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Ukraine: A Day at Odessa Hippodrome

Odessa, 5 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Once a racing Mecca for the entire Soviet Union, the Odessa Hippodrome is now just a vivid reminder of the sorry state of Ukrainian privatization.

It used to be luxurious. Build by the Tsars in 1890, the two kilometer round dirt track, whitewashed buildings, and green grounds were a summer playground for the Russian aristocracy. There, the wealthy and glamorous gathered to see, be seen, drink champagne, eat caviar, and bet on the best horseflesh in the empire. Businessmen competed to sponsor the best runner. A successful jockey was a feted public figure who could name his salary.

Today at the Odessa Hippodrome a winning jockey wins a paper Hr.(hryvna) 7.80 ($3.84), only half of which goes into his pocket. Gamblers don't get much more. For a ticket of Hr. 1 ($0.49) one can win a legal maximum of Hr. 12.50 ($6.15).

"Only old men gather here. They are like drug users," said an ex-jockey. "They come having Hr 3 in their pockets, back a horse at Hr. 1, and gain Hr. 1 back. They come to talk, not to win. When on New Year's day there weren't any races, they still came -- for a drink".

The quality horses to draw the crowds have stopped coming. That's because for a race track the goods are on the wrong side of the Ukrainian border.

"We used to test horses from Kirgiziya, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Russia and Altai," recalled Hippodrome Manager Oleg Kushnir. "After the U.S.S.R 's break-up, 70 percent of super horses were driven away, so we were left with Ukrainian trash."

This "trash" comes from state stud farms, which are also part of Ukrainian government agriculture.

Like the rest of the country's agricultural business, the Odessa Hippodrome is dirt poor. Kushnir estimates that the Hippodrome spends an average Hr. 7 ($3.46) a day to feed each of its horses, about half the minimum necessary to keep an animal in racing form, as estimated by private owners.

Stable hands -- by definition Ukrainian agricultural workers -- are almost as poorly off as their charges. "My wages are Hr. 56 ($27,72), and I haven't even been paid for 7 months," said a jockey's assistant with 30 years' of Hippodrome experience. "All we get is Hr. 15 once every two weeks."

To make their ends meet employees have become effective sustenance farmers, keeping goats, cows, chickens and geese in empty stable boxes.

"It's a state problem, rich sponsors are required," said 27-year track veteran Valery. "Sponsors, on the other hand, should see what to put their money in -- not into trash scattered about the hippodrome, nor in a destroyed fence. We're lucky these days that there aren't any goats on the track during races."

The solution to those woes is cash, and that means capital. This means other worries. Like many other workers in the country's agricultural sector, Kushnir sees privatization not as the way out of Socialist penury but as a dangerous event which will likely face him with loss of housing and income, while simultaneously serving him with an impossibly large bill to the government for switching from state to private ownership.

"Today we are not quite ready for such projects," he said. "First, it would deprive us of certain privileges, which I do not want to discuss." These privileges most likely include state housing and certainly the ability to have a ready source of meat - the chickens and goats in the stalls -- for the family table and resale.

"Secondly, we do not possess the means to buy the Hippodrome," he added. "We can't be sure that [if the track were privatized] the horses would be replaced with houses, as in the general plan of the city".

Some track veterans offer an interim solution: private horses. "If the horses were privately owned," said a jockey with 17 years' experience, "then the races would be exciting, which would attract spectators and money."

"Private horse ownership is a way out," Eduard Stavitsky, a pensioner, agreed. "Horses would be fed and looked after better. Thus all would have a good time. Plus there would be less fraud."

Indeed, in Odessa the horse races sometimes appear fixed. Given that the state-run betting computer -- imposingly known as "The Totalizer" -- neither pays the best odds nor allows the winner to keep all gains, bets directly between pensioners are common place.

Besides, the economics of fishy horse placements are compelling, Stavitsky argued. "Now-a-days a horse's best pay off is Hr. 8," he calculated. "But a jockey or a horseman can get Hr. 10 ($4.93) cash if they hold a horse back. So good horses often finish last."

There is another downside to developing a winning race horse. In terms of existing Ukrainian profit rates, putting money into a horse is simply a bad business move.

"One needs to invest in a horse for a minimum of four years without any return," Kushnir noted. "Our people got used to investing money today and getting the profit tomorrow."

So for the indefinite future the glory days of the Odessa Hippodrome appear to be history. Even the spectators date back to another age. "I've been coming here since 1950," Stavitsky said. "Winter, rain, snow, weddings, birthdays -- I come here no matter what."