- By Colin Daileda<p> Colin Daileda is a researcher at Foreign Policy. </p>
During a race on Sunday to mark the Day of the Turkmen Racehorse, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and his horse Berkarar (Mighty), of the national Akhal-Teke breed, were the first to stride across the finish line, claiming an $11 million prize.
The strongman, who is known as Arkadag (the Patron), bested six other riders by completing the 1,000-meter course in 21.2 seconds, and proclaimed that he would donate his winnings to a state-run company that breeds horses. "The spectators’ attention was riveted on the golden arrow — Berkarar, led by the leader of the nation," one news outlet in the country gushed (never mind that, as Russia’s RIA Novosti noted, public institutions forced workers to attend the races or "face punishments including dismissal from work").
It was a nice and tidy story spun by the country’s state-controlled media — until, that is, EurasiaNet got hold of a video reportedly showing Berdymukhammedov crossing the finish line, only to tumble off his horse and face-plant in the dirt, prompting black-suited officials to frantically run to the president’s aid. Here’s another clip of the incident circulating on Turkish television (h/t RFE/RL):
EurasiaNet has more:
The motionless Berdymukhamedov, who was apparently briefly knocked unconscious, was haphazardly lifted in a manner that could have left him paralyzed, if his spine had been injured. Security officials in the crowd waved for cameras to stop filming and snarled at those that continued. An ambulance sped out onto the track and the huddled ministers and security officials loaded Berdymukhamedov inside, to be whisked away to receive medical attention.
For approximately an hour it was not clear if Berdymukhamedov was alive or dead, or how injured he might be. Security officials had little idea what to do. Along with dignitaries in the stands, they sat uncomfortably in their seats, sure only that leaving the stadium was not an option. Finally, state cameramen arranged themselves and Berdymukhamedov briefly presented himself, moving stiffly but able to wave to the crowd, which cheered.
Berdymukhammedov’s affection for Akhal-Teke horses has been well-documented since he took office in 2006. He’s authored two books about them — "The Flight of Celestial Race Horses" and "Akhal-Teke – Our Pride and Glory," and launched a government website, "Heavenly Akhal–Teke Horses," to boot. He’s also mandated annual beauty contests for the horses, and once fired the head of the national equine association for not doing enough to develop the horse industry.
As for the horse carrying Berdymukhammedov on Sunday? He appears to be safe for now.