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The English page - Racecourses are struggling


David Conolly-Smith


Ausgabe 598 vom Freitag, 13.12.2019

The German fixture list for 2020 comprises 151 race days, 88 of which are on a Sunday and a great many more on public holidays such as Easter Monday. Midweek racing is now quite rare apart from the week long meetings at Hamburg and Baden-Baden, while most racecourses avoid Saturday racing like the plague, except for those in the former GDR and again Hamburg and Baden-Baden. In all 32 racecourses are listed. Dortmund, which races both in the summer (on turf) and in the winter (on sand) has the most racing, with 14 days scheduled, while nine more have seven or more race days. No fewer than twelve tracks race only once a year; these are small country racecourses who can count on a lot of local support.

Otherwise most racecourses are struggling. Major sponsorship from big companies has become a rarity, and the big sponsored race meetings are heavily dependent on one big local company with personal connections to racing, the situation for example with Hamburg´s Derby Day, Düsseldorf´s Preis der Diana or Munich´s Grosser Dallmayr-Preis. Longines, as part of their worldwide involvement, sponsor the Grosser Preis von Berlin and Grosser Preis von Baden, but plenty of other traditional and historic races now have the minimum applicable prize-money for their group status.

Bad Harzburg, which stages a very successful  five day meeting in late July in an area very popular with tourists, is probably the only racecourse in Germany which makes an operational profit. One problem is that with the exception of Baden-Baden, where the racecourse is actually in the pretty village of Iffezheim, between the river Rhine and the Black Forest, most of the most important tracks are either in a major city or very close to one – Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Cologne, Düsseldorf etc. This has the advantage that they are easily reached by public transport, but the problem is that there is a huge number of competing attractions – one obvious reason why they much prefer to race on Sunday rather than on Saturday.

Another problem is that in almost all cases the land on which the racetrack is situated belongs to the local authority and leased to the race club. This puts the race club in a weak position, as in a rich country like Germany with an acute shortage of affordable housing in the larger cities, politicians – and also property speculators – are very well aware that the land on which the racing takes place could much more profitably be used for housing. This of course is not a problem unique to Germany.  In England, virtually every greyhound track in the London area has closed down for this reason in the last 20 years. Earlier this year the Jockey Club´s proposal to sell Kempton Park for housing for a mind-boggling amount of money ran into furious criticism and looks doomed. In France, the very attractive track at Evry, South of Paris,  was closed down after only 24 years in existence and in now looks as if Maisons-Laffitte has also staged its last ever race meeting.

This writer well remembers the old racecourse at Gelsenkirchen-Horst, which used to stage two of Germany´s top races, the 2,000 Guineas, then called the Henckel-Rennen, but since 1985 run as the Mehl-Mülhens-Rennen in Cologne, and the Group One Aral-Pokal (one of the best sponsorships) in August, always one of the best races of the year and won by such champions as Königsstuhl in 1979,   Acatenango in 1985/6 and Monsun 1993, while the 1995 winner Wind in her Hair was trained by John Hills in England and was sold to Japan, where she became the dam of superstar Deep Impact. The race was then run under different names in Cologne, but is now run at Munich as the Grosser Preis von Bayern in November. The track, built in 1910 to replace an earlier racecourse nearby, finally closed down in 2002 and is now mainly built over.

There are several other racecourses in that area, and the best races have found good homes, so ther loss of Gelsenkirchen was bitter bit bearable.  However this was not the case with Frankfurt, where the local council suddenly decided in 2015 to close the track after 150 years of history and lease the property to the DFB (German Football Association) as their “academy of excellence”. The council certainly did not act correctly in every respect, but numerous court cases and public protests were all in vain. Football has a much more powerful lobby than thoroughbred racing in Germany and chancellor Merkel was there in September to start the project, which will cost some 150 million euros and is due to be completed in 2021. Frankfurt was ideally situated in the centre of the country and was the only proper racecourse in the state of Hesse.

Now there are problems with two more tracks. Bremen, a most attractive racecourse dating back to the year 1900, has had no racing since Easter 2018 and here the city also intended to build housing. There is massive opposition to the plans and it now looks unlikely that they will go ahead, but the future of the racetrack remains uncertain, to say the least. More recently there have been problems with Neuss, one of the two sand tracks which keep racing going in the winter. There also used to be turf racing in the summer, including a group race, but that is long since gone. There have been constant arguments between the race club and the local authorities, whose plan seems to be to establish an entertainment and leisure centre on the land with no racing at all, and here too the future of racing looks doubtful.

One piece of excellent news for German racecourses came recently when the government finally agreed to pay back to them some of the proceeds from betting tax. When the laws governing gambling were reformed in 2012 this was in principle agreed, as the racecourses carry out their official function of supporting breeding by staging racing, but tax officialdom dislikes the whole idea of hypothecation and so far the money has just vanished into the central budgets. Dr. Michael Vesper was appointed president of the Direktorium early last year partly because of his political connections and this welcome decision is due in good part to his personal efforts.  Exactly how much money is involved is not yet clear, but it is estimated that about 800,000 euros annually will be returned to the racecourses in proportion to their own share of betting turnover. Baden-Baden accounts for about 25% of total betting on thoroughbred racing in Germany, so the racecourse stands to benefit by some 200,000 euros each year. This is in the grand scheme of things still a relatively small sum, but all the same, very welcome.

David Conolly-Smith


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