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Russian drivers in ‘friendship’ races at Marsa Racing Track

Four Russian horse racing drivers will be taking part in two friendly races that will form part of the 14th meeting of the season at the Marsa Racing Track on Sunday afternoon.

The Malta Racing Club will be hosting the Malta-Akbuzat race as a sign of the good relationship that exists between the Maltese horse racing body and the Akbuzat Racetrack.

The Russian horse racing facility is situated in the city of Ufa in the region of Bashkortostan and has been active since its inauguration in 1982.

The Republic of Bashkortosan forms part of the Russian Federation and its head of state, Radiy Khabirov, was elected on recommendation of Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019.

The participation of Russian horse racing drivers in these friendly races at the Marsa Racetrack has caught the eye given that is being held at a time where the Russian and the Belarus National Olympic Committees are currently serving a competition ban by the International Olympic Committee.

The Russian and Belarus NOCs were sanctioned for recognising regional Olympic councils for Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine – Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.

The IOC  said the move constituted a breach of the Olympic Charter because it violated the territorial integrity of Ukraine’s NOC.

Russia, which launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, which Moscow calls a ‘special operation’, has denounced the measure as politically motivated.

However, Russian and Belarus athletes can still take part in friendly events as happened late last month when the Belorussian football national team took part in a friendly match against Malta at the National Stadium.

The Akbuzat-Malta races are being organised by the Malta Racing Club.

They are being assisted financially by the new government entity EquestriMalta which is the local regulatory authority tasked with overseeing and supporting all equine sports, including horse racing, polo, dressage, and show jumping, among other emerging disciplines.

John Huber, chairman of EquestriMalta, said that when the Malta Racing Club approached him with the plan of hosting the Malta-Akbuzat races, he made it clear that they needed to follow the protocol issued by the IOC, even though it was not a competitive event.

“When the idea was proposed to me, I immediately told the Malta Racing Club that they had to stage the event according to the guidelines issued by the International Olympic Committee,” Huber told the Times of Malta.

“That meant that it will not be a team event and all Russian horse racing drivers will race under a neutral flag. There will be no Russian flag that will be put up at the Marsa Racetrack. We were very clear on this.

“I made it clear to them that if they had drivers who are related to Russia they had to follow the IOC regulations. For me we must respect the international rules on this occasion and that is why we have taken such a firm stance.” 

On his part, Anthony Demanuele, deputy chairman of the Malta Racing Club, said that their relations with the Akbuzat Horse Racing Track started many years ago when he won a race from the Mediterranean Championship in Russia.

The Akbuzat Racetrack in Ufa.

He said that the two races being staged today formed part of the many exchange agreements the club had with other international clubs.

“As Malta Racing Club, we hold various events as part of exchange programmes we have with various international racing clubs around Europe,” he said.

“During the past years, we have hosted drivers from various clubs, including England, France and Italy just to name a few. In fact, during Sunday’s programme we are also holding two races, named Island Championships, which will see Sicilian drivers competing against their Maltese counterparts, as part of another exchange agreement.”

Demanuele revealed that when the conflict broke out in Russia and Ukraine in 2022, the Mediterranean and Black Sea Horse Racing Union had taken a stand against having Russian drivers taking part in competition.

“The MHU had taken a strong stand like all other sporting bodies against Russian athletes when the invasion broke out in 2022,” Demanuele said.

“Then the Mediterranean Body approved a resolution with a strong majority that Russian and Belarus athletes will be invited to take part in its competitions under a neutral flag and in fact, they competed in Italy in December 2022, at Marsa in March last year, Nice in July 2023 and Syracuse in December 2023.

“Initially, these Russian drivers had asked us to compete under the Russian colours since it was not a competitive race.

“However, we asked the Russian drivers to take part under a neutral flag and they agreed even though that through current regulations there was nothing that forced them to accept.”

Today’s programme in Marsa also includes the first leg of the Mediterranean Championship that will see the participation of 11 drivers. Malta will be represented by Michael Ellul, Clint Vassallo, Rodney Gatt, Charles Camilleri, Paul Galea, Redent Magro and Patrick Spiteri.

The other participants in this race are France’s Pierre Vercruysse, Ksenia Morozova, who will race under a neutral flag, Serbia’s Dejan Katanic, and Giusy Savarese, of Italy.

In the past, Ukraine was represented in these championships. In 2010, they were represented by Olga Bondar.

Kyiv struggles

In a recent interview, done by American horse racing portal Harnesslink, Bondar, who is a trainer, driver, and the vice director of the Kyiv Hippodrome, spoke about the difficult situation the track and the horses residing there are facing due to the Russian invasion.

Bondar’s biggest concern is that she will run out of hay to feed the horses. She said they have enough for now, but that could change.

“Every day we are trying to buy some hay but it is difficult because you can’t go to all the villages where you can buy hay,” she said.

“We do not know what will happen tomorrow. We try to get through every day and then decide the next step. We have enough feed for about one month. If the war continues, we will have difficulty feeding the horses.”

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