The Trots are gone, but the trotters remain

SPORT IN ANOTHER COUNTRY; Owen Matthews joins the proletarian punters at the Moscow Hippodrome
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The hats may be more threadbare than those at Ascot, but the robustly proletarian crowd who flock to the ornate stands of Moscow's Hippodrome are no less enthusiastic about the sport of kings than their English counterparts. Throughout 70 years of Communism, the Hippodrome, 163 years old this year, ignored its awkward ideological status as the former playground of the Tsarist elite and continued undaunted in its pursuit of the most unproletarian of sports, racing, and the most unsocialist of amusements, gambling. But in a particularly Russian twist, it is not Communism but capitalism that has brought Russian racing to the brink of extinction.

"Oh, things were so much better in the old days," mused Vladimir Gryazev, 90, a Hippodrome regular since 1928, clutching his racecard with the devotion of one of the faithful at prayer. "Things are so expensive now. Once all the workers from the Dynamo factories would come on summer evenings after work to the races, but now the factories are closed, and none can afford it any more."

Despite the apparent affluence of its exuberant, neo-classical facade with soaring columns and rearing bronze horses, the Hippodrome is broke. Flat and hurdle racing went by the board five years ago due to the prohibitive cost of transporting the horses from the North Caucasus, leaving only the humbler harness racing in its place. Russia's new rich have been slow to adopt racing as a pet sport, and attempts at gentrification have floundered. In common with thousands of other government-owned sports facilities, the Hippodrome is being slowly strangled by the axing of state funding, and gambling revenue is dwindling along with the incomes of its elderly patrons.

A day at the races, Russian-style, feels like a nostalgic trip into deepest Soviet Union retro. On the stands, with their forlorn kebab stalls, unspeakable toilets and smelly, station-style buffet, the pensioner regulars are unimpressed by the management's dreams of going upmarket, busy watching the Tote and planing their penny bets on complex accumulator combinations. Tinny martial music prefaces each race, and the stands are littered inches-deep in the butts of cheap cigarettes.

The Hippodrome's great attraction was that it was once the only official recourse for the gambling addict, the only venue where the bourgeois pursuit of betting was sanctioned, albeit under the auspices of a strict state monopoly. Old hands recall that when the old building burned down in 1949 and racing was temporarily suspended, the patrons came to sit forlornly on a nearby pavement and bet on the speed of passing trollybuses. But its monopoly on gambling was one of the first victims of Russian capitalism, and green baize has replaced turf as the favoured squandering ground for hard-earned mafia dollars.

"There is a big difference between a gambler at the roulette wheel and the gambler at a horse race," insisted Vladimir Kogtev, the Hippodrome's beleaguered director. "The one at the roulette wheel is a sick man, but the one at the race is healthy. He's using his mind and taking a sensible risk."

Perhaps, but the Hippodrome has already acknowledged the supremacy of the all-mighty casino by letting its restaurant. a splendid colonnaded hall with high ceilings and gilded stucco, to the slick Casino Royale. New Russians can ponder the racing from a special loggia that doubles as an expensive bistro, but few venture away from the croupiers and cocktails to descend to the crowded betting windows to take their chances among the odorous proles. The "sick men" at the roulette tables that pay the casino's rent provide an essential prop for the Hippodrome's ailing finances; the turnover at the Hippodrome's 160 betting windows may have topped 15 billion rubles (pounds 2m) in 1995, but after prize money is paid out of the 30 per cent house take, barely enough is left to pay the huge complex's electricity bills.

But the Hippodrome's prospects are not all bleak. A small but growing number of private owners and foreign trainers are starting to bring their horses to Moscow, a promising omen for the future. Half of the 1,000 horses that race at the Hippodrome every year are now privately owned, and imported bloodstock has improved the quality of local trotters. In 1992, the Russian- bred Sarento was named one of the top 10 harness trotters in Europe, and other Hippodrome horses have won prizes in Finland, Germany, France and Italy. Private individuals and corporations are buying horses for prestige, Kogtev said; mostly old devotees who have now made good.

"We may not have been able to attract the new elite here like tennis or Formula One racing has done," Kogtev said. "But the Moscow Hippodrome has outlived Nicholas II, Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev and all the rest. I don't see why it won't survive Boris Yeltsin, too."