German track on rise after fall of Communists

RACING WITHOUT WALLS

May 03, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

Berlin -- In the big race at the old Communist track, the American horse busts out of the starting gate like an ex-commissar looking for capitalist investment opportunities.

Parisian Whirl, whose daddy was an American named Island Whirl, is running in the 20,000 deutsche mark Auto-Merkel Cup, the feature race at Rennbahn Hoppegarten, the Hoppegarten Race Course.

Hoppegarten is a lovely swatch of greensward in the countryside about five miles beyond the last high-rise project the Communist East Germans put up to house their workers. It's out in the hop fields -- Hoppegarten means a place where you grow hops, the stuff that makes beer taste good.

Hoppegarten turns out to be one of Europe's biggest race complexes. In addition to a 1 1/2 -mile main track -- as big as New York's Belmont Park -- Hoppegarten has about 12 miles of training tracks around and about, as Damon Runyon used to say.

Until the end of World War II, Hoppegarten was Germany's most important racecourse. It has survived the war, the Nazis and the Communists.

Artur Boehike says that working at the track under the Communists was like being in prison. He's been the general manager since the collapse of the Communist German Democratic Republic.

He started working here in 1963 selling pari-mutuel tickets. He's a nephew of Ulrich Boehike, a highly regarded jockey, who was a double derby winner in 1948, the last year you could race in both East and West German derbies. Ulrich then took off for the West.

Boehike's Easter Monday feature was a $12,000 allowance race sponsored by an auto dealer in Baden-Baden. But Hoppegarten is coming back. Racetrack people are a hardy bunch, real survivors, especially the $2 bettor, who actually bets about $1.50 here because the basic bet is 2.50 marks.

On opening day last month, 30,000 were here, a nice number for any track; 8,000 came on a clear, cold, blustery Easter Monday.

Hoppegarten is, in fact, one of the few potentially profitable assets left in the old East Germany. Two groups are contesting for ownership: the Union Club, a sort of Jockey Club that once ran the races here, and the state of Brandenburg, which would like to take over the operation because it makes money.

They were in court last month, but there has been no decision yet. Treuhandanstalt, the big government agency privatizing East German operations, owns Hoppegarten for the time being.

The East Germans took good care of the track, which is really a complex of steeplechase and flat courses, all grass, including a seven-furlong straightaway that starts in a distant patch of woods.

The horses run clockwise at Hoppegarten, the wrong way from an American point of view. Jockey Reymond Ludtke brings Parisian Whirl into the stretch at the head of the 10-horse field -- far down on the right at the sweeping arc of green that is the last turn.

The Communists didn't treat their human customers quite as well as their horses. The stands were rundown when Boehike took over. He's spruced them up considerably, although they are still a little Spartan by contemporary standards.

Hoppegarten is nonetheless a very pleasant place to watch races, tree-shaded and homey and slightly countrified like Delaware Park or Maryland's Fair Hill track. Families bring their children and baby carriages, lunch baskets and dogs. There's a pony ride for the youngsters. The track recommends keeping the dogs on a short leash.

There are also plenty of guys in leather jackets sharing a bottle on the grass in the general admission area: 2 marks to get in, about $1.20.

The clubhouse -- the Klubtribune -- and the grandstand are sturdy, handsome, but stolid brick buildings. The Klubtribune has a horsy, wood-paneled restaurant and a pretty terrace cafe overlooking the track. The grandstand's cafeteria-style lunchroom looks like some mess hall for enlisted men.

Outside, beneath the trees, there's plenty to eat and drink at kiosks and gazebos between the grandstand and the paddock, including champagne, good champagne: Piper-Heidsieck and Laurent Perrier. But also beer, sausage and baked potato.

And, as at racetracks everywhere, lots of people sit around making funny little marks on the local racing form, which is here called the Rennkurier.

You bet with computer cards, either at the track tote machine, or with a bookmaker named Gert Albers, who has a low wooden shed at Hoppegarten and seven betting shops in the city. Sometimes, Albers' odds are better than the pari-mutuel pool. And, of course, sometimes not.

There's no tote board in the infield. They post entries and results by hand on a little signboard in front of the stands. At the track's betting windows, the odds come up on television screens. But Albers posts his odds by hand. It's all as comfy as an old-time country fair.

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