JANOW PODLASKI, Poland – Poland’s right-wing government is facing a test of its reputation at – of all places – a horse auction at a 199-year-old stud farm.
The state-run farm in Janow Podlaski, set amid lush meadows near the border with Belarus, has for decades drawn film directors and rock stars, Arab sheikhs and other millionaires for its yearly Pride of Poland auction, a sale of some of the world’s finest Arabian horses.
The reputation of the state breeding program, which is considered a national treasure, faced a setback earlier this year when the new conservative government purged three top managers who had worked in the program for many years, in one case for four decades.
One notable person absent this year after more than two decades of buying horses from Janow Podlaski is British breeder Shirley Watts, wife of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts. Two mares that she had loaned to the farm died after the management changes earlier this year and she is currently in a legal dispute with the farm.
In a sign of how Janow Podlaski’s new manager, Slawomir Pietrzak, is trying to clean up the stud farm’s image, he said Friday that he had apologized to Shirley Watts and hoped to restore good ties with such an important client.
Pietrzak took over in June, replacing a very short-lived manager who had no previous experience with horses, but said on his appointment he hoped to make horses his new hobby.
Poland’s government accused the fired managers of financial wrongdoing. The three insist they are innocent and are the victims of a personal vendetta. They were among scores of civil servants who were fired after Law and Justice took power last November. It’s a usual practice in Poland when power changes hands, but this purge was deeper and faster than most, leading critics to accuse the government of a willingness to harm the country’s vital interests for political reasons.
The most objective test of success will come in the prices at which the horses will sell, which is key to the financial survival of the state enterprise. Last year was a record year, with 4.6 million euros raised, and one mare, Pepita, selling for 1.4 million euros alone
Potential buyers ahead of the auction of 30 mares and one stallion had mixed opinions on the horses, which were presented at a show and were also available for inspection to potential buyers in the classical 19th-century stables on the farm’s grounds.
But many raved that the horses seemed as graceful as ever.
“The event is brilliant and the horses look very nice,” said Amy Dutkowski Southworth, a breeder from Poulton-le-Fylde in Lancashire, England, who planned to place some bids.
Dutkowski Southworth said there had been some discussion among international breeders to possibly boycott the auction in solidarity with the managers who lost their jobs, who were well known to many buyers in the small and intimate world of Arabian horse breeding.
But the many people sitting in the VIP section under a white tent attested to the fact that the event remains a huge draw.
Faisad Al o Taibe, an owner and breeder from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, who hoped to return home with two or three new mares, said that this year the quality of the organization, food and everything else was much better in the past, “but the quality of the horses at the auction has dropped.”
Fahad Al-Zaydi, a breeder from Mecca, Saudi Arabia, said the auction, which he described a “very important” event for breeders “is going well.”
“The quality of the broodmares seems to be the same,” he said. “But I supposed we will see in five or 10 years if there is a difference or not.”
The farm’s attraction comes from the fine horses it breeds, but it also enjoys a romantic allure because of its storied history.
Russian Czar Alexander I started the breeding operation in 1817, a time when a large swath of eastern Poland was under Russian control, because Russia needed to replenish a cavalry force depleted by the Napoleonic wars.
The farm then suffered through a tumultuous history of uprisings and war, with World War II almost finishing the farm off. The Nazis took some Arabians back to Germany with them, but most of the horses were killed in fighting.
After the war, stable owners managed to rebuild by leasing Polish Arabian stallions around the world for breeding. Despite the communists’ hatred of aristocracy, they worked to rebuild the bloodlines of these horses. Even in the communist era the auction drew the rich and famous, with film director Mike Nichols a notable buyer in decades past.