U2, The Rolling Stones, Sting, Depeche Mode, George Michael, Britney Spears, Daft Punk, Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran, Nelly Furtado, Courtney Love – they have more than only music in common. All of them have performed concerts at the Służewiec Racecourse in Warsaw, Poland. This is one of the largest and most beautiful racing tracks in the world and horse racing has a long tradition in the capital. It dates back to 1777 when a mare belonging to Royal Chamberlain Kazimierz Rzewuski utterly defeated a horse of sir Charles Whitworth, 1st Earl Whitworth, British diplomat and politician. I would like to draw your attention to one crucial thing: horse racing in Poland is nearly as old as Royal Ascot one.
The Derby dating back to 1874
It was 1874. On New Year`s Day The Bronx was being annexed by New York City. On April 25th Louis Leroy, a French 19th-century printmaker, painter, playwright, journalist and art critic gave rise to the term “Impressionism” for the movement, with reference to Claude Monet’s Impression “Sunrise”. Leroy was the author of critical review of the first exhibition of the group of young painters “Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes, Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs”. Across Atlantic Sea, on July 24th two Canadians Mathew Evans and Henry Woodward developed and patented the first incandescent lamp with an electric light bulb, five years before Thomas Alva Edison’s U.S. patent on the device. The same year the Warsaw Derby was first run at a racetrack in Warsaw. This has been a race for three-year-old Thoroughbred race horses. Recently, in addition to the purse money, the race winner receives the Prize of the President of the Republic of Poland. The horses competing in the Warsaw Derby come from the countries associated in the Konferenz des Mitteleuropaeischen Turfs organization. Beyond host Poland, the organization includes members from Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
Since 1874 or to be more specific, since 1777, a year of the first horse race Poland experienced very difficult history and this is justified to say that following bygone times of horse racing you can learn a lot about the past of my country.
Suspended with the outbreak of the January Uprising
In March 1841, the Horse Racing and Livestock Exhibition Society was founded in the Kingdom of Poland. It was the institution that set itself the goal of organizing horse racing and supporting the breeding of thoroughbred horses. The first races were held in June of the same year. The place, which then seemed to be the most appropriate for the needs of this type of sport, was the Mokotów Field (Pola Mokotowskie, near the present site of the Union of Lublin, Pl. Unii Lubelskiej), making Warsaw racetrack one of a few located at the heart of metropolis. The first capital track had a length of about one kilometre.
Horse racing, in which the whole Warsaw found excitement, was suspended with the outbreak of the January Uprising (1863-1864). However, neither this break, nor repression and seizure of autonomy of the Polish Kingdom did not contribute to the decline in horse racing popularity. Furthermore, the Polish horses each year were getting better. They won a lot of races not only within the Polish territory, but also in Russia, for example, in Moscow. Extremely interesting was the event of 1887, when the Whole-Russian Derby was won by the Polish stallion Ruler, purchased in England still in the womb. This victory was even sweeter considering The Russian Empire conducted three partitions of Poland. To many Poles it was a victory on the territory of the enemy.
Trainers and riders from England began to come to the Polish lands
Racing popularity was bigger and bigger, and it increased significantly by the official introduction in 1880 of the Totalizator (betting and gambling company), which started to pay out pretty substantial prizes for the winners. It is also important that trainers and riders from England began to come to the Polish lands more and more frequently and eagerly, and – as we know – England is a birthplace of the best “sports” horses, trainers and jockeys, and therefore the Poles could learn from the masters. One could say that it was a golden period for the Polish horse racing, widely known throughout Europe.
The way back to normality
The outbreak of WWI was another difficult period in the history of Poland and Polish horse breeding, and hence, also racing. Luckily, a large group of valuable horses survived safely in Odessa, from where they returned to the Polish tracks in 1919. However, it took long time to return to the breeding level the country achieved before the war. The way back to normality was facilitated by the entry into force of the Law on horse races in 1925. This Law resulted in the creation of the Committee of Horse Races.
The track became the subject of public discussion
The search for a suitable site for the Warsaw horse races took long time. Various locations were taken into account such as the area in Okęcie (near the Warsaw airport, now being called Warsaw Chopin Airport which has existed since 1934), however, Służewiec proved to be a winning proposition. Its location was one of the reasons justifying the decision to buy this land.
Meanwhile the Mokotów Field (Pole Mokotowskie) was still the centre for struggles of the horses and their riders until 1938. The fact that it was not exactly a good place for this type of sports games had been known earlier, but only in the 20s the need to build a track in another place began public discussion. Horse racing popularity was steadily growing, and thus the need to move to a bigger and permanent headquarters became urgent.
Shabby stables, shabby stands
The first important date in the history of Służewiec Racetrack was 1926, when the Society for the Encouragement of the Horse Breeding in Poland bought 150 ha of land in Służewiec for future racing complex facilities. They spent PLN 590,000 for this purpose. From that moment, almost every day, newspapers reported on the progress of work, on the next workers arriving in the construction site, communications in Służewiec etc.
On February 19th, 1937 “The Morning Courier” informs readers with concern: “Our track, existing for 50 years (talking about the track on the Mokotów Field – Pole Mokotowskie), does not correspond to modern requirements – shabby stables, shabby stands, and what is worse, there are no training areas”. A week later “The Daily Courier” wrote: “There are no training tracks, stands are in a deplorable state, stables lag far behind in terms of modern equipment. On the other hand, the vast area of land in the heart of Warsaw occupied by the racetrack makes it impossible to adjust the city plan.” Meantime, the “Time” worries about the lack of funds. “The minimum construction project was calculated in the previous year in the amount of approximately PLN 8 million. Now, due to such greatly increased raw material prices, the cost of the track completion will exceed the sum of PLN 10 million. Therefore, a fundamental question arises – how to obtain money necessary for the investment.
The track moving to Służewiec begins to take real forms, reports the “Bishop of Warsaw” on May 9th, 1937. They have already started to carry out earthworks, sewage and water supply, construction material has been purchased and brought”.
Many interesting architectural solutions
But Warsaw newspapers were not only describing bad conditions of the old track. They widely described the architectural design being made by Earl Zygmunt Plater-Zyberk.
He was main architect of “Służewiec” who had visited all Europe’s top racetracks before he engaged with designing. He successfully avoided all errors which had been made elsewhere and introduced the modern technology. Worth mentioning, the main track was built the way it does not collect water what is still unusual considering many streets flooded with rain water. Its shape (bends) was a perfect setting for pure “sports”, or thoroughbred horses.
The entire complex had many interesting architectural solutions, for example the tunnel between the stables and paddock area. The track sprinkling system was also designed. If we add housing for employees, stores (including the grain one of 550 tons), stables for over 800 horses, wells, large parking area, water tower, it’s probably not surprising that this bold project was called the building of “Horse-Racing Town” already during the construction stage. It should also be remembered that the Racetrack in Służewiec was the largest structure in Europe at the time. But the whole complex would not be so attractive without ubiquitous greenery. Certainly, at first glance, one cannot see that there are as many as 6,000 various bushes and 95 species of trees.
The “Morning Courier” confirms – A bomb up – in Służewiec!
Another important date, perhaps the most important, is certainly June 3rd, 1939, when the first bomb went up on a beautiful and very modern Służewiec racetrack. Unfortunately, the people of Warsaw did not manage to enjoy the new track to the fullest. Last races before the outbreak of war were held on August 31rd, 1939. The next day at 4.37 am, Poland would be invaded by Nazi Germany and WWII would burst out.
How popular the races were can be proved by the fact that in 1939 more than thousand horses were running in the capital Hippodrome, including many horses of which foreign countries were jealous.
Luckily, racetrack in Służewiec – despite vast war damage in Warsaw – didn’t suffer so much as to completely prevent starts. This was prevented by the Germans themselves, because the SS peripheral troops stationed on the horse racing site. But WWII put an end to racing. Polish breeding, known all over the world, became destroyed once again.
Competition between breeders became a reality again
After termination of hostilities, the owners of stud farms could not recover them because they became nationalized. Worse, also private owners were deprived of racing horses. In 1950, highly deserved Society for the Encouragement of the Horse Breeding, a “relic” of the bourgeois past as it probably was seen by the people’s government, was formally liquidated. It was replaced by the National Horse Racetracks Company, based in Służewiec, with branches in Sopot and Wrocław. Political changes after 1989 brought another breakthrough. Stud farms were then put into liquidation, and their property transferred to the State Agricultural Property Agency. In the place of old stud farms, state officials formed companies, some of which were privatized. As a result, competition between breeders, although not yet on a large scale, became a reality again.
According to the vast majority of regular visitors of this type of structure, the Służewiec Racecourse in Warsaw is the pearl of European and global “equestrian architecture”. It delights not only with the architecture of particular buildings, their functionality (difficult to overestimate even today), but also greenery, which makes this place a sports and recreational structure. The “Horse-Racing Town” today can be an example for future generations of racetrack designing.
If I have encouraged you to visit the Warsaw racetrack, remember the racing season begins in the spring and runs until the late autumn. I would be glad if you went there. Służewiec is close to my heart because I live in the neighbourhood.
Hopefully see you there
By Agata Szostkowska
Photos: Michał Stanisławski
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The Fence of Służewiec Horse Racecourse is the biggest graffiti`s gallery in Poland.