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Berlin's Hoppegarten racetrack a window to its past

It's one of Berlin's secret gems. They've been racing horses at Hoppegarten for 150 years, so the circuit is a monument to history - as well as a fine picnic spot. DW's Jefferson Chase tried his luck at the track.

Somewhere in the Book of Leviticus, I think, it says that the best way to honor Thy Maker is to bet on the horses. So on Easter Sunday, I headed out to the racetrack. I'd been there quite a few times, and, as always, I spent the 40-minute train ride to Hoppegarten, a suburb just east of Berlin, studying the racing form.

This Sunday was different, though. 1) I was hooking up friends from the US whom I'd promised to show one of Berlin's best non-touristy attractions. 2) I was set to meet the people who run the track itself.

Hoppegarten racetrack has been around since 1868, and the history is palpable as soon as you enter the grounds. The grandstand, built in 1922, is a looming red-bricked example of Weimar Republic functionalism, while the wooden food stands selling everything from bratwurst and cotton candy to wine-and-fruit punch and homemade potato chips have a nostalgic aura to them.

It wouldn't feel all that out-of-place if you turned a corner and bumped into people wearing greatcoats and bodices.

Berlin has seen more ups and downs than any other city on earth, but Hoppegarten has been a remarkably resilient constant. In the Third Reich the racetrack remained in operation until 1944, even with the Red Army bearing down on the German capital.

In communist East Germany (GDR), the racetrack became a "people's enterprise," but it didn't change much architecturally and still attracted the crowds. That was largely due to Artur Boehlke, who served as the track's director for decades.

"We drew more people in the GDR than we do today," Boehlke tells me. "Even in a communist society, the race track was considered something a bit elite and special."

Woman in fancy hat at Hoppegarten, Copyright: Frank Sorge/galoppfoto.de

Some Hoppegarten visitors make a fashion statement

Boehlke guided Hoppegarten through the period of German reunification, which saw many eastern German enterprises go under. The track survived, and for that the septuagenarian was awarded Germany's Federal Cross of Merit in 2008.

Friends old and new

2008 was the year Hoppegarten was bought by a private investor, securing its medium-term future. There are VIP boxes where gentlemen in summer suits and ladies in fancy hats sip champagne, but the real heart and soul of Hoppegarten are the lawns in front of the home stretch and the finish line. There you'll find a pretty representative cross section of Berlin.

"The race track has become very popular with 20- to 30-year-olds," says Hoppegarten's current managing director, Stephan Buchner. "They like getting dressed up a bit and having a picnic while they watch the races."

As if to prove Buchner's point, before I locate my US visitors, I run into my friend, the Swiss photographer Benjamin Füglister, who's currently creating a book featuring Hoppegarten and two other race courses. He takes me and my North American friends Trina, Garth and their kids Siggi and Brynn on a "backstage tour" of the stables.

Visitors lounging on the lawn at Hoppegarten, Copyright: Frank Sorge/galoppfoto.de

Most patrons, though, prefer a nice picnic

There, horses stamp by a couple of arm's lengths away, dripping from their post-race baths and with steam still issuing from their muzzles. The stables in their current form were built sometime during the East German era, but on the surface they could almost be from the Middle Ages.

'Gambling is fun and easy'

Back at the race course proper, I give my friends a quick lesson in betting. My system is to make a list of favorites and medium outsiders, eliminate the ones whose odds seem too short and then play a trifecta combination - a set of six gets covering the top three in any order. I know absolutely nothing about horses, but the strategy has paid off in the past. Not so long ago I won 1,350 euros ($1,870) on a single race.

Trina, Siggi and I get in line behind an old lady with a walker, two guys with tattoos on their necks, and what looks to be someone's trophy wife playing with her mobile phone. Then we place our bets and head off to watch the action.

The 2,400-meter (7,900-foot) oval grass track is surrounded by forest, the standing room section is crowded but not unpleasantly packed, and we're enjoying some spectacular spring weather. On a day like this, Hoppegarten is about as close to idyllic as you're ever likely to get at an establishment whose raison d'etre is gambling.

Hoppegarten racetrack, Copyright: galoppfoto.de

A sunny day at Hoppegarten almost makes you wish you were a horse

The gates open, the horses take off, and the old adage about beginners and luck proves true. Siggi's three horses break away on the home stretch and finish well ahead of the pack. This 13-year-old has just won the first racing bet he's ever placed. His parents and I joke that this probably isn't the best thing for his development.

"Gambling is fun and easy," Siggi remarks as he goes to collect the 50 euros he's won.

At the end of the day, everyone except me has lost a bit of money, but as we board the train to return to the city center, no one's complaining. Even if you don't like gambling, Hoppegarten can be a really good day out.

As Buchner pointed out to me, the racetrack is almost tourist-free: The manic discount-airline fun-seekers who prevent anyone sane from enjoying significant portions of downtown Berlin have neither the time nor the energy to make it to the periphery. That has made Hoppegarten racetrack one of the most chilled-out ways to experience a bit of what Berlin really is - and was.

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