Josef Váňa: A leader in the saddle and
in the stable
Written by: Jasna Sýkorová
Photo: Vladimír Weiss
The legendary jockey Josef Váňa (50)
doesn't typically concern himself with financial management or cash
flow, but he coordinates a team of employees tending to the 60 horses
in his two training schools, while preparing to ride in a steeplechase
You're one of the most famous Czech jockeys ever. You've
won Velká Pardubická several times. Now you make your living training
horses. Is it your hobby, or is it your business?
It's my life now. True, I started out riding as an amateur. Before
the revolution I worked for the mountain rescue service and at ski
lifts. Horses were nothing but entertainment to me; I never even
got any financial rewards. But after the revolution I discovered
that I couldn't stay in the mountains. I didn't have the money to
buy some lifts and go into business. So I decided to do what I knew
best, and went to Germany to race horses.
Were you already a horse trainer when you were in Germany?
I rode as a professional jockey for one stable in Baden-Baden. I'd
been there over three years when I was injured. After six months
of being laid up, I found that my horses had become spoiled. It
made me mad, and I returned to the Czech Republic. I've been in
business since 1994. I rented two farms - Bohuslav and Mlýnce -
where we are currently training 60 horses, eight of which we own.
What is the nature of your business?
In this country the trainer does everything, from finding the right
people to finding feed for the horses. I train the horses to race
in events that earn money not only for my company, but for the owners
as well. The horses cost from the tens of thousands to the millions
of crowns, and the people who buy them want returns on their investments.
But of course that could never be reason enough to buy a horse.
When I go looking for horses I go for the ones that don't cost too
much, but that could be good race horses with the proper training.
Do you have time for anything but horses? What does your
typical day look like?
I'm with horses from 8:00 am until noon. The rest of the day I take
care of paper work, management, and organizational matters. I deal
with the authorities when I hire people or when employees leave,
I take care of repairs, I meet with clients. My wife handles the
accounting. We spend our weekends at races. The only season I have
time for hobbies is the winter, when I go skiing.
How do you recruit horses, or rather their owners, for
training at your center? Do you advertise?
Our stables are full, and our results are our advertising - we know
how to get horses ready, and we do it responsibly.
Who owns the horses you train?
Owning race horses is a rather expensive hobby. So most of the owners
are very successful entrepreneurs. I say "hobby" because
you can't make money on most horses. When you add it all up, the
horse's purchase price preordains a loss.
How many people do you employ?
About twelve, two of them jockeys. Also, trainees come to us from
Chuchle to practice. We all do the same work, there are no differences
among our jobs. Jockeys take care of their own horses, too.
How do you select employees?
I like people with temperate dispositions. I don't want any loud
voices around the horses. But it's getting harder and harder to
find new people. British scouts are scouring the country, and many
young people are leaving to work in England, Switzerland, and Germany,
where the pay is better.
Is there any way you can induce them to stay here?
No way. If I get eight thousand crowns from an owner, I'm lucky
to be able to feed the horse with it. Working with horses doesn't
pay well. They also leave to gain experience with other languages.
And I'll do it - at the beginning of summer holidays I'm putting
my twelve-year-old son on a plane to England, so he can learn the
||Earned his amateur jockey's
license and jockeyed Paramon and Železník at the Bruntál-Světlá
Hora stables. In between served as head of ski center.
winner of Velká Pardubická steeplechase riding Železník.
||Begins training school
at the Bohuslav stables, near Karlovy Vary.
the Velká Pardubická steeplechase for the fifth time (the
only jockey in history to do so), this time riding Vronsky.
||Leases Mlýnce, a center on a par
with western European stables (including a riding ring
and a solarium for horses).
||His center boasts
39 horses winning races, with several million crowns in
||Preparing for what will probably
be his final Velká Pardubická.
Nevertheless, you still have people working for you. How
do you motivate them?
Unlike other stables, this company always pays its employees on
time. In short, we try to be nice to each other. No shouting here.
Working with animals is much different from any other business;
many people work here because they love horses, not for the money
or because Mr. Váňa is nice to them. It's a bit different with the
jockeys. They're here to learn something, to make money racing,
because our horses are winners.
Does knowing how to handle horses make it easier to manage
I've been managing people for 25 years now, and I think I can get
along with them, and they know it's better not to get into a scrap
with me. It's much easier with horses. If you want something of
them, they understand, they fix it in their minds, and they do it.
It doesn't usually work like that with people.
Are you a bit of a dictator, or do you discuss matters
with those around you?
I like to hear the opinions of others. It's important to be surrounded
by people who are equally interested in horses, so you can speak
to them as peers. Their knowledge of horses is different from mine.
I'm always trying to push them, to get them involved. I try to get
them to do their best. But it's also good to know how a horse is
eating, or whether it's tired.
But your employees, the jockeys, also compete with you.
Doesn't passing all your jockey know-how on to them put you at a
True, I teach the jockeys everything I know, and then all of a sudden,
while racing in Pardubice, I discover that my student is standing
where I'd like to be. But I have no regrets. If a jockey works for
me, it's in everyone's interests that his results are as good as
they can be. I try to pass on everything I know, because it's good
for me, too. If we don't win, we don't make a living (ed. note:
the trainer gets a percentage of the prize).
You say that horses are a losing proposition. But such
a thing has no place in business - how do you plan your cash flow?
When the money's there it's there, when it's not it's not, that's
all. When it's there I buy a car or a horse. When it's not I don't
spend it, and I decide to go back to Germany. But most of the time
we manage to win something.
Would you turn to others if a crisis came up?
Everyone has to take care of himself. This is my firm. I'm responsible