Long before it became a favorite opportunity for the rest of the world to make fun of Germans, and for the rest of Germans to make fun of Bavarians, Munich's Oktoberfest had become an interesting footnote in the annals of horse racing.
When it was first held on October 17, 1810 on a large meadow just outside town, there was not a single beer hall on the grounds. The history of the Oktoberfest instead began with a horse race, held as the highlight and final of the celebrations surrounding the marriage of Prince Ludwig of Bavaria to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen five days earlier.
Originally the idea of one Franz Baumgartner, a coachman and member of the Bavarian citizens' militia, the concept was presented to King Maximilian I. by Baumgartner's commanding officer, cavalry major and banker Andreas von Dall'Armi, whose personal fortune could also take care of the necessary investments.
Maximilian was all for it. The Duke of Bavaria since 1799, he had been proclaimed the first King of Bavaria in 1806, a title somewhat tainted by the fact that he pretty much owed it entirely to his controversial subservience to Napoleon, who had first stripped the duchy of a considerable part of its belongings, then awarded it even greater lands elsewhere (and the title of a kingdom) after the Bavarians had switched to his side. The result of these turbulent developments was that Maximilian now ruled a country in turmoil, constantly upset by one controversial reform after another, and with many of his subjects not particularly fond of either the king or the kingdom. It was in this light that Max was anxious to use the festivities to present himself favourably to his people. And this was also the reason why he decided to combine the race day with patriotic parades and a huge feast for the populace, which in turn sowed the seeds for what was to become the world's largest fair.
The 1810 horse race itself was in the tradition of the medieval "scarlet races", with the winning jockey being awarded a valuable piece of scarlet cloth. His name: Franz Baumgartner.
A success with both the bourgeoisie and the lower populace, the festival was repeated the next year, and extended by an agricultural fair. Offering a handy and highly remunerative opportunity for brewers to clear out their reserves of last season's Märzen beer at the start of the new brewing season*, the Oktoberfest quickly took off as the almost aggressively convivial swilling-contest we know today (then again, you have to be pretty tanked to look the other way on the clothing, I guess). The original racing component on the other hand became more and more of an afterthought and was ultimately cut off between World Wars.
In 2010, on occasion of the festival's 200th anniversary, horse racing will return for the first time since 1960, and the second time post-WWII in the form of short-circuit races for haflingers and other regional breeds.
* before the advancement of refrigeration and production technology, brewing beer was only allowed between Michelmas (September 29) and St. George's day (April 23); Märzen, which literally translates to an outdated version of March, indicates a beer brewed very late in the season and elaborately stored ('gelagert') all through the summer
(images: Peter Heß: "Das Pferde-Rennen bey der Vermählungs Feyer", depictig the very first Oktoberfest in 1810 [top]; Heinrich Adam: "Das Pferderennen auf dem Münchner Oktoberfest 1823", both paintings are part of a current exhibition by the Münchner Stadtmuseum)
(video of a 2010 Haflinger race; added Sept. 18; 1825 CET, 1225 EST; source: ganz-muenchen.de)