Ride Comes Before A Fall in Turkmenistan

2001 Turkmen stamp featuring Akhal Teke horse, courtesy of Wiki Commons.

2001 Turkmen stamp featuring Akhal Teke horse, courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Fun times in Turkmenistan. You thought the Dubai Cup was the biggest purse in racing. You were wrong. It is, in fact, the $11 million on offer in the 1 km centrepiece of the Day of the Turmen Racehorse card. You might expect a queue of Black Caviars, Frankels and Animal Kingdoms lining up in the Central Asian republic to duke it out, but once more you’d be wrong. Only the Turkmen national beast, the Akhal Teke, can participate. These whippetty hotbloods are famous for the unearthly metallic sheen of their coat and their stamina. They are thought by some to be the ancestors not just of the thoroughbred, but also of the “tap root” Arabian itself, and the Akhal Teke’s own forebears probably included the immortality-conferring “Heavenly Horses of Ferghana” that enthralled the Chinese emperor Wudi. The esteem in which the horse is held by the Turkmen nation is evident from the fact that it’s the only Central Asian nation where horse meat is not consumed.

Monument to the horses of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat. With thanks to T.

Monument to the horses of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat. With thanks to T.

British people tend to have an “ewwwww” reaction to the Akhal Teke, because of that slender, long-backed build, but handsome is as handsome does (yes, even when it’s the Most Beautiful Horse In The World). Here’s the famous Russian stallion Absent, who took a dressage gold at the Rome Olympics, a bronze at Mexico in 1964 and a team gold in Tokyo four years later:

Oh, and they can jump, too:

President Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is a patriot who champions the breed, and is investing heavily in the Turkmen horse industry. He’s also something of a Putin-esque action man whose triumphs include winning Turkmenistan’s first motor race last year, performing surgery on the first patient at a new Ashgabat cancer clinic, flying a supersonic jet and wielding an assault rifle, so perhaps it should be no surprise that he chose to take part in the race on a “golden arrow” called Berkarar. And glory be, they won! Berkarar (“the mighty”) streaked past the winning post like a champ, a length or more ahead of the field. Journalists for the state media channel were clearly so excited that they charged off to file their copy, only to miss what happened next.

Whoops! Berkarar hit a soft, deep patch of sand and took a tumble, the president shot off and lay winded on the track, and officials rushed over to help. I’m sure that the media’s haste to report their leader’s win must be the reason that they forgot to mention this dramatic fall in the Turkmen press. Luckily the rest of the world’s media picked it up and ran with it. Both Berkarer and jockey were fine, and Berdymukhamedov has announced that he will donate his $11 million winnings to the state firm that breeds Akhal Tekes, which is wonderfully generous of him.

My postcard from Turkmenistan, received from S this week.

My postcard from Turkmenistan, received from S this week.

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