine traversing the magnificent undulating land spoils the tranquillity.
AUG. 30 There are only about 70 thoroughbred stallions in Russia; 12 of them were imported from European auction rings. The 1,000 broodmares, although they have strains of English bloodlines, are homebreds. The entire lot, mares and stallions, are to be found here on 15 farms. We are about 100 miles north of the Black Sea. The 12 imported stallions, six of which were bought as yearlings for an average price of $12,000, are concentrated on six farms.
The showplace of Russian breeding, Voskhod, otherwise known as State Farm No. 33, is located 165 miles west of Pyatigorsk. Despite the need to dodge tractors and heavy trucks on a single-lane road, the drive there is delightful, with lines of poplar trees, seemingly endless fields of wheat and corn, enormous herds of beef cattle and an occasional duck farm or apple orchard.
Voskhod differs from a collective farm in that its employees are paid money (the average wage is $165 a month). A worker on a collective farm receives produce. Voskhod is 18,000 acres in all. It has 3,000 head of Herefords and 1,000 Red Steppe milk cows. The farm also sends three million eggs a year to state markets. In this vast complex 1,000 people live and work. The Ministry of Agriculture has ordered that 1,500 acres at Voskhod be set aside for the production of thoroughbred racehorses. Eighty workers are assigned to this section of the farm, whose prized possession is Aniline, the swift stallion who is mainly responsible for Voskhod receiving the Order of the Red Flag. The honor is noted on a plaque at the entrance to the main office.
This day the acting director of Voskhod is Anatole Avramenko; his wife is something of a celebrity in the community since she is the sister of Cosmonaut Victor Gorbatko. Their father was Voskhod's resident veterinarian. The farm may not put the finest Blue Grass studs to shame, but it is superbly appointed. There are a 90-stall broodmare barn, a mile training track and paddocks averaging four acres each. Phosphates, calcium and nitrogen are used in an up-to-date pasture-rotation system, and the horsemen here believe, much as they do in Ocala, that where young horses can be outdoors constantly in a moderate climate, where snow is negligible and where the earth is rich, the best horses can be bred and raised.
It is a pity that the Russians are laboring under so many handicaps. By the law of averages Aniline is not likely to produce anything as good as himself and the other five stallions at Voskhod could hardly be considered world beaters. Zakaznik, the 1971 Russian Derby winner, is entering his first stud season. Gambrinos started as a British dressage horse and came to Russia via Polish racetracks. Derzky, the sire of Herold, has yet to produce anything nearly as classy. Gist is 21 and the possessor of a mediocre stud record. And Ivory Tower, an Irish bred bought as a yearling at Newmarket, England for $2,530, has had no noticeable success to date as a stallion.
"We are doing the best we can with the stock we have," says Stud Manager Nikolai Samovolov. "Seventy-five of our 100 mares foal annually and 70 of the offspring will go to the races. Nasibov gets two dozen of these, the rest go to our other trainers. Under our system, when a trainer wins a stake race, as Nasibov is doing regularly, he is privileged to select two of the next crop of yearlings.
Such a system may be fine for Nasibov, but what is to be done to improve the whole state of Russian racing? The subject is delicate. Russian breeders have limited funds. The last time the Ministry of Agriculture approved big spending for a thoroughbred, the Russians paid $240,000 for England's 1965 St. Leger winner, Provoke. The result: he covered one mare and died. "We hope," says Samovolov, "that someday our government may authorize $500,000 to purchase a stallion from America. But for that figure could we buy an animal with top breeding and a good record? Here at Voskhod we think we have good foundation mares; now we need sires from abroad. See what is happening in Japan. Their racing will improve because they have the money to make the necessary purchases. We wish we had it, too."
AUG. 31 The country meeting in Pyatigorsk corresponds to our Saratoga or Del Mar, though it is nowhere near as elegant. There is a mile-and-a-half track and 500 stalls for a Saturday-Sunday season, 50 days a year. Accommodations are minimal and, as at the Moscow Hippodrome, a total lack of automation. Tickets are cashed by women who use abacuses, the track is swept periodically by a tractor pulling brooms and, because there is no film patrol (only a photo-finish camera), patrol judges are spun around the infield in the back of a rattling, bouncing bus. They watch races without the benefit of binoculars. Crowds average 5,000, but earlier this summer, when the Hippodrome was closed so that its track could be resurfaced. 20,000 turned out to see Herold win the transplanted Russian Derby.
Our next visit is to the Karachaevsky Stud, a 55,000-acre layout that features a flock of 20,000 sheep and the Kabardinski horses, a breed used mostly as saddle animals though they are raced and are favorites at the Pyatigorsk track. The Kabardinski is the offspring of a half-bred mare and a thoroughbred stallion: it is renowned for stamina. Herdsmen in this rough, hilly country often ride out for a week at a time. A Kabardinski's feet are so hard they never need shoeing.
SEPT. 1 We fly north and spend the afternoon at Moscow's State Farm No. 1, the showplace of trotters. Here, on 7,500 acres just 30 miles outside of Moscow, 60 broodmares and three stallions produce the country's best harness horses. All the mares are descendants of the 200-year-old Orloff breed. This combination of mostly Arab and Dutch blood is peculiar to Russia.
Next, in a new $1 million glass-enclosed exhibition hall, we are treated to a display of various kinds of Russian horses. These include the Akhal-Tekensky riding horses and the Trackennen dressage specialists. Our host, Dimitri Ochkin, then gives a toast: "The time will come when you will give up smoking, drinking and women. But the horse will endure—and you will always love him." Hmmm.
SEPT. 3 Back for Sunday racing at the Hippodrome, and Herold again gallops home an easy winner. In just two days of racing, seven of Nasibov's eight starters have won (the other was third). Herold's two performances, in very slow time, have added up to little more than two consecutive Sunday afternoon works. "Never mind," Nasibov says. "He could run again tomorrow. He won his Derby in faster time than Aniline, and, although time is important in any race, it sometimes is not as important as the class of the beaten field. He may not be a second Aniline, but he's certainly better than any other racer ever sent from Russia to America." An hour later, after consultation with various officials, it is decided that Herold will make the trip to Laurel.
SEPT. 4 On the way to the airport Cascarella tells Mitya the name of one horse Herold may have to face at Laurel—Kentucky Derby winner Riva Ridge. Mitya says he'd like to come to Maryland but that he will probably be kept at home for special duty. What duty? Well, it falls to Mitya to telephone Laurel for the race result. The last time Russia had an entry he encountered several hours of delays and poor communications before getting through. Mitya asked the voice on the line for the results. "What the hell are you talking about?" came the reply against a background of bump-and-grind music.
"Well, you see," Mitya explained, "our horse and our people are there so you must help me."
"Listen, buster," the man boomed, "there are no horses here. Most of the people are dancers and most of them are naked."
With that, the line from Baltimore went dead.
Sadly, not only is Mitya being kept home, so is Herold. The horse was about to ship to Laurel last week when a diplomatic snafu developed.