At Ukrainian Racetrack, Just Trying to Survive

Kyiv HippodromeOlga Bondar


Olga Bondar makes the trip each day from her home in central Kyiv to the racecourse outside the city to care for and feed her horses. She knows the dangers involved, but she can't abandon her horses. She has no plans to leave a country under siege.

“When I come here, I don't know if I will make it home because anything can happen in war,” she said. “You don't know if you will be alive tomorrow.”

Bondar is a trainer, a driver and the vice director of the Kyiv Hippodrome, one of two racetracks in Ukraine. The Kyiv Hippodrome holds races for various breeds of trotters. The Odessa Hippodrome holds races for trotters and Thoroughbreds. Both tracks have been closed since the Russian invasion began.

According to a report from Radio Free Europe, the Odessa track was built in 1890 by Russian tsars. “There, the wealthy and glamorous gathered to see, be seen, drink champagne, eat caviar, and bet on the best horseflesh in the empire,” the story reads. The track fell on hard times after the fall of the Soviet Union.

A story in the Odessa Journal on the opening day of the track's 2021 season reported on the current state of Ukranian racing and efforts to get people to attend.

“Horse breeding has been going through hard times in Ukraine for many years,” Konstantin Savchits, director of the Odessa Hippodrome, told the paper. “For this we hold such events to popularize equestrian sports. We are trying to involve the inhabitants of Odessa. After all, many do not even know that we have a hippodrome with a very colorful history.”

According to a 2005 report by Reuters, the winning purse at the Kyiv track was about $10 or $15 a race.

But both tracks managed to survive. The Kyiv track raced on Sundays, staying open up until two weeks ago.

“Horse racing has stopped. Our main aim now is to be alive,” Bondar said. “The only thing we can do is support each other and take care of the horses.”

Bondar said that some of those who care for the horses are staying around the clock at the racecourse, believing that it's safer there than elsewhere. But Bondar has the added responsibility of having to look after her elderly mother, who lives in Kyiv. So she makes the commute every day, even if it is not safe.

“The war is taking place about 20 kilometers from the Hippodrome,” she said. “We can hear them shooting.”

Training has also been halted. The best they can do for now is to walk the horses. There are 150 racehorses on the grounds, she said, plus another 200 pleasure horses. Everyone is doing what they can to pitch in.

“Some of our people are off fighting,” she said. “Some people have evacuated. But we have people who are coming in to feed the horses, to help them. It is difficult. We are fighting and we are struggling and people are afraid. Nothing is normal because there is a war. We are scared. Before the invasion, I could not believe this was possible. The things you are seeing on TV, it is really happening. It is awful.”

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.”

Against Russia's military might, the Ukrainians are facing long odds, but Bondar has not lost hope.

“Yes, I am sure we will win,” she said. “It is just a question of time. We are staying strong.”

That's all she can do for now, stay strong. She has to. Her horses need her.

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