Visiting modern Berlin is the most optimistic experience you can have in a European capital. You get the same feeling if you take the 20 minute train east from Alexanderplatz to its racecourse at Hoppegarten. But here it is a case of going back for the future.
Quite a long way back, for it was in 1868 that Chancellor Otto Von Bismark opened Hoppegarten in, yes, the hop garden district just outside the city. Bismark was a keen racing man as well as being the creator of modern Germany. He aimed to make Hoppegarten one of the great racing and training centres in Europe and at the turn of the 19th and first part of the 20th century that ambition was fully achieved. Before WWII all the German classics bar the Derby were run on the track and there were 1500 horses in the training barns. But bad days were coming.
For while Hoppegarten was not flattened by the bombs of World War II as was Berlin, it’s “refrigeration” in East Germany during the Cold War years meant that its track, training centre and horses were whole furlongs off the pace when the first unified “German-German” meeting was held in 1990. I was there that heady afternoon with an overflowing crowd of 35,000 with race after race going to West German trained horses and the opening event to jockey Lutz Mader on his first visit East since he fled by swimming the River Oder twenty years earlier. But the euphoria did not last. The wall may have come down and startling improvements applied to the dreadful Stalinist architecture of East Berlin, but the wall that enclosed Hoppegarten was almost as solid as bricks and mortar. It was public indifference.
Two million West Berliners had spent 30 years without exposure to racing. It’s one thing to attend a one off celebration, quite another to become a regular racegoer. Worse, Hoppegarten’s ownership was soon in a three way dispute between central government, the state government of Brandenburg, and the Union-Klub (German Jockey Club). Much needed investments were never made, the place was finally declared bankrupt, central government decided to privatize and in stepped the shining knight that is financier Gerhard Schoeningh.
Gerhard’s racing education started with a childhood next to Kreufeld racecourse, graduated as president of the Bristol University Turf Club, won honours in 2008 as best man at Henry Cecil’s wedding to Lady Jane and last month his filly Perfect Summer. He made his fortune in hedge funds but is now putting it on the line in what is not just Germany’s only privately owned and operated racecourse, but is certainly the most energetic individually run course in Europe. 51 year old Schoeningh does not just work the room; last week, tall and immaculate in double breasted black pinstripe he was working the whole track.
It was October 3rd, a date that has been a public holiday since German unification on October 3rd 1990. The crowd of 12,800 at 10 euros ahead, might still have been only a fraction of that manic opening afternoon, but it was the biggest total under the new regime that can also boast sharp improvements in prize money and betting turnover. But since the latter, at just E 371,000 for the day, remains pitifully low for a racing operation, it is soon clear that Schoeningh and his team are offering a lot more than punting for their customers’ amusement.
It was not just bouncy castles although there was a massive one of those. There were pony rides, balloon blowing, a fashion show, a jeep driving test and, being Germany, the finest hot dog stalls you will ever find, one of which rejoiced in the name of “Knobi Factory.” The layout is spacious with many trees giving welcome shade in the heat of midsummer. Last week was a cold clear autumn day but the view from the top of the grandstand out over the sweeping twelve furlong, right handed track was magnificent enough to make you understand why Schoeningh still believes in Bismarck.
Germany’s star horse Novellist began his three year old campaign with a victory here in April last year with Panamanian stable jockey Eduardo Pedrosa in the saddle. Last week his trainer Andreas Wohler was back at his base in Gutersloh but the yard’s Rockmount River duly obliged in the first under Pedrosa who was to star on the Longchamp stage that Sunday by driving Wohler’s Altano home in the Prix Du Cadran.
“Eddie” is an elegant, quietly spoken 39 year old who started riding in Panama but linked up with Wohler when he came back to see his own father in Bremen some 19 years ago and his credits include four German championships and a dead heat in the 2004 Dubai Duty Free on Wohle’s Paolini. Rockmount River was of vastly lower rating but a winner is a winner in any territory especially on a horse breaking his duck at the tenth attempt. “He was quite good at home” said Eddie, “but just seemed to forget everything when he got to the racecourse. Today was good for him and this is a lovely track to ride. The turf is very well looked after and they have the only straight seven furlongs in Germany.”
Pedroza was soon whisked away for a seemingly endless round of presentations and a ride in the two year old race which included the day’s equine star turn in terms of interest if not ability, a colt called Silvery Moon whose coat was white with large brown patches like a the Indian “Paint” ponies you see in Westerns. In the paddock Suzanne Roberts gives me a tip for an unraced colt called Doinyo, trained and ridden by last year’s Arc winning partnership of Peter Schiergen and Andreas Starke. Suzanne used to be a stalwart of the Elsworth team during the Desert Orchid glory days and now runs the stud where Doinyo is bred. That fine establishment is owned by Bernard Von Schubert who is not only proprietor of Sport Welt (the German Racing Post) but had just given us a splendid open air lunch nearby at the magnificent 18th century stables originally built for the King of Prussia. The story was too good to miss.
But no punter clutches at straws more desperately than when getting a single horse from a familiar face in a foreign land. In fact Doinyo ran pretty well, sweeping to the front as Silvery Moon revealed that he is more amusing in the paddock than on the track. But just as my friends were about to be sickened by cries of “Who else knew” an unraced filly called Veligandu flew past impressively to shut me up. Veligandu is trained next to the track by Roland Dzubasz who topped the all German list last year and whose success Gerhard Schoeningh hopes will encourage more trainers to set up on what are now much improved facilities but on which he wants to see the current total of 130 horses upped to at least 250 to make it pay.
Making our own day pay went the usual way of these things. In the big sprint our money was on a horse called Ach Was not least because it was ridden by the absolutely tiny Alexandra Vilmar who last year, in the vividly translated words of the local form book “had won this race at her first race life with a furious victory.” Another “furious victory” looked on the cards as Alexandra drove to the front but right on the line she was nailed by another locally trained beast called Garina.
At dinner the night before I had sat next to Peter Schiergen who as a jockey had won three races on that first German-German meeting in 1990. He had seemed keen on his horses for Hoppegarten so we lumped on his Gotia and Andreas Starke in the Brandenburg Trophy only to see Pedrosa ease past on Readyspice who, like Veligandu, is trained by the, to us English, unspellable and unpronounceable Dzubasz. Such reverses ruin the judgement and so in the featured Group Three Westminster Preis der Deutche, I unforgiveably ignored Schiergen’s assurances of Neatico’s well being and had to watch Andreas Starke sending him five long length clear at, considering the horse’s Group One success in midsummer, the ridiculously generous odds of 3-1.
But punting should never be the only criterion of success and especially not at Hoppegarten where the Tote windows still have something of a pre-war let alone “pre-Wall” feel and where the lack of a wide screen makes it hard to understand what is going on. What works at Hoppegarten is the sense of a happy, orderly day out with a beautifully sited turf track at the centre of it. “What I love about the place is that it is great fun,” says Gerhard Schoeningh at the end of the day. “There are smart parts but it is not pretentious, all the family are welcome and while it is essential we also use the track for other events, the message of the race day is beginning to get through. Berlin’s tourism is going through the roof and there is huge potential here that you would not get anywhere else.”
As a private owner he laughingly says that it is his “privilege” not to say when he expects to break even, but does boldly state that “within five years our aim is to be No I racecourse and No 1 training centre in Germany”
You can’t be more optimistic than that.