Turkmen Leader Takes Fall In Horse Race
Any pride Berdymukhammedov had in his victory is followed by a pretty spectacular fall.
The crowd is ecstatic, clapping in sync with the music as the announcer’s voice reverberates through the stadium. Everyone's attention is focused on the jockeys riding Turkmenistan’s prized Akhal-Teke horses.
Unbeknownst to outsiders, one of the riders is Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, and his horse, Berkarar, (Turkmen for «Mighty») is in the lead.
But as soon as he gallops across the finishing line of the one-kilometer race, Berkarar’s front legs buckle underneath him.
Clara de Vos van Steenwijk, president of the Akhal-Teke Association, a nonprofit organization based in Luxembourg, was in the crowd and takes up the story.
«He crossed the finish line and, as he crossed, he looked at the crowd with a big smile and, about 20 meters further, the horse stumbled probably on a soft spot in the sand and went down on his knees and, of course, stopped at that point. And so the president who was going quite fast moved on and fell in the sand.»
As the Turkmen leader lies motionless, an announcer says, «Our beloved president was able to finish the race in first place.» But any pride Berdymukhammedov had in his victory is followed by a pretty spectacular fall.
«[Berdymukhammedov] was winded, of course,» van Steenwijk says. «If you fall at that speed, then of course the air goes out of your lungs and you have to lie for a minute to get your breath back. But of course it was a big shock for the public. There were thousands of people there and you could hear a pin drop.»
To be sure, it's impossible to confirm that the unfortunate rider is Berdymukhammedov. But the panicked reactions of security and the lengths to which Turkmen officials sought to confiscate spectators' recordings and photos of the event, suggest the jockey is the Turkmen leader.
In an instant, dozens of security officials in black suits run over to the scene of the incident, jumping over the fence separating the spectators from the track.
Moments later, the crowd begins clapping and cheering as an ambulance arrives, and then the same throng of black-suited security officials crowd around the falled rider as he is put into the ambulance.
All this is missing, however, from the official video of the race that was shown on Turkmen state TV on April 29.
The segment cuts off at the precise moment that the winning rider crosses the finish line, a split-second before his fall. RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service reports that a number of people have contacted them asking if it is true that the president was injured during the race.
In a separate segment, Berdymukhammedov can be seen accepting the announced prize of USD11 million - which would make it the world's richest horse race - that he announced he will distribute to the country’s massive horse industry.
The whole, uncut scene described above can be seen in a video obtained by Eurasianet.org or a clip shown on Turkish television.
Eurasianet reports that the crowd waited an hour for Berdymukhammedov to make an appearance wearing the traditional «telpek» hat made of white sheepskin, modestly waving to the crowd of journalists and representatives from international horse-racing clubs.
Two foreign attendees contacted by RFE/RL said foreigners in the crowd were asked by the presidential apparatus to delete or hand over all electronic media that could have recorded the tumble. In addition, they said a Lufthansa flight from Ashgabat was delayed while officials conducted extra checks for flash sticks and camera memory disks.
The April 28 horse race in Ashgabat was part of four days of celebrations marking Horse Day, a national holiday that celebrates the symbolic importance of the Akhal-Teke, a Turkmen breed of horse that is known and cross-bred for its characteristic speed and stamina.
The Turkmen leader’s fondness for the Akhal-Teke horses is well-documented. He has published several books in English about the Akhal-Teke, invested millions of dollars in the equine industry, and launched an official government website in honor of the Akhal-Teke.
As of 2011, Berdymukhammedov signed a decree ordering that beauty contests be held every year for the Akhal-Teke.
Written by Deana Kjuka with reporting by RFE/RL's Turkmen and Kazakh services