On Sunday I went to the Trabrennbahn Mariendorf to watch the 2010 Deutsches Traber-Derby – my first harness racing meet. I saw a couple of exhibition trotting races at Hoppegarten last year and was fascinated – the horses so fast they seemed as low to the ground as the rocking horse racers in old paintings, legs flashing like scissors. Occasionally you see one curl its front legs once, twice, too many times and then break its trot for an irresistable gallop, only to be pulled out of the race. Standardbreds are longer in the back than Thoroughbreds, with full-muscled chests and lengthy manes – pretty buff, as Sarah pointed out, and then we got sidetracked trying to work out a suitable German translation. There wasn’t much hope in me following the form or understanding the tactics required, so I just went for buff horses with nice names and didn’t win much at all. The sun shone, the buffet was heavy and Deutsch (bratkartoffeln and chocolate mousse), Mayor Wowi turned out and a good time was had by all, and I wondered why it had taken me so long to go harness racing.
In Norfolk I grew up five minutes from the yard of a family who were prominent in the local trotting world, but the sport seems almost like an underground pursuit in the UK, linked to Traveller and Roma culture. As Standardbreds are descended from the old Norfolk Trotter breed (gone the way of the Quagga) it seems a shame that the mainstream overlooks the county’s contribution to a sport which is so prominent on the Continent, in Russia and in North America. Maybe K M Peyton’s Small Gains and Greater Gains novels about a nineteenth-century Norfolk girl and her trotter stallion, Rattler, will inspire children and teenagers to find out more. I hope so.
In the Gains books the trotters are ridden, not driven, but I had no idea that “le trot monté” still featured in European programmes until a ridden race began, and I noticed that most of the jocks were girls who must have had legs of steel to hover up in their stirrups for 1,900m of choppy trot – a gait where a horse moves in two-four time and not the rocking three-four of a canter – although the sheer speed and extension of the racing trot looked weirdly smooth. Hats off to ’em. I’d love to try…
My family love racing, and whenever any of us goes to a meet we keep in touch by phone in case there’s a grey we can bet on, in memory of my grandmother, who thought no card game or horse race worth her while if she couldn’t have a little flutter. She owned a grey pony called Nonny (short for Anonymous), so I scoured the card for “Schimmeln” (the German for a grey horse is also the word for mould) and found nothing. The horses were almost uniformly bay, dark bay or chestnut and solid – I can’t remember seeing so much as a star or sock – a legacy, I presume, of the nineteenth century preference for plain coloured cavalry horses.
I liked the look of a filly called Finca because her name echoed that of Kincsem, a Hungarian mare who won more races than any other Thoroughbred in history, and retired unbeaten after 54 starts. Mum texted that we should have money on the derby and asked me to pick, so I asked her to choose a number between one and ten, and she chose seven – Finca – so it had to be. Two euros were duly invested.
The mare came with a late run which wasn’t quite enough, especially when Mum and I had recklessly bet to win.