Monday, August 29, 2005

A Day At the Races

What better way to spend a 72-degree sunny day than to go out into the countryside among lush green fields and ancient trees? Especially when you might make a little money doing it.

One of the first things I discovered when I moved here was that there was a racetrack here, in the town of Hoppegarten, which was accessible by public transportation, a 45-minute S-Bahn ride away. (Actually, there are a couple of race-tracks, but the rest of them feature harness racing, which doesn't really count). I'd been initiated into horse racing by my friend Bob in California, who argued that it was the cheapest professional sport going, with admission to the track there being something like three bucks (yesterday was €5), and I was sort of amused by his description of the horses as "athletes." But he was right: non-humans can be athletes, too, and it didn't take me long to appreciate the way horse and jockey worked together towards achieving the goal of crossing the finish-line. Plus, I usually made a little money.

When I first started going to the Hoppegarten, everyone I knew here recoiled at the idea of joining me. There were plenty of excuses: there were unsavory people at the track; it was too far into the East; it was boring. So I went alone. It didn't take me long to figure some stuff out about Hoppegarten. First, it was a very old track: it's owned and operated by a racing club called Union 1867, which was, no doubt, when it was founded. (In fact, the German government issued a stamp commemorating the place's 125th anniversary). Second, yeah, it did have some of that East German tack about it, but that was charming, I thought. Third, the best horses in Europe most assuredly do not race here. In fact, picking a horse is next to impossible most of the time, at least with any degree of assurance.

It was a minimal investment of time, usually on a Sunday afternoon, and quite relaxing. The walk to the grounds is down a cobblestoned street lined with huge trees (although the street has now been paved, which is new since last year), and I remember my first time going there, for a fall race, the trees' leaves all shades of red and orange, and the teenaged girls who tend the horses were leading them down the street after the race I'd just missed, steam coming off the horses' backs. Once you get to the track, you've got a huge field planted in grass, surrounded by trees. There's a tribune to sit in, but the lowest-priced tickets don't allow this: you have to stand on the grass, which is usually quite pleasant. I found it quite easy to get a place right by the finish-line, the place where the adrenaline is the highest. You don't get to see much of the race anyway from ground level, so you might as well see the best part.

Behind the tribune are the betting stalls and the concessions. When I first went there, the concessions were all locals, with their fish sandwiches and various kinds of sausages, and I'd almost always get a Thüringer Bratwurst grilled over a charcoal fire. There were little bars selling nothing but beer, and one of the bartenders was, like so many Germans, an avid mushroom hunter. He'd put up his finds -- either Steinpilze (porcini) or mixed mushrooms (with a lot of Steinpilze mixed in) -- in ugly grey paper bags and sell them. I'd buy one on the way out and go home and make mushroom pesto for dinner. Over the years, though, the concessions have changed to be more like German fast-food everywhere. There still isn't a Döner Kebap stand, but there are now limp frozen french-fries, bad pizza, and lots of soft-drinks at the bars, which also now feature national beers (although this year Hasseröder, an absolutely undrinkable East German beer seems to be the main one). But there are still some local entrepreneurs: a stand featuring rabbit specialties -- stew and roulades -- was doing a brisk business yesterday.

The betting has been somewhat upgraded from the days when you had to use a pencil to mark an IBM card, which was then fed into a machine labelled SWEDISH COMPUTER, which recorded your bet. Touch-screen betting still hasn't come to Hoppegarten, but the big machine with the clacking relays inside the main tribune building is silent at last. A bar-coded slip comes out after you hand in your paper with the bets, and that's what you redeem with if you win. Minimum bet is one Euro, too, so it's kind of affordable fun.

The racing form, available at the door (or the day before at a very few press outlets) is a newspaper called Sports Woche, which covers all the non-harness racing in Germany. Looking over the statistics on each horse, you quickly see how futile it is to try to predict results. Often the best way to bet is to narrow the field down to three or four possibilities, and then head over to the paddock and watch the horses being led around, checking for kidney sweat (often the sign of over-exercise), and seeing if any of the horses are notably on dope. (I shared a ride on the S-Bahn with a posse of Irish construction workers some years back, and they told me they'd have a hot tip for me at the racetrack. A few races into the day, they found me and pointed out a real long-shot of Irish origin. "That's the horse; your money's guaranteed on that one," they said. In the paddock, the horse was wild-eyed and frothing at the mouth, bucking until it kicked in one of the inner fences, after which it broke free of its leader, and leapt fences, heading off to who knows where. Unless the dope's worn off, he's probably approaching Russia by now.)

After that, place your bets and see what happens.

Yesterday was a day of notably mediocre horses -- it was even billed as a "Mittelstand Renntag" on the ticket. But, like I said, the day was gorgeous, and my friend the dancer was eager to go out there, which was nice, so we got there about 3 in the afternoon, in time for the 4th race. The 5th race featured a horse called German Dancer, whose numbers actually looked good, although the horse stood about a head taller than the others in the race, which was odd. Naturally, we had to pick that one, but she blew it in the stretch (or else the jockey just decided to hell with it, having been forced into a bad position in the final pack). I didn't get lucky until the 7th, when a 4-year-old called Statulik (by Statuesque out of Goofalik -- Goofalik??) returned €6.80 on my two-Euro bet. Which put me about even for the day, not counting the pretzel I'd bought or the door charge or the purchase of Sport Woche or the S-Bahn ticket out and back. Which made it a pretty good day, especially considering the fact that I hadn't been out all year.

It seemed like a good time to leave, since it was after 6, but after we left, we walked up Goetheallee, the street that borders the track (as opposed to the one that heads to the S-Bahn) and checked out the crumbling old villas with attached horse-barns that line the street. An old hotel which was seemingly in use the last time I wandered up that way now has broken windows and is obviously empty, which is a shame. One of the villas is in the process of being condo-ized, and I suspect any of the empty ones could be snapped up for a quarter-million, house, barns, and grounds all included. "It wouldn't be such a bad place if you were a writer," the dancer (who's writing a novel, remember) mused as we walked along. "But all this luxury, and the only place to buy your food is Aldi!" Which, sadly, is part and parcel of living in the east.

The perfect coda would have been a nice sunset dyeing the buildings around Alexanderplatz a deep orange as we headed back into town, but it's not that time of year yet, so we had to settle for listening to two Japanese students who'd also been at the track dissect the day's races in Japanese.

Two more races this year; one in September, and one in October. I sure hope I can make both of them. I haven't been able to find a race-track near Montpellier, so I'd better enjoy this, one of the few really enjoyable things about Berlin, while I have the chance.

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