Not sure what to expect turning up at the 70th Warsaw Derby, the Insider finds thrills, spills and high couture.
Standing in the VIP section overlooking the course, we gaze down on a sea of color and finery, marveling at the flow of confident Darcy-esque gents and the magnificently accoutred ladies. Being the Sport of Kings, Warsaw’s Derby Day attracts the beautiful, rich and famous and it’s not long before we bump into TV celebrities Kinga Rusin and Poland’s Top Model judge, fashion designer Katarzyna Sokolowska. “We’ve just come back from Ascot,” laughs horse-loving Kinga as they pose for our camera.They haven’t but we all chuckle anyway.
As we saunter through the crowds, past a tent offering fancy hats to those who hadn’t brought one, I make a quick mental revision of my previous night’s homework. Taking off in 1777 when a mare belonging to Parliamentary Deputy Kazimierz Rzewuski thrashed that of English MP Sir Charles Whitworth in a race from Wola to Ujazdów, the gee-gees were soon to become a staple part of Warsaw’s sporting history. A century later that was formalized with a 1km track built at Pole Mokotowskie, where it stayed until moving to its current location in 1939. Today Służewiec is the premier racetrack in Poland and internationally recognized as such, attracting thoroughbreds and a host of international breeders, owners and trainers. Some of them, a bunch of Ukrainian millionaires, had apparently booked the top floor of the VIP building for the Derby, I was told later.
Another is British ex-pat racing horse owner Graham Richards. Roguishly raffish, he looks like he’s strolled straight out of the pages of a Jane Austin classic. “I’ve been racing horses for 15 years but moved my entire stable to Poland four years ago,” he explains. “I prefer racing here than in the UK. It’s cheaper, the horses get to race more often and being in Warsaw I get to see them train as often as I want.” This was good stuff. The first proper conversation I’d had all day. “Naturally, there are some problems,” he continued. “When I first came here I wanted to put my mare out for breeding and Googled ‘Polish Stud’. There are a lot of gay websites out there.”
We wandered down to the race course in time to catch the main event, the Derby itself. With nine races throughout the day, this was the big one. “There’s a visceral excitement about horse racing,” Graham went on. “It’s not the money, it’s not the prestige. It’s simply seeing the horses’ race. It goes beyond anything I can articulate.” It didn’t take long to see what he meant. As the gate went up and 15 slavering steeds charged forward, hurtling around the 2,400 meter track at 50mph, I also felt a surge of excitement. As they thundered past, the crowds began to cheer and yell wildly, as did we, carried away with it all.
The winner, Greek Sphere ridden by Czech jockey Tomas Lukasek, was a foregone conclusion, explained Graham as we headed towards the stables. “That’s why Harry Spires wasn’t there.” Harry Spires is his 3-year-old English thoroughbred bay colt, a striking reddish-brown beauty who lives here. He’s not alone. Covering 130 hectares, Służewiec is home to 800 horses from across Europe, training facilities and a village for the 1,000-odd blacksmiths, race course staff and trainers. We meet Harry’s trainer, Gosia, in her office, a room littered with horsey ornaments inside the actual stables. She’s lived here for about 25 years, she told us as Graham led Harry over. “He’s got great composition,” she smiled. “Lovely long legs, a long, straight neck and a short, strong back.” I decided she meant the horse, not the owner. “He’s a winner,” added Graham. “His sire won the Eclipse Stakes in 2007, and his great grandfather was the great Nijinsky.”
As a finale, we went to find the winner of the ladies’ hat competition and arrived just as she was being announced, a buxom brunette called Magdalena Witosz. Too swept up in the emotion of victory to give me anything other than her name and a winning smile, she modelled her Alice in Wonderland-type of top hat with celebrity-style grace as a phalanx of snappers surrounded her. And that was a fitting summary, I thought. The Warsaw Derby was for dressing up, having fun and feeling like a winner, if not actually being one. It may not be Ascot, but it feels like it. And that was good enough for me.