Introducing Children to Horse Racing

Hoppegarten is a beautiful old race course just outside Berlin, somewhat past its glory days (owing to the vicissitudes of German twentieth-century history) but still charming. I’ve been going there for years, and though there have been little indicators of fresh investment (smart new signs, posh ladies’ loos) the essential character remains the same. The course is surrounded by woodland and dilapidated old villas and farm buildings, and in the centre of the field there’s an overgrown set of steeplechase fences being slowly reclaimed by nature. The stands are at least a hundred years old, and the commentators’ tower has the rickety-modern look of a DDR construction.

I had a last-minute trip out there with friends on Easter Sunday, and we were all given paper Union Jacks for the Royal Wedding, which everyone waved as the runners sped into the final furlong. The sun shone, the horses were beautiful and our favourite jockey, the Panamanian Eduardo Pedroza was as swaggering and brilliant as usual, keeping up his course record of winning one in three of his races.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What caught my eye was the children’s entertainment. There are usually pony rides, but this Easter Hoppegarten went one better, and provided four very patient white ponies for painting.

As we left I passed what looked like a craft activity table, with children clustered round, shuffling pieces of paper. When I looked more closely I realised that they were all poring over copies of the race card. This then, was ‘Kinderwetten’ or ‘Children’s Betting’, complete with special betting slips and, I suppose, prizes. Start ’em young!

And guess what? Lester Piggott was there too.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

Thank you to Susan for sending me a link to this piece on horse prints in fashion at Style Bubble.

Roo shared this, er, fascinating set of what you might call outsider art portraits of horses smoking cigarettes, for sale now on Craigslist New Orleans. Click now before they’re sold.

Ed Ward let me know that Marianne Faithfull’s new album is called ‘Horses and High Heels’, and also directed my attention to this New York Times travel feature on horses and music in Louisiana:

I HAD never noticed how closely the syncopated rhythm of zydeco music echoes the rollicking stumble of horses on rough terrain. But on a September afternoon in the piney woods of Evangeline Parish, in Louisiana’s Cajun country, with hundreds of dusty horseback riders moving down a narrow trail, the kinship was impossible to miss. As the horses followed a tractor towing a D.J. and a zydeco-blaring sound system, they bucked and swayed in a cadence fit for the barroom floors of Lafayette, 70 miles away.

HBO’s new blockbuster/DVD box set of the future is Luck, about hosses and gamblers. There’s a trailer here at Television Blend. Directed by Michael Mann, starring Nick Nolte and Dustin Hoffman. Looks fantastic.

Teenage hearthrob Robert Pattinson shoots a horse in his new film, Water for Elephants, in which he plays a ‘circus veterinarian’ opposite Reese Witherspoon. Reese’s character performs with horses in the circus as a liberty trainer, and a big part of me is fondly hoping that she was inspired by Jenny de Rhaden or Emilie Loisset, though I doubt it. The trailer looks like a big, cheesy waste of Christopher Waltz. Thank you to Patrick (who is always fascinated by horse disposal) for this one.

April brings out equine finery. The president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov, showcased the Akhal Teke horse, complete with traditional dress and jewellery (fancy), while in the town of St Augustine in Florida, the 53rd annual Parada de los Caballos y Coches took place. Carriage horses parade through the streets in Easter bonnets contributed by worthy American ladies. Past bonnet-donations came from Mary Pickford, Nancy Reagan, Mrs Billy Graham and Mrs Jimmy Carter. No word on whether Michelle Obama has been asked to help out.

Mark Todd won Badminton, and there’s a fantastic slide show of the cross country day here (see if you can spot the little girl in the crowd who’s brought along her hobbyhorse).

The Queen is Dead; Long Live the Queen

Zenyatta’s poor jockey, Mike Smith is mortified that she was just pipped in the Classic, but then there was Goldikova, the French filly who last night became one of the greatest milers of all time:

Riding the Wind

Take a ride on the brilliant racemare Zenyatta, who will try to win the twentieth race of a twenty race career tonight at Churchill Downs, Kentucky: the $5,000,000 Breeders’ Cup Classic. God but she’s shiney.

America’s Narcotics Problem

Thanks to Karen Krizanovich for sending me this New York Times piece on the use of drugs in US horse racing in the run up to the Breeders’ Cup championship day. I’ve bolded for emphasis… I do not know how any true horseman or horsewoman could send injured horses into competition.

“A Jockey Club study released last March determined that racehorses died at the rate of 2.04 per 1,000 starts in the United States and Canada, a rate twice as deadly as in any other country. The Jockey Club has pointed to multiple studies that show permissive drug rules are part of the cause of the high mortality rates. It has gotten the Association of Racing Commissioners International, or R.C.I., to lower the allowable level of phenylbutazone, which can be used to mask injuries to horses.”

I suppose it’s a start…

Grey Vision

Today at Newmarket there will be a special race for grey thoroughbreds only, the Racing Welfare Grey Horse Handicap.More from Horse  Talk:

“The contest, first run in 2003, is restricted to horses registered as grey aged three and above. A field of 16 has been declared for this season’s renewal and includes the first three horses home from last year, the Stef Higgins-trained Sarah’s Art as well as Zowington and Bilberry, who are both trained in Newmarket by Stuart Williams.Middleton Grey was a stalwart in the early years of the Grey Horse Handicap for trainer Tony Newcombe, landing back to back renewals in 2004 and 2005, finishing fourth in 2006 and eighth on his final attempt in 2007.

This year Newcombe, who trains at Barnstaple in Devon, is represented by Witchry who will be making his third appearance in the race, having finished fifth in 2008 and seventh last year. The eight-year-old Green Desert gelding has had a light campaign so far this year, having made just two appearances, most recently finishing third at Bath on 22nd July.

Newcombe said today: …

‘The race offers something different and to see 16 grey horses racing against each other is something in itself. I think the race has established itself in the calendar now and offers good prize money. It is run in the middle of the summer and owners appreciate the chance to pick up some decent prize money. We are all systems go and we will have a nice day whatever happens.'”

In my family, we commemorate my maternal grandmother by betting on greys. I’m not sure where to start here, but am pretty sure she’s in the ether with an opinion or two.

In Two-Four Time

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…

Terrible cameraphone photo of race card

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.