Horses race on ice at the annual White Turf competition
106th anniversary, held on the frozen lake of St Moritz, Switzerland
Includes skijoring, in which jockeys ski behind rider-less horses
Snow forms a perilous kickback cloud fired into the path of jockeys
Para-gliders soar above the snowy peaks and broad pistes where hundreds of youngsters are taking their first lessons at Europe’s biggest ski school.
Nestled within the Engadine Valley beneath the Swiss Alps, St Moritz has earned a reputation as one of the world’s greatest winter playgrounds.
The resort will host the World Alpine Skiing Championships for the fifth time in 2017 and is bidding to stage the Winter Olympics for a record third time in 2022.
At the foot of the mountains the world Bobsleigh Championship is taking place, giving motorists a momentary glimpse of the action as the bob hurtles above the ice wall.
Amateur daredevils on the nearby Cresta Run can almost match the bobsleigh speeds of up to 140 kilometers per hour. The private club was established by British visitors as a winter tourist destination towards the end of the 19th Century.
On the valley floor stands the frozen lake of St Moritz – home to an unlikely event of similar vintage – “White Turf” – horse racing on snow and ice.
“White Turf is an exceptional event,” said the event’s president, Silvio Staub. “It’s a meeting dating back from 1907, so it’s the 106th anniversary this year. It’s run on three Sundays in February and usually we have about 30,000 people attending.”
Watching paint dry is a mere instance compared to watching ice form, but each year the organizers have to wait patiently for a solid layer of at least 30 centimeters before declaring the event safe.
Then an army of helpers is needed to prepare the temporary land mass. A race track is marked out, while piste-bashers compact snow on top of the ice, affording the horses a modicum of grip.
Mobile starting gates are rolled in along with grandstands and a row of tents containing jockey changing and weighing rooms and the all-important corporate lounges.
The race card at each meeting features flat racing, winter-style trotting and the local speciality, skijoring – an awkward combination of horse, human and skis which is a clear crowd favorite.
Horses for White Turf are brought to St Moritz from all over the world, including Hungary, Italy, France, Germany and the UK.
Before they set hoof onto the snow they have to undergo a change of shoes, a feat made possible by farrier Christian Lampert, who replaces regular shoes with a set containing winter grips and a unique layer of silicone to prevent snow sticking to hooves.
“This has been invented and patented here in St Moritz. Without this, a pack of snow would form underneath and the horse would slip. It keeps the snow away,” he said.
Instead of adhering to hooves, the trampled snow forms a perilous kickback cloud fired into the path of the jockeys, who also need protection.
“It’s like snowballs being thrown at you by a half tonne man, so it can be quite sore at times,” said jockey Robert Havlin.
To counter this, he sports a mask used by motocross riders in muddy conditions. En masse it produces the effect of a cavalry of Star Wars Clone Troopers riding into battle.
Another addition to the jockey wardrobe at White Turf is an oversized pair of fleecy slippers which would look less out of place on a circus clown – vital footwear to cover riding boots while hanging around on a frozen lake before the race.
Even at this high altitude, the horses are physically able to handle the strain.
“The altitude for the heart and lungs is not a problem for the horses,” said vet Annina Widmer.
“It’s not dangerous to them. Maybe skijoring is dangerous because the horses are not really under control, but otherwise there is no risk.”
Franco Moro is a six-time skijoring champion – and winner of sixteen races. As leader of the St Moritz ski school he can often be found handing out prizes to young skiers.
But when White Turf comes to town, he’s aiming for a prize of his own - “King of Engadine” – for the skijoring competitor who scores the most points over the three weekends.
Skijoring requires expert skiing skills as the jockey is pulled behind a rider-less horse.
“We have not got that much control” said Moro. “Around 20% is the driver’s responsibility and 80% is the horse.”
One of the hazards is the first bend, where all horses are aiming for the inside track and the curve sends skiers wide. Jockeys often find themselves in the terrifying position of skiing alongside the sprinting horse of the team behind him.
Franco uses his elbows to nudge horses aside – if a hoof steps on a ski it’s enough to end their chances of winning.
In the first race Franco finishes well down the field. But with two more weekends to go, he still has a chance to regain the title he lost last year.
His pedigree in this unusual event is unmatched and only the brave would bet against the former “King of Engadine” regaining his crown.