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Thursday, December 07, 2017, 12:58
Live the Dream
By Ben Berg
Thursday, December 07, 2017, 12:58 By Ben Berg

Skiing and horseriding combine in spectacular fashion at St Moritz

Conjure whatever image you can in your mind’s eye of a surreal trip of the most otherworldly kind, and it’s hard to better the stunning mountainous backdrop of the Swiss Alpine resort of St Moritz and its annual horse racing extravaganza of a most exhilarating kind. 

Every year, more than 30,000 spectators converge around the frozen Lake St Moritz for an event known as White Turf across three weekends – in 2018, it’s being held from February 3 to 18. There, they watch a series of races across the lake in a variety of formats. Horses are given special ice shoes to run in – and the ultimate crowd-puller is “skijoring”, invented in 1923, whereby riders don’t saddle up, but are dragged behind horses in four-wheel carriages or on sleds. 

Skijoring, derived from the Norwegian word skikjøring, which literally means “driving with ropes” or “ski driving”, ordinarily involves dogs such as huskies. But this 110-year-old White Turf spectacle draws a devoted group of adventurers and daredevils, who can be towed at speeds of up to 50km/h by riderless equines for 2,700 metres, making up what must be Switzerland’s (and global horse racing’s) flattest and most photogenic course, despite being Europe’s highest. There was talk of it at one time becoming an Olympic sport in the 1960s. Surrounded by the shimmering landscapes of the Engadine valley, it’s an utterly unique experience. Says Martin Staub, president and CEO of the event: “White Turf is world-exclusive.”                    

That’s pretty much how all of the Engadin and St Moritz feels. The picture-perfect backdrop has formed the mood board for a great deal of cinema; the Engadin is like the Hollywood of the mountains. More than 200 films have been made there, with classic moments from Elizabeth Taylor driving her convertible across the Silvaplana in Rhapsody (1954) to Roger Moore’s turn in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) – one of the most famous sequences in the James Bond films, as he careens down the Piz Palü at breakneck speed on skis while trying to avoid three pursuing Russian soldiers. 

Bond returned to the Engadin eight years later in the form of Timothy Dalton for a scene in A View to a Kill, where he fights, along with a cello, on Piz Scerscen. More recently, Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche became entangled in a tempestuous relationship on Lake Sils in Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). 

The magic of the Engadine continues to unfold in real life just as it does on-screen. The action on the frozen ice of Lake St Moritz and its orchestration is much like a motion picture, and depends on various factors. The demands of such an extreme equine spectacle require abundant skiing prowess on the part of competitors, and of course, total mastery of their four-legged friends. Given the nature of the event, there are strict regulations in place, with weather being the most determining factor of all. 

Races only take place on the lake when the ice measures 30cm thick. Despite the constant threat of global warming, mild conditions haven’t halted the running of White Turf since 1964. Many people are concerned about the horses and their safety, but to date, only one horse has ever died at the event in more than 100 years of racing, which makes White Turf the safest event anywhere in horse racing’s history. 

The horses are shod with specially spiked shoes to prevent them from tumbling. One unexpected and delightful upshot of their shoeing means that as they clatter and splice their majestic way across the surface, they kick up chunks of compacted ice and fresh snow, creating a scene not unlike an exaggerated, life-sized snow globe. It’s at those moments – amid the shouts, thuds and laughter – that time almost stands still in this astonishing mise en scène. 

But the smooth, micromanaged nature of the event today is the result of so much work over the years on the part of organisers. In 1965, not a single skier made it across the finish line; reins became entangled and the thoroughbred horses shot off in different directions. As a result, skijoring’s equipment began to be standardised and coloured skis were made compulsory, so the horses could see clearly in the snow. 

It’s not just the safety of the horses that is paramount, but the people, too. Skiers (or “jockeys”) undergo stringent physical tests before the race. White Turf has attracted riders as famous as Lester Piggott in the past, but the event is open to amateur participants should they wish to enter. 

“We are very happy to have a constant demand of jockeys wanting to take part each year,” says Staub. In recent years, results on three racing Sundays during February have been combined and the skier with the most points is crowned King of the Engadine. To up the sense of eliteness further still, there’s even a White Turf Jockey Club and a small group of White Turf ambassadors. 

The event may be somewhat under the radar, but it does draw some high-profile association. Two long-standing sponsors of the event are Credit Suisse and BMW, whose participation actively promotes the social aspect. 

But while White Turf draws a niche group of jet-setters and partygoers – yes, there’s a VIP section for guests of the sponsors – the event is open to the public and to holidaymakers in the Swiss region. To watch the racing events, a seat (the stands boast 2,500) costs as little as US$100 – and for such a once-in-a-lifetime experience, that seems a remarkable deal. 

It’s not all racing, either. For those looking for action off the ice, there are shows, art, exhibitions and food stalls. There’s also the elegant 130,000sqm White Turf tent, which serves up the superlative lifestyle experience. In 2014, revellers could even take advantage of a pop-up submarine bar that surfaced from the lake, serving champagne, brandy, sake, maotai and other libations. But it’s hard to believe one’s spirits could need any lifting in such a jaw-dropping location and with such a spectacle as White Turf.

Images: swiss-image/Andy Mettler

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