A day at the races

Make sure to put on a silly hat, and go for a day, or week, at the races! The 102-year-old Mariendorf Trabrennbahn hosts Derby Week going on from Jul 24-Aug 2. But the track alone is worth the trip.

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Photo by Olga Baczynska

Take the U6 past Tempelhof to the very end of the line, navigate past a row of newly built senior residences and you’ll find one of those Berlin time capsules: the Mariendorf Trabrennbahn, a 102-year-old racetrack devoted exclusively to harness racing.

It’s not just the track that’s old. The original grandstands by August Endell (designer of the Hackesche Höfe), are still there, but though the Jugendstil structure is quite well-preserved, it’s empty on this cold February morning. Instead, everyone’s in the five-storey Tribünenhaus next door, a boxy, rundown 1970s building with a glass-walled viewing area, downstairs bar and penthouse café.

When they’re not watching the races, the grey-haired, Berlinerisch-speaking patrons smoke, drink coffee or beer and traverse to and from the betting tills. On the track, the riders, who sit behind the horses in a two-wheeled chariot-like contraption or “sulky”, aren’t young either. Harness racing prizes strategy and split-second decision-making over pure physical prowess, and despite the Ben-Hur connotations it’s all rather genteel; horses are even disqualified if they quicken their gait beyond a brisk trot.

There are eight races today, spread out across four hours, and the third is about to start. Would-be bettors frown over the jumble of names and numbers printed in the programme. (The horses, at least, are easy to pick out, with names like “I’m Chilly Chicken” and “Vodka Martini”.)

“I don’t bet now that I work here, but if I did, I’d pick number six, ‘Good man’,” says Heiko Lingk, a fan of the sport for 30 years who now serves as the track’s spokesman. “He’s made mistakes in the past, but his breeding is good.”

The Mission Impossible theme plays as horses and jockeys take their starting positions and before you know it they’re off. They circle the track just once; it’s over in a minute and a half and, yes, “Good man” comes in first. The brown stallion pulls snorting into the winner’s circle and his rider, 65-year-old Heinz Wewering, accepts the congratulatory bottle of wine. (The €5000 purse will come later.)

In July, 20,000 fans will be here for the annual German harness racing derby, but on normal race days like this one, visitors number in the hundreds only. The most seasoned gamblers bet from the trackside “Champion’s Teahouse”, a café/restaurant where international races play out on screens above the till. That’s where you’ll find 65-year-old Urberliner Ari, who’s attended nearly every race here for 50 years but now concentrates on France, where nearly €10 billion is gambled on horse racing annually compared to a mere €25 million in Germany. By the time the last Mariendorf race starts, he’s won some €130 off horses in Cagnes-Sur-Mer.

What was the Trabrennbahn like half a century ago? “Fuller.” Physical attendance might have diminished, but a growing base of online gamblers ensures the track will stay in business – this, and a new generation of younger, mostly female riders like Sarah Kube who – driving “Lantino” – wins the eighth and final race of the day. Ari, who placed a bet on that one just for fun, casually scoops up €70 in winnings.

Originally published in issue #136, March 2015.