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Get ready for the Hoppegarten horse races

With the next races taking place on Sep 14, our reporter spends a day at Germany's largest horse racing track to discover more about one of Berlin's oldest pastimes.

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Photo by Daniel Cati. Catch the Hoppegarten horse races on Sep 14.

Judging by the re-emergent popularity of analog cameras, vinyl records, and vintage flohmarkts, it seems there’s an increasing appreciation in our modern world for things from yesteryear. They carry a certain romance that otherwise seems wanting in these times of smart-phones, and start-ups.

But there’s no need to limit our romantic appreciation just to objects. In Berlin while you may no longer be able to go to the fevered all night bike races which were once so popular in the 1920s, and there are markedly fewer cabaret theatres than a century ago, there is one pastime from a bygone era that you can still enjoy in the present. Horse races! 

With the Hoppegarten Rennbahn, Berlin boasts the largest horse-racing track in Germany, and with roots all the way back to 1868, also one of the oldest – older than the German state itself. Throughout the summer the track holds at least one day of racing per month, and on a scorching Friday afternoon I put on my best checkered shirt and went to check it out. 

To get to the track you take the S5 east from Ostkreuz for about 20 minutes, until you get to  Hoppegarten (Mark) station. Hoppegarten isn’t just the name of the horse track, it’s actually its own small city of 18,000 which lies just across the limits of Berlin in Brandenburg. Once you arrive at the station, a five minute walk south takes you to the white numbered gates which form the entrance to the race grounds. 

Once you pay the small entrance fee of €8-10 euros, you’re in the main grounds. Although the race track isn’t yet in sight, the area is dotted with small buildings and stands from where the bets are placed, to the beer gardens, and food stands selling burgers and curry wurst. 

Typically the races begin on early Saturday or Sunday afternoons, but since this race-day was billed as a special Friday “after-work” event, the first race was scheduled to happen at 4:45pm. Owing to the heat, the organizers announced they would be pushing the races back by half an hour until it was a bit cooler for the horses. I wouldn’t want to run as fast as I can in 32 degree heat, and apparently this is a preference that runs across species. 

With the extra time I now had on my hands, I took a walk around to admire the ground’s buildings. Besides the food stands and small white stalls, stand the large buildings housing the grandstands, and on the other side of which lay the race track. There is one main grandstands which is joined by two smaller counterparts, and all three are housed in striking red brick buildings that seem right out of the days of early 20th century train stations. They were constructed in 1918-22, during the heyday of horse racing. Back in these times horse racing was a big deal; think football in present day England. Jockeys were celebrities, and almost all race days were sold out, with up to 40,000 spectators coming to view the excitement. 

In 2013 the buildings became officially protected as a cultural monuments of national significance, and although the race tracks have been privately owned since 2008, with the designation the city of Berlin put considerable amount of money into restoring them. Despite the renovations, on the right side of the main grandstand building remain antiquated white clapboards, where the betting odds for each race used to be displayed. Although they clearly haven’t worked for decades, and have been long since been replaced by TV screens, they add to the bygone charm of the place, making it seem like Schrödinger’s race track: abandoned and present at the same time. 

Around 5:30pm over loudspeakers, the MC announced that the races would be starting soon. And it turns out that this first race had an interesting spin: it would feature only horses who had not yet won a single race this season. 

With the announcement people began gathering around what looked like a miniature race track near the stables. Never having been to a horse-race before, I was intrigued, and went over and asked one of the smartly dressed employees in a white button down shirt what was happening. He explained that this was the “Führring.” It’s where the horses are lead around before the race so people can size up their future bets. 

One after another, each as-of-yet-perpetually vanquished horse was led into this ring, and guided around by hand for the audience to inspect. Each horse was led at first by younger riders, before being handed over to the impressively small jockeys wearing helmets and wrap around glasses when it was time for them to trot over to the starting gates. 

What the seasoned better would have been looking for to make their money-wise wager, I’m not entirely sure. But one horse did catch my eye: number four, or as the betting newspaper I picked up told me, a mare named ‘Yayoon’. She wore a fuzzy royal blue bridle piece on her snout, was somewhat larger than the other horses, and didn’t seem to particularly enjoy being led around the Führring by her young handler. But to this first-time better she seemed like just the fit: just unruly enough to have the energy to win the race, while potentially submissive enough to actually care about the jockey’s perplexing desire for her to run forward as fast as she can.  

Despite learning from the announcer that horse number one was actually the hands down favourite, (winning only €1.50 in the case of a victory, for every euro bet), I went up to one of many counters and made my bet for number four nonetheless. 

Several different types of bets can be made, of varying complexity. But the easiest and most typical version is that you pick your lucky horse, and then choose “Platz” or “Sieg”. With the Sieg bet, you win if your chosen horse wins the race outright, while the Platz option will get you a payout (albeit a smaller one) if your horse manages to place in the top two or three, depending on the race. Background info on each horse in competition is printed in pamphlets, and their odds are displayed in TVs above the betting counters. 

You make your wager by filling out the available betting sheets. Using pen marks, you indicate your type of bet, the amount, and the number of your chosen horse. You then hand it to the attendant, and get a slip confirming your bet in return. I made a €3 Platz bet, for number four and walked through the grand-stand building to the main race track on the other side. The horses were led to the gates (which depending on the length of the race can be moved around) and practically the moment all eight were securely in, the bell rung, the doors swung open, and the horses galloped away.

It was a thrill to see the horses take off, as the jockeys wearing their white pants, and impressively bright coloured tops willed their equine partners forward. The jockey’s sit what seemed to me so awkwardly high and forward on their horses, their stirrups barley below their knees, that I marvelled they didn’t fall off. 

The 2400m track is large enough that you can’t really see what’s happening in the race when it’s on the other side. But instead a big screen shows you a live camera feed of the race, along with whose currently winning – just like watching a Olympic track race. 

After a valiant start, I watched as Yayoon quickly fell behind, and the action fell to the group of horses at the front. In the end, some two minutes later she galloped across the line second last out of the eight horses.  A loser among losers. 

After the horses were led off of the track, I walked back out to the grounds, to see how they were doing and to commiserate with Yayoon. Next to the stables, the horses were being splashed down with water to cool them down after their all-out exertion.  I slipped my now-worthless betting slip in my pocket, and walked over to the Führring to await the next batch of pre-race horses and to careful consider my next pick. 

Horse-racing naturally appeals to one’s bourgeois side. The look among many spectators is dinner at an Ivy League yacht club. Teenage girls and old ladies sport fancy hats reminiscent of something the Queen might enjoy – in other words a world away from what you typically see while walking down Warschauerstraße. But while going to Hoppegarten is fun excuse to dress up, there is no dress code and no one will look at you askance if you come simply in a t-shirt and shorts, as many did. And among the couples in fancy dress also sit young families and easy-going groups of friends. 

You also don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of money to enjoy a day at the races. The minimum bet is only €2. And while there are burgers, beer, wine and cocktails for sale, you’re also allowed to bring your own food or drink along. Many people opt to bring a blanket and have their own custom picnic on the lawn in front of the track races. You’re close to the action, the view is still good and costs nothing extra, and the ground is comfy. So why not stop at Humana and buy a fancy second hand-hat and bring a bottle of wine to share with your friends? It’s the perfect way to play-act being an sophisticated member of the bourgeoisie class for the day, even if you’re on a proletariat’s budget. 

That being said, if you’ve just flown in for the weekend from your private yacht in Monaco, there are plenty of packages that cater to the wealthy among us. Tickets from €20-40 will get you a spot in the private grand stands with white wooden box seats adorned with red flowers, and a great elevated view of the finish line. And €235 will get you a full VIP treatment, with an exclusive table on the grandstand’s 1st floor, where you’ll be served a full course of starters, mains, dessert and coffee, along with as much wine and champagne as you’d like. 

Half the fun of going to the races at Hoppegarten is to contemplate the incredible history of the place. The track was built on hop fields (hence the name), as a replacement for a previous track that existed in Tempelhof. When the race track had its opening race day on May 17, 1868, future German Reich chancellor Otto von Bismarck and Prussian King Wilhelm I were there to usher in the festivities.  With important and lucrative prizes like the “Grand Prize of Berlin,” Hoppegarten soon became the premiere track in Germany, and up until the first world war, it was an important meeting point for the political and social elite of Berlin.   

Hoppegarten has also managed to survive countless waves of change and chaos in Germany: World War I, the Weimar Republic, National Socialism, the DDR, the fall of the wall. Through all of it, Hoppegarten has survived, with only short periods of inaction. 

In many ways its highs and lows parallel those of Germany itself. In 1944, the main stands were turned by the Nazis into a weapons armory, and near the very end of WWII in March 1945, Joseph Goebbels called for 100,000 troops to be stationed at Hoppegarten as a last ditch attempt to defend Berlin from the approaching Russians. But it has also had incredible highs, such as when, in March 1990, after the fall of the wall, 45,000 people came to watch the first Germany versus Germany races.

The next horse I bet on was no winner either. Nor the next two after that. My first and only winning bet was in race number five, when my horse placed 3rd, and my €2 Platz bet secured me a humble winnings of €4.10. But the most exciting bet I placed for the night was the eighth and last race of the evening which took place near sundown at 9pm. It was a sprint of 1200 meters, and I picked a dark brown longshot horse called ‘Poet Rocks’. After galloping out to an early lead, in the end she lost her steam, and just missed out on placing. But I should have known. The betting newspaper said she was good… especially in short races, and apparently the shorter the better.  Although some long-shot betters did end up happy. The winner of the last race out of the field of 12, was a horse that came with 15-1 odds. 

As I walked leisurely back to the S-Bahn in the warm dusk twilight to catch the train back to Berlin, I quickly did the math on my proceeds. In the end I lost maybe €20 on my amateurish bets. But I wasn’t disappointed.  It had given me the chance participate in one of the longest running pastimes in Berlin. And although my wallet may have felt a bit lighter, I felt richer for the experience.