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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.
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."