Sport

Horses on ice: White Turf racing at Lake St. Moritz

By Tom Sweetman, CNN

Published 1532 GMT (2332 HKT) February 25, 2016
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Galloping around a frozen lake on horseback might seem fraught with danger, but jockeys from across the globe journey to Lake St. Moritz every February to do just that. Andy Mettler/swiss-image.ch/swiss-image.ch
Nestled in the Engadine Valley in the Swiss Alps, the lake of St. Moritz has been playing host to the White Turf races every year since 1907, with each meeting featuring flat racing, hurdling, skijoring and winter-style trotting. Matthias Hangst/Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images
"What makes White Turf so special is the fact that it is unique, there is no such event anywhere else like it worldwide," White Turf vice-president Luigi Sala tells CNN. "It's an internationally known event that one has to see at least once in a lifetime." Matthias Hangst/Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images
Traditionally taking place across three Sundays every February, this year's edition of the White Turf races got off to a sticky start, with the opening meeting on February 7 canceled because of a lack of snow in January. It was business as usual on February 14, however, with the event ending on February 21. Matthias Hangst/Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images
Some 35,000 spectators flock to White Turf each year, eager to take in the sight of the horses thundering across the frozen lake among the snow-capped mountains of St. Moritz. AFP/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
"There is something magical about the setting and racing on a frozen lake," Sala says. "The whole event area is built on 30 cm (12 inches) of snow, which lies on ice 50-60 cm thick, which in turn floats over 35-45 metres of water. So it has to be something special." Lars Baron/Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images
The champagne is always on ice for spectators, who are kept occupied by White Turf's gourmet catering, art exhibitions, funfair and live music -- when their attention is not turned to the race track. Matthias Hangst/Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images
"It's all made accessible for families, as well as for the high society who spend their winter holidays in our region -- a one-of-a-kind melting pot," Sala explains. "The VIP tent is able to satisfy even the most demanding of guests. A five-star hotel on a frozen lake." Andy Mettler/swiss-image.ch/swiss-image.ch
St. Moritz remains the spiritual home of skijoring, which was dreamed up among its valleys in 1906. Thirteen men came up with the idea of racing their horses, not on horseback or seated in a sled, but by being pulled along on skis. AFP/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
"Skijoring is a truly exciting race and exclusive to St. Moritz," Sala says. "Eight to 10 fearless drivers on skis pulled by their racehorses at 30-40 mph over a 1.67-mile track -- you can imagine how difficult it is to transmit orders to the horse through a five meter rope!" Matthias Hangst/Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images
The skijoring races at White Turf -- a clear crowd favorite -- are traditionally combined over the three Sundays, with participants competing for one prize at the end of it all. The skier with the highest number of points after the final event is crowned "King of the Engadine." Matthias Hangst/Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images
Before setting hoof onto the snow, competing horses have to undergo a change of shoes, with regular horseshoes replaced by a pair containing winter grips and a unique layer of silicone to prevent snow sticking to hooves. Matthias Hangst/Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images
"Every year we build the whole infrastructure of White Turf anew," Sala adds. "This gives us the opportunity to implement new ideas and keep the interest of our many fans intact." Andy Mettler/swiss-image.ch/swiss-image.ch
The action doesn't stop when the sun goes down, as White Turf spectators are treated to night-time racing under the lights. Andy Mettler/swiss-image.ch/swiss-image.ch
With 500,000 Swiss francs ($501,000) on offer in total as prize money, White Turf surpasses all other jackpots when it comes to Swiss racing. The "Gubelin" event alone, taking place on the final Sunday, boasts a prize purse of 111,111 Swiss francs. Lars Baron/Bongarts/Bongarts/Getty Images
"It's a special event because White Turf combines exciting horse racing with the highest prize money one can win on Swiss turf," Sala says. "As well as with the alpine snow-coated surroundings of the Engadine Valley and Lake St. Moritz." Andy Mettler/swiss-image.ch/swiss-image.ch