The Otherworldly White Turf
Life’s finer things—horses, food and drink—converge at White Turf, a snow-capped, skijoring spectacle in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Every February the champagne and caviar crowd flocks to Switzerland for White Turf, three Sundays of horse racing events on the frozen lake of St. Moritz, set against a backdrop of the Swiss Alps. Drawing upwards of 30,000 spectators and the finest thoroughbreds of Europe, White Turf boasts a noble history, and features a one-of-a-kind skijoring event. Stunned visitors to the event have likened it to a dream world.
Each Sunday features a combination of trotting and flat races, along with the crowd favorite, skijoring, in which superbly athletic men on skis are pulled across the frozen lake by the world’s finest horses. On the third Sunday, excitement reaches a climax for the crowning of the “King of Engadine,” the man with the most points earned over the three race days. The King wins the most prize money of any race in Switzerland, and retains his crown until the next year.
White Turf is more than just horse racing; it’s a convergence of art, culture and high society, attracting big names in fields including the arts, business and politics. A huge tent city is set up over a portion of the frozen lake, with grandstands seating thousands of breathless racing fans. Musical performances, art exhibits and high-end culinary feasts are also hosted. Booths peddling souvenirs and gourmet refreshments lend a festival-like element to the elegant setting.
A new race gets under way every 30 minutes. There are 1,100-meter sprints taken at a gallop, and for jockeys preferring a more leisurely pace, 1,600, 1,800 and 1,900-meter races are cantered. The spectacular skijoring races, on a lengthier 2,700-meter track, are completed sans saddles, and reach speeds of 30 miles per hour. Reindeer skijoring events are a lighthearted family favorite.
The skijoring races are impressive, but even the drivers themselves note that they haven’t much to do with the outcome. Said successful trainer Christian von der Recke, “You just make the race long enough so the horse gets tired and stops on his own.” Although skiers must be skilled and attentive, they have little control over the outcome of a skijoring race.
Back in 1907, White Turf was a simpler affair with one 5,000-meter race divided into a sequence of three smaller races with three horses each. Racers used “lightweight, neat little Norwegian sleds,” made of wrought iron, and provided on race day. Today’s event draws wealthy sophisticates who, naturally, bring their own aluminum sleds “fitted with special horseshoes with spikes,” which are impeccably crafted and standardized.
Although today’s racing sleds are designed with safety in mind, “even today skijoring involves a certain degree of foolhardiness,” particularly as races take place amidst “a flurry of snow raining down on all sides.” The start is crucial, as horses jostle for position atop nearly two feet of ice. In the early days of White Turf, racers started at one-minute intervals. Today, it’s an all out dash to the first bend. For safety, horses are kept to a gallop and colored skis are mandatory, making the equipment more visible to the animals.
For the average racing fan attending the event, White Turf presents a few oddities, namely a lot of fur and a lack of cheering. One such visitor who made the mistake of verbally urging his horse on was promptly quieted. “With aristocratic hauteur, they looked aghast at my bellowing,” said the spectator. White Turf is also known to be a proverbial playground of the rich and beautiful; hence, “to the majority of the crowd the race is not a contest to be won but an excuse for a social gathering. They sit and watch, each other mostly.”
The three Sundays are a lovely sight, nonetheless. “The frozen lake, supine at the feet of the town like an eager servant, was a canvas of startling white framed by dark-green forests,” flanked by the Alps, and a bustling main street frequented by vacationers with skis slung over shoulders.