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JOURNEY INTO A SECRET LAND
Whitney Tower
November 06, 1972
Any tourist can go racing at the Moscow Hippodrome. It can be a pleasant afternoon with small crowds, 17 races on a program and all the cognac and caviar one could want. What takes more doing is getting to the grass roots of Russia's thoroughbred industry—visiting the country's studs. Sports Illustrated's horse racing editor is the only American journalist who has been invited to tour the breeding farms in the foothills of the Caucasus from which the Soviets hope a runner of international stature may someday emerge. The following is a diary of the trip.
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November 06, 1972

Journey Into A Secret Land

Any tourist can go racing at the Moscow Hippodrome. It can be a pleasant afternoon with small crowds, 17 races on a program and all the cognac and caviar one could want. What takes more doing is getting to the grass roots of Russia's thoroughbred industry—visiting the country's studs. Sports Illustrated's horse racing editor is the only American journalist who has been invited to tour the breeding farms in the foothills of the Caucasus from which the Soviets hope a runner of international stature may someday emerge. The following is a diary of the trip.

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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."

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