At dusk on a hot summer day, without too much fanfare, a cavalcade of candidates for this year’s Alka entered the Sinj hippodrome. Side by side, stout guys and their loyal pets – horses – without which this story would never have been created
Since ancient times, the Dalmatian hinterland has earned the epithets of vitality and beauty, while diligence, tasty food and entertainment should certainly be attributed to the local people. In recent decades in habitants of this area applied various sport disciplines, and one of them, equestrian sports, is so important that without it there would be no Alka – the most famous tournament.
If we go back to the beginning, it should be written like this: once upon a time, after leaving the toil and sweat on the rich field of Sinj, the people had fun competing whose horse would cross the field faster. For hard-working farmers, fast, strong and agile horses were extremely important in carrying out daily work in the fields, but games and informal competitions took on more and more importance for them as well. Graceful horses have been in symbiosis with the inhabitants of Cetina region for much longer than Alka itself, although the rest of Croatia often associates them only with the tournament, while horse breeding and equestrian sports are part of the identity of this region for long. Collectors of history data and memories, long-time breeders and trainers, lovers of horses and equestrian sports, still spend their time regularly at the Sinj hippodrome, so the conversation with Damir Dragaš (Deba), Darko Pavić (Baja), Lorena Pavić and Maja Maras Kovačević took place.
Development of horse breeding until today
Taming and serving horses happened naturally. If we go back to the year of the defence of Sinj – 1715, it is important to note that the battle was also won by cavalry. Only century later, roads and postal routes were built thanks to horses, while the Alka Knights Court in Sinj would later be the residence on the map of the 24th Cavalry Regiment in the era of Napoleon. In the middle of the 19th century, stables and riding stations were established in Drniš and Sinj, and at the end of the century, the first riding school was opened in Split. The number of horses in Dalmatia grew to more than 25,000. Although horses were mostly used for working purposes or as transport, the first modern race in Dalmatian hinterland was held in Jasensko near Sinj in 1904, and interest in horse breeding began to grow in neighbouring towns as well.
About fifteen years later, the Dalmatian League of Riders was founded, whose races are organized on meadows, and the number of the viewers was growing. In addition to the Alka festivities, this region lacked something else – a hippodrome. Enthusiasm, need and commitment of horse lovers succeeded in 1975, when the decision to build a hippodrome has been made, for the needs of the Mediterranean Games in Split. The last horse races on the meadows were held in September 1981, and the very next year Sinj got the track and fence of the future hippodrome. Years later, there will be upgrading, levelling, drainage, arranging lawns, planting trees as protection from the wind, etc., which was a strong incentive for the further development of horse breeding in the Cetina region.
”However, we cannot talk about the equestrian sport of this region without Alka tournament. In the 1960s, on the initiative of local people, one of whom was Bruno Vuletić, a military cavalry unit arrived in Sinj, a cavalry unit was established and located in Štalija (today’s Ivan Lovrić Primary School)”, said horse trainer and breeder Damir Dragaš (Deba) and thus began a decades-long equestrian story. The riders of that time were insufficiently educated and rode instinctively, so, again for the needs of Alka, the Alkar Equestrian Club was founded in 1968, which was followed by other equestrian sports in Sinj.
Although massive for that time and conditions, they had a very good show jumping team that achieved outstanding results at competitions throughout Yugoslavia. Cvrlje, Stude, Ajduković, Penić, Filipović – these are just some of the riders who achieved results under the coach of Branko Bokan. The hours of ride and horse training at Štalia required additional education, so the Club sent (Alka racer) Damir Vukasović to specialize as a show jumping coach and riding instructor in Germany, in the stable of Mile Babović, one of the four Zagreb’s show jumping legends. This is how the first generations of the show jumping section were created, and by the 1990s, Vukasović had successfully created four national team members and placed Sinj on the domestic and international equestrian scene. Excellent results soon followed, although most were ridden on half-breed horses bred in Zobnatica or Karađorđevo. Worth only a few thousand German marks, they succeeded with horses that were worth ten times more. One of the best Croatian national team players and multiple champion, Ante Šimleša from Sinj, started his career that way.
After the 90s and everything that was happening in Croatia (Homeland war), there was a lack of financial support and investment in equestrian sports, so most of them found themselves in galloping sports. More precisely, in the galloping or racing industry, Dragaš says, and show jumping, although an Olympic sport, have fallen into the background.
”At that time, the races were held at Piket, and in 1979 the championship of Yugoslavia was held at the old Junakovo, a part of the town centre today”, adds Dragaš, and his face lights up when the subject of the Sinj hippodrome is brought up: ”A hippodrome was needed for the Mediterranean Games. I heard the story that the project is almost finished at Resnik in Kaštela. Fortunately, the locals, among whom was the long-time Duke of Alka and President of the Equestrian Association of Yugoslavia, Bruno Vuletić, together with the board of directors of the Knights of Alka Society, managed to persuade and lobby for Sinj. Fortunately, because we would not have what we have today.” The Sinj hippodrome, the second largest in the country, has a lap of only 1200 m, so there is an interesting story from the Mediterranean Games when, apart from a short lap, a top Italian rider was afraid of sharp turns. However, more than fifty professional riders have been “born” at the hippodrome, while others continued to deal with horses, founded clubs, do shoeing, breed or work privately.
Tradition, work and persistence, what else?
”The tradition was preserved and maintained. How? Through work and strong will”, Damir, Darko, Lorena and Maja laugh in turn. To become or remain a professional rider, you need blood, sweat and tears, but also good conditions and a good trainer. For equestrian sport is not enough to just love horses, as they say, many talents failed because they were not persistent.
There is a lot of concern around one racehorse. The important delegation required for the minimum of its requirements consists of rider, trainer, veterinarian, farrier and stableman. In addition, each should have various suppliers, including an agent who will take care of the competitions. But in reality, it is not even close to that at the Sinj hippodrome. The hippodrome currently has around 70 horses, with 40 in the stud farm. Graceful and with a long gallop, English thoroughbreds are sensitive, extremely fast and the best for “direction” and “shooting”, so most of them serve in the Alka, but only a few people, enthusiasts and lovers take care of them.
”It’s innate in man. Passion, adrenaline. You have to be a bit of a fanatic. From childhood, you can see who really likes it”, adds Lorena Pavić and follows with her eye what is happening with the horse that just passed by with its stableman. There is no age limit at the hippodrome, from children to ladies and gentlemen in their late years. Everyone is equally enthusiastic about their duties. However, riders are most often formed by guarding horses at the racetrack for Alka, at the first place. The awakened interest in horses and riding declines as the end of summer comes with school obligations, bad weather, rains and the first storms. Of the hundred or so children, there are only a handful of them left a year around.
While the people of Sinj once had their first races at the age of 13/14, the world’s best jockey Piggot did it at the age of 16! Today, more and more attention is paid to safety, while in the past these were real adventures. ”You sit at a horseback, you fall, nobody cares! And so ten times!” – says Darko Pavić, who is also involved in horse shoeing, so he immediately remembers how Gugić’s horse once ran away and the duo spent the journey home – on one horse. Horses were run through canals and bilges, and it used to happen that on the Despotuša they galloped on top of the wall by the Cetina River.
”When the cavalcade passes through the town, the heart grows double. It is a special experience even for us locals who have been raised with them, and much more for foreigners when they see it for the first time?”, everyone said.
Adrenaline and pleasure, it goes hand in hand, especially when a horse that initially “doesn’t worth anything” achieves an excellent result. Dealing with horses means being available to it from morning to night, on weekends and holidays. In order to enjoy the sport, harmony between horse and rider is important. ”If you are nervous, angry or in a bad mood – do not go near the horse! Both horse and rider learn by working together”, said Darko firmly.
Partly due to the pandemic and the prevention of holding the competition, but also earlier, interest in equestrian sports slowly declines when the subject of financial support is raised. Although the Sinj hippodrome has great potential and the possibility to employ hundreds of families – if they wanted to – there is a lack of support, money, organization, and initiators. Romanticizing horses and equestrian sports, repairing equipment or improvising has been suffocating enthusiasts for some time. The conditions for training are poor, and to be among the best all criteria must be met: the tracks have to be soft and wet for the horse to train, and this requires maintenance, finances and manpower. An impressive riding hall, which would solve the problem of training in summer heat or winter frosts, is an added weight to the hippodrome. Completed and much needed, it stands behind closed doors.
”This is an equestrian area. We are surrounded by meadows and river”, they say full of hope, continuing: ”Every family once had horses. Today there are only about 200 of them and they are probably the last horses in the south of Croatia. Local people, families with children, come to the hippodrome, walk and observe. They co-exist with the horses, so apart from the Alka, they have the opportunity to see and experience life near horses.”
The hosts of numerous national and international races are now looking nostalgically at the dusty tracks while the sun is burning high. Another Alka is coming this weekend, and in September, new galloping races, and the valuable tradition, knowledge and skills that have been painstakingly acquired for decades, will be passed on to generations. The national team, the most trophy horses, adventures and events, fantastic results and people whose work and effort made the life of the Sinj hippodrome possible, will surely be recorded. In the time to come, the splendour of the town of Sinj cannot just disappear.
If we are to believe the energy and love of people who grew up with these elegant, strong and wonderful animals, regardless of the weather conditions – there will always be someone to brush, clean, feed, walk or train them. However, it is written in genes, tradition, culture and…heart.