07/06/2006 11:00PM

Faded glory may be reborn

Foto Team IKM
A statue of the legendary racemare Kincsem stands at the entrance to the old facility.

BUDAPEST - Her statue stands, in grand isolation, at the entrance to the old grandstand of the racetrack in Budapest, an echo of the time when Hungarian horses could hold their own with the best of England, France, and Ireland. Her name, Kincsem, means My Treasure, or My Jewel, or My Dear, depending on your mood, and she is all of these to racing in Hungary, a sport that bears the same 20th-century scars as the proud Magyar nation itself.

Kincsem was the phenomenal mare who in the 1870's won 54 races without defeat. Her victories included three Grosser Preis von Badens at Baden-Baden in Germany, the second of which came in the same year, 1878, that she also won the Goodwood Cup in England and the Grand Prix de Deauville in France. No other horse in history has ever won all three of those races.

Kincsem almost lost that second race in Baden-Baden. She had actually finished in a dead heat with Prince Giles the First, but in those days dead heats were decided by a runoff barely an hour afterward. Kincsem dismissed Prince Giles by five lengths in the decider, got back on the train for Budapest with her pet cat, and reeled off 14 more victories during the remainder of that season and the following year, when she was retired at the age of 5, having carried as much as 168 pounds to victory in races at distances between five furlongs and 2 1/2 miles.

The period between 1870 and 1914 was the golden age of Hungarian racing, as well as the golden age of Hungary itself. It was the time during which the great composers Liszt, Bartok, and Kodaly flourished. And it was largely during that time when Hungarian architecture produced modern Budapest, the jewel of the Danube and one of the world's most beautiful cities.

But World War I marked the beginning of a long decline in the fortunes of both Hungary and Hungarian racing. The collapse of the Habsburg's Austro-Hungarian Empire, of which Budapest was the second capital after Vienna, at the war's end in 1918, was the first of many 20th century blows suffered by the central European nation. World War II, occupation by the Nazis, the Communist takeover in 1948, the brave but futile uprising against Soviet control in the streets of Budapest in 1956 - all of these conspired against the little nation. Since the collapse of communism in 1989, Hungarian racing has gotten back on its feet, but it still has a long way to go before it can reclaim the place it held as the 19th century turned into the 20th.

Two years ago, a new grandstand was opened at Kincsem Park. It is a modest affair when compared with the ultra-chic edifice opened last month at Ascot, but serves the needs of contemporary Hungary quite well. And it is good value for money. An excellent plate of goulash accompanied by noodles, two thick slices of bread, and a beer goes for just $6.50 at Kincsem Park, about what you would expect to pay for a Coke at Royal Ascot.

Looking out the back window of the new grandstand, one is greeted by a rather surprising view of the old grandstand. It seems the old place, built in 1923, is a registered historic building and cannot be demolished. So the Nemzeti Loverseny, or Hungarian Jockey Club, simply arranged to have the new stand built in front of the old stand. The track itself is a right-handed, virtually level 10-furlong turf course with a narrow 9 1/2-furlong dirt track inside of that. The new stand seats 3,000 and can accommodate up to 10,000, but there weren't quite that many there last Sunday, when they held the 84th running of the Magyar, or Hungarian, Derby.

Like the Irish Derby being run the same day at the Curragh, the Magyar Derby is run at 1 1/2 miles on turf. Unlike the Irish Derby, which is worth $1.92 million, the Hungarian version has a value of just $45,000.

But like so many "big" races everywhere these days, the Hungarian Derby is an international affair. Sunday's race was won by Thunder Groom, a German-bred son of the American-bred stallion March Groom, owned by an Austrian outfit named Wallaby Stables, trained by the Hungarian Sandor Ribarszki, and ridden by the Slovak jockey Jan Linek. Not quite the Italian Frankie Dettori winning the St. Leger Stakes in England for Irishmen Aidan O'Brien and the Magniers on a Kentucky-bred, but the Hungarians do have their international credentials in place.

The names of stallions like the Kentucky-breds Horatio Luro and Bin Shadaad may not ring many international bells, but they are helping to improve the Hungarian breed, as are the sons and daughters of sires like the German-based champion Kornado. Out Loud, the fourth-place finisher in the Magyar Derby, is a British-bred son of Dansili who has the likes of Hasili, Danehill, and Coup de Folie close up in his bloodlines, and may be the best-bred horse in Hungary. It will be a long time before Hungarian racing recovers from the devastation wrought by the 20th century, but the Magyars, who have always had a special way with a horse, will ultimately succeed.

For they have Kincsem as a touchstone. While her statue stands a bit removed from the contemporary action in front of the new grandstand, she hovers above Hungarian racing as a reminder of what has been . . . and what could yet be again.