White turf in St. Moritz

 

Racing on

 

ice

 

 

What started as a bet over a hundred years ago has become the biggest event in the Swiss Alps  – the White Turf in St. Moritz.

 

By Camilla Alfthan

 

To some it is the most beautiful race meeting in the world where thoroughbreds speed by spectators in a cloud of snow with Engadin’s mountains as a dramatic backdrop.

With some 16,000 spectators and a string of catering tents scattered over the crisp white snow and palm trees the size of small houses, it is easy to forget that the race takes place on a frozen lake.  Not long ago, however, the car park was moved into a new building below Via Serlas after the ice one year started to crack. Today, the only cars to be found on the ice belong to a string of sponsors to be found near the champagne bars.

 

The scene certainly wasn’t as extravagant when the White Turf was launched back in 1906. 13 local dare devils made a bet to see who could make the quickest run from St. Moritz to the nearest village, Chamfèr and back again on skis that were pulled by their spirited thoroughbreds.

The winner of the ten kilometer race was crowned as the King of Engadin – an honour that was whisked away by the owner of the Alpine Skiing Club and his Irish gelding, Blitz.

The following year the race was launched on the valley’s frozen lake where it still takes place today. While the starting stalls come from Zürich the surface is prepared by the same  machines that make the slopes.

 

”Instinctively, the horses always go for the shortest route towards the inner track where there’s a crowd. So you must try and push the competitors away with your hand. “ 

 

“With a 2,700 meters distance the speed is high; from start to finish.

So apart from a great deal of courage you need to be a good skier and have a good hand with horses,” tells the seasoned skikjörer, Franco Moro, who is also the owner of St. Moritz’s oldest skiing school, Ski School St. Moritz. His parents had carriage horses that he helped look after as a child. When he was old enough, he decided to have a go at the much coveted title as the King of Engadin. Until this date, Moro has won the title a record six times.

 

”Part of the challenge is that you can’t practise as the horses are only in St.Moritz for the race. If it’s their first time it is also not clear if they will accept to race with a skier behind them,” he tells.

 

It usually takes more than one victory to be crowned as the King of Engadin as the winner is not decided until the third weekend of racing.  The race itself  is tough and requires a great deal of stamina to make it until the end.  Only one woman is among the contenders.

 

 

“It’s difficult to steer the horses without getting them entangled in their reins so above all you need a cool head and steady legs.

 

Instinctively, the horses always go for the shortest route towards the inner track where there’s a crowd, so you must try and push the competitors away with your hand. When they’re off  the air is full with snow and ice that hits you all over your body and it can be a little unpleasant, ” explains Moro.

 

”When you race in St. Moritz it’s a little bit like the Olympics with a completely different atmosphere and a unique backdrop in 1,900 meters of altitude.”

 

Over the years, the White Turf has not only grown to become the biggest sporting event in the Alps –  it is also the most important race meeting in Switzerland which takes place three weekends in a row. Apart from skikjöring there’s also flat racing and trotting. As the prize money is the biggest of the season several top horses come from abroad.

 

”When you race in St. Moritz it’s not for the money. It’s a little bit like the Olympics with a completely different atmosphere and a unique backdrop. You’re not on the ground but in 1,900 meters of altitude where the audience is everything,” tells the German trainer Joakim Weismeier who has won a number of races on the frozen lake including the inaugural Sheikh Zayed Listed Cup with his Arabian gelding, Fanal El Samawi.

”For the horses it only takes a day to get used to the higher altitude and the snow. On the second day we trained on the track and it went very well,” tells Weismeier who each year is joined by St. Moritz regulars from home and abroad including Germany’s Peter Shiergen and Andreas Wöhler.

 

White polo

 

The races are not the only equestrian events on the frozen lake. In 1985 the now famous Polo World Cup on Snow was launched by Reto Gaudenzi, a local businessman, who also created the St. Moritz polo team which he brought to Windsor in England to play some matches.

Since the creation of the snow cup, some of the best players have come to his alpine town, including Great Britain’s number one, Jean Paul Clarkin, the Astrada brothers and Piki Alberdi, a snow expert who has won the cup a record six times.

The field is small and about the size of two tennis lawns and the ball is larger than the normal one, making  it easier to hit as its direction is often unpredictable when bounces off the snow.

As the players have gotten used to the surface the games have become faster and increasingly exciting. 30 years after its beginnings snow polo has spread all over the world – from Megève in the French Alps and La Cortina in the Italian Dolomites to Aspen in the US and Tianjin in China.

 

White Turf  is held on the frozen lake the first three Sundays of February.

Entrance is 15 CHF, 45-70 francs for the grand stand. www.whiteturf.ch

Polo World Cup  on snow is held the last week of January. www.polostmoritz.com

 

Xaver Walser’s evocative rendering of the snow polo in 2014 

 

Places to go 

 

The winter season was launched when the local hotelier, Joseph Badrutt, in the 1880s invited his first winter guests to stay at his hotel, the Badrutt’s Palace. The building is iconic,  with a view on the lake and complete with a concert hall, restaurants and exhibition spaces which show everything from modern art to jewelry.

 

It is also the many lavish hotel palaces that are characteristic of  St-Moritz – Carlton, l’Hotel des Bains and the Kulm where you also find the historic club of St. Moritz’s next door cresta club.

 

Restaurants with views are plenty. On the slopes, there’s the newly redesigned hotel and restaurant, Muottas Muragi which offers a traditional cuisine with a view over the Engadin Valley.

In the Corviglia area, the famous panorama restarant, Piz N’Air, is situated on the highest peak by the same name. For the best soup and the coolest interiours that include stags heads with lamp shades and hearts, ski down to El Paradiso.

 

Downtown, St. Moritz’s most charming pizzaria is situated its oldest building, Chesa Vegelia which dates back to the 1700th century.

www.badruttspalace.com   www.kulm.com    en.carlton-stmoritz.ch   www.kempinski.com

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