Hoppegarten: The East German racetrack that was a Cold War hit

The exterior of Hoppegarten racetrack on the outskirts of Berlin, Germany.
The exterior of Hoppegarten racetrack on the outskirts of Berlin, Germany.


    The Cold War history of Hoppegarten


The Cold War history of Hoppegarten 09:35

Story highlights

  • Hoppegarten is a historic race course near Berlin
  • Horse racing a popular pursuit in communist East Germany
  • Venue purchased by investor Gerhard Schoningh in 2008

(CNN)If the walls of the Hoppegarten racetrack could talk, they would likely proffer tales of thoroughbred legends and sporting glory -- not to mention classes in German and European history.

The celebrated horse racing venue on the outskirts of Berlin was visited by nineteenth century titans King Wilhelm I and future German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, as far back as 1868. It's grandstand was opened in 1922, during the inter-war period when Germany was known as the Weimar Republic. In the days of communist East Germany, meanwhile, Hoppegarten was a popular attraction for tens of thousands of day-tripping East Berliners.
    Today, Hoppegarten is in the hands of an ambitious private owner that has big ideas for its future. But the old magic and allure remains, according to those who know it best.
    "As far as racing goes, it's the Mecca for German horse racing," says Artur Boehlke, who was charged with running Hoppegarten in the days of the GDR, as East Germany was officially known.
    Boehlke, now 79, has worked at the racecourse since 1948 when he started as a messenger boy. Back then, the Cold War had yet to heat up while the soon to be formed East and West German nations were only beginning to recover from the devastation wrought by World War II.
    "Tens of thousands of people came, even right after the war, because people wanted to have fun. It was about distraction," Boehlke says. "If you came to a race day at Hoppegarten you really dressed up. You wanted to shine and be lucky. And of course most people drunk lots of beer. Schnaps too," he adds.

    'Financed by the state'

    These fond memories are shared by Uwe Stech. One of two remaining trainers in the Hoppegarten area, Stech began working as an apprentice jockey at the racecourse in 1977.
    Although East Germany had become a totalitarian state by this stage, with far higher productivity and poverty rates than West Germany, Stech says Hoppegarten and those who worked there fared better than the vast majority of their compatriots.
    "In the GDR, Hoppegarten was the centre of racing," Stech recalls. "It was linked to the state and was exclusively financed by the state."
    German breeders and trainers - the next generation
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      German breeders and trainers - the next generation


    German breeders and trainers - the next generation 05:40
    "Breeding wasn't great as the genetic basis was too small, that was a disadvantage. But for those of us who worked in horse racing in the GDR, we had it pretty good compared to most people in those times," Stech adds.
    Stech went on to become a trainer and now looks after 23 race horses at the nearby Am Hollander training yard.
    And while there may be more developed courses in Germany and surrounding countries, few have what Hoppegarten can offer in terms of character, charm and history, Stech believes.

    Hoppegarten rebirth

    That history alongside the well-kept state of the race course encouraged London-based former fund manager, Gerhard Schoningh, to buy Hoppegarten in 2008.
    Despite being a racing fan and occasional spectator at events in the UK, Schoningh's interest has as much to do with being a smart investment as it is about passion for the sport.
    "I ordered the documentation and I went through and I suddenly thought 'that's really interesting,'" Schoningh told CNN. "(It's) the former number one track in Germany, in its re-emerging capital, with the hardware pretty much in tact."
    Hoppegarten: Revolutionizing the heart of German racing
    The grandstand at Hoppegarten racetrack on the outskirts of Berlin, Germany.


      Hoppegarten: Revolutionizing the heart of German racing


    Hoppegarten: Revolutionizing the heart of German racing 06:47
    "I suddenly thought, would it be possible to bring (Hoppegarten) back to its leading position in German racing?"
    Schoningh has set about trying to do just that in the intervening period. He describes early work that upgraded hospitality areas that had become outdated as "incredibly important."
    Improvements were also made to the dated catering facilities, car-park, bathrooms and public areas.
    Yet Schoningh insists he is keen on maintaining the integrity and uniqueness of Hoppegarten as he seeks to draw in a new audience.
    "You could invest 20 or 30 million (Euros) here, I'm sure you could do that. But whether you get 1,000 (or) 2,000 more visitors is a completely different question," Schoningh says.
    "There is even a danger that you would get rid of the charm."
    As such, Schoningh believes there is an opportunity to make the most of Hoppegarten's historical quirks.
    "We have the special situation here that (the racetrack) was behind the Iron Curtain. It was cut off from West Berlin which was two thirds of the population of Berlin," he continues.
    "To the West Berliner racing or flat racing was something grandad had told them about ... so we've had huge scope here to get West Berliners to reconnect," Schoningh adds.

    'The beauty can't be beaten'

    Boehlke now works as an adviser at Hoppegarten. He was involved in brokering the privatization deals that ultimately led to Schoringh's 2008 purchase.
    And while the post-war days of simple food that consisted of little more than "meatballs or sausages" may be gone, he points out much that makes the racecourse special remains the same.
    "The landscape and beauty of the Hoppegarten can't be beaten," Boehlke says. "(It) is one of the most beautiful race courses, not just in Germany but in the whole of Europe."
    Few would argue with that should they back a winning horse on the spot where Bismarck once stood.