Why the public is standing by the controversial home of the German Derby

Wiener Walzer and jockey Fredrik Johansson win the 2009 Deutsche Derby

Sunday sees the 145th running of the German Derby, a highlight not only of the country’s racing year, but also of its social calendar. Yet, it has also been the subject of much controversy, as explained here by journalist David Conolly-Smith, who has attended all but one running since 1976 and is a supporter of the race and the unique Hamburg racetrack where it is staged.

Imagine running a race like the Kentucky Derby at a makeshift, once-a-year meet on a part-time racetrack round the local public park. A massive, colourful, traditional social occasion with top-quality racing in front of large crowds. It couldn’t happen, you say. Well, maybe not in the United States or most other frontline racing nations, but it certainly does in Germany.

The €650,000 ($887,000) G1 Deutsches Derby is one of the oldest, most coveted, most difficult to win races in Continental Europe. At the end of the 19th century, it was attracting the cream of German society – the Kaiser was there most years - and even now dignitaries and celebrities from far and wide descend on Hamburg on the first Sunday in July for a race that has an aura all of its own. On Sunday, popular former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt will be the guest on honour.

However, such is the unconventional nature of the track that has been the race’s home since 1869 that the Direktorium, the authority that runs German racing, unhappy with the way the meeting is staged, took the unprecedented step in July 2012 of canvassing other courses to see if any of them would be prepared to take over the race from the historic race club at Hamburg (founded 1852).

Munich was the only club to publicly express interest, but the facilities there certainly could not handle the 25,000-plus crowd expected on Derby Day. Nor could Baden-Baden Racecourse. While the owner of another leading track, Hoppegarten, just outside Berlin and the only German racecourse that could feasibly put the race on, quickly made it clear that he was not interested.

The overwhelming reaction of a media and racing public who had grown fond of the racecourse just a few miles east of the city centre was negative.

Albrecht Woeste, president of Direktorium, said two months later: "After discussions with all interested parties … the board has come to the conclusion many racegoers would like the Derby meeting to continue at Hamburg, even though conditions there are not acceptable. We respect these wishes and in order to keep internal peace we have decided to withdraw the invitation to other race clubs to stage the meeting."

Of course, it is impossible to deny that there are problems with the racecourse in the suburb of Horn, and here are some of the reasons why:

It is in the middle of a public park

The seven-day Derby meeting is the only time of the year when there is racing there. For the rest of the year, anyone and everyone can stroll over the racecourse, walking dogs, playing with children, picnicking, throwing frisbees, and so on.

This may not be ideal for conventional racecourse maintenance, but the park is rarely crowded and the public is generally well behaved. The track, which is not protected in any way, does not appear to suffer.

Explore the park:

Regular extremes of going

They’ve had heatwaves, they’ve had eve-of-Derby storms, they’ve had flooding, and the turf at Horn is particularly vulnerable. The ground is naturally sandy and gets very dry in hot weather and sticky after heavy rain. As trainer Jens Hirschberger said recently: “The ground at Hamburg is usually either very soft or very hard.”

The German insistence on running their top race on the final day of the meeting (the same is also true at Baden-Baden´s big fixture two months later) doesn’t help either. It means the ground is often quite rough come Derby time. The race has often been run as the 10th race on a 12-race card after several days’ racing.

However, the race club has made a huge effort in recent years to improve this situation.

The awkward layout

The weighing room, offices, press room, and all the technical facilities are in a building in the centre of the track, as is the saddling area and the paddock. The main viewing area is the grandstand, which has room for 3,500 people and backs on to the street where the entrances are. The grandstand was built in 1912, and at the same time, a tunnel under the track connecting infield and stand was constructed, although many people – if they have the right badges – prefer to walk across the track.

The other side of the coin is that the grandstand is in good shape after recent renovation and viewing is excellent. In addition, the balcony of the NH Hotel next to the grandstand offers a great view of the racetrack and is always sold out on Derby Day.

Poor crowds on non-Derby days

The infield, with its marquees for owners, trainers, and racegoers, an abundance of betting windows and TVs for watching the action, is always packed on Derby Day, when the atmosphere is electric. For the rest of the meeting, however, the crowds are much smaller (around 5,000 in midweek) and the atmosphere muted.

The marketplace of shops and stalls offering refreshments between the hospitality tents and the weighing room, and also around the paddock, is almost deserted on six of the seven days of the meeting.

This is a pity, as the good racing is not limited to Derby Day – there is a group race and valuable supporting races on each of the seven days of the meeting. The club has made great efforts to attract racegoers on these days, with free entry on weekdays and later starting times on some days, but many Hamburg citizens seem to think that Derby week lasts for one day only.

Lack of television coverage

In the last quarter of the 20th century, there was a 45-minute live programme from Hamburg shown on national TV throughout Germany. But times have changed. Now there is very little coverage and most of it regional only, or in brief reports shown hours later. Racing is low on the list of priorities for TV programmers.

Money worries

Like all German race clubs, Hamburg runs its own tote and receives the profits from betting. In the past, the Derby, the club’s biggest betting race of the year, was sufficient to cover the cost of the meeting.

That has changed, and now, sponsorship is essential. After 30 years of high-profile backing, this year the race will be known as the IDEE 145th Deutsches Derby. This is basically an in-house sponsorship, as the boss of IDEE, a well-known coffee company, is Albert Darboven, a big local owner and breeder, vice president of the race club, and also a major sponsor of the racing at Hamburg over several decades. He has stepped in to support the Derby more than once when no other sponsor was forthcoming.

The financial pressures have to a certain extent been eased by the arrival of the French PMU betting giant. This year, three of Hamburg´s seven days will be covered by the French racing TV channel Equidia, and French punters will be betting live on these races at their thousands of betting outlets. Equidia will be showing 35 meetings from Germany this year. They can be relied upon to bet at least €2 million at each meeting, and the racecourse, which has only a minimal extra outlay, collects a 3 percent commission.

A huge plus for the breeding industry

Despite the obstacles, the German Derby has a significant upside for the country’s breeding industry. Almost all the top stars in German racing have been successful in the Derby, and the effect on German breeding has been extremely beneficial; stamina is needed to win this race and German-breds have been highly successful in staying races worldwide in recent years.

Until 1992, the race was closed to non-German-breds. Ironically, the 1993 edition, the first in which foreign horses were eligible to run, coincided with possibly the best ever German crop of 3-year-olds. Lando, later to land the Japan Cup, was the winner, with Monsun as the runner-up, and Sternkönig in third. In fact, the only foreign winner so far (not counting Austro-Hungarian winners in the late 19th century) is Buzzword, who scored for Godolphin in 2010.

The 2012 edition was another good race - Pastorius narrowly defeated hot-favourite Novellist. Pastorius went on to win the Prix Ganay last year, and a few weeks later, his rival took the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot.

Favourites have a poor record, possibly an omen for the Sea The Stars colt Sea The Moon, who will start at a short price at Hamburg this weekend after winning the main trial, Cologne’s G2 Oppenheim Union-Rennen. Among his rivals is set to be the Aidan O’Brien-trained Geoffrey Chaucer, disappointing in the Epsom Derby, who has been supplemented along with Godolphin’s Pinzolo, another Epsom Derby also-ran. Geoffrey Chaucer, expected to be ridden by Ryan Moore, is second favourite for the race with British bookmakers. 

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