Photo by Dee.lite (Wikipedia CC)
I've always been a bit more reclined than equine-inclined, if you know what I mean, but on entering the sprawl of the Mariendorf Trabrennbahn, it became immediately clear that this was going to be alright. Sat on fag-yellowed wooden chairs in the huge bar underneath the main stand were about 30 or so old blokes drinking cheap beer, racing forms spread out on the fake wood finished plastic tables and ashtrays overflowing.
You basically get a big bloody horse, string a chariot behind it and cling on for dear life as it charges round a kilometre and a quarter of sand track. I like it immediately, but my assumptions about the riders are completely wrong: one tiny mistake and you're off the pace, the wheels seem to stick in the sand at times, so how they control the damn thing whilst seeing only the horse's arse I do not know. It's bloody fast.
So just adjust to the rhythm: Buy a pint and have a fag while you study the form of the next race, go outside and watch the parade which comes, naturally, accompanied by the most German horse music that you could ever conceive (you know when old blokes get distracted and start doing that trumpety "pom-pom-pom" thing?) and decide that the biggest horse will win. Back inside, another quick fag and put a bet on. Then upstairs to the main stand, choose spot opposite the finish line, but whilst still able to see the important final bend, slurp more beer down and watch the race (about 2.5 minutes). Back downstairs, finish pint, have another fag and check the form for the next race. Watch the parade and decide this time that it must be the smallest horse which will win. And so on and on. The races come regularly enough to keep you interested, but not so quickly that you can't study the form well enough.This is important.
My first bet was disastrous - he came in fifth - so I decided on a change of tack for the next. I copied the old, knowledgable looking geezer in front of me and discarding my original choice. He gave me a knowing look as if we were in on the same secret and we'd see each other later for a celebratory lash up with champagne, birds and all those things that Big Winners get up to. I lost again and decided to bide my time before getting my tactics right and putting the farm on a sure thing later on.
Mariendorf Trabrennbahn exists in a time warp. To the right of the main tribune is a beautiful wrought-iron stand facing the final turn, and it's easy to imagine it in busier times, thronging with a better class of punter than me, hats flying through the air for the winners and a dignified pat on the back for the losers. Back in the main stand, among those who may not know what has happened outside in the last 30 years, you sit under the gaze of portraits of racing legends. Peter Kwiet, Tomas Feldhahn and Alfons Senf alongside Daniella VonDabrowski, the only obvious female face. And you'd never believe it, she won in the fifth. Her only race of the night and she's justified that very picture right there above my head.
This has to be some kind of sign. Marisa Bock has won one already today (the race I changed my bet for) and she's coming up in the next couple too. She storms overt the line on Royal Diamond BR to win the seventh and the dye is cast. I rush downstairs and put the last of my cash on her to win in the eighth, a risky one because it's the longest of the night, and she's got a big fucking horse that looks a bit clumsy to me. They came in fifth.
It's not my night, but as I file outside with all the other old guys, past piles of screwed-up betting slips, I catch the eye of the bloke that I should never have copied. "Did you win, then?" I ask him. He gives me a look that could have been either friendly and knowing or glaucoma. "Ja" is all he says and he slopes off the kilometre and a half to the U-Bahn. I have a final thought about the horses. They just ran that same distance in around two minutes, dragging a carriage and a rider. I'm knackered by the time I get to the station.