Champagne and frozen lake horse races regale Swiss resort

Thoroughbreds nervously snort and stamp their hooves, their shiny coats glistening in the sun, before setting off, not around a traditional race track, but across a frozen lake with jockeys on skis hanging on for dear life behind them.

Welcome to White Turf Skijoring at Switzerland's poshest ski resort town of St-Moritz, a unique event that has been taking place here each year since 1907, giving horse enthusiasts, European high society and local folks a chance to mingle and party.

On the first three Sundays of February, purebreds from across Europe thunder around the lake, trailed by the skier attached to the horse by a rope and a large colourful piece of cloth that disappears in a massive cloud of white powder.

The 12 horses and skiers reach speeds of 50 kilometres (30 miles) an hour, sending vibrations through the ice and tingles through the crowd of bundled-up, cheering spectators, as they fly around the snow-covered ice track and cover the 2.7-kilometre (1.7-mile) race in a matter of minutes.

"Fifty percent of the horses come from Switzerland, and the others mainly come from Germany, France, Britain and Hungary. We also have Russians," said Silvio Staub, who organises the international races, which are open to betting.

But he stressed that White Turf is not just about the races. The St. Moritz native also wants the event to draw crowds simply out to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the party.

Champagne, caviar and oysters are served between each race, and a VIP tent has been set up on the frozen lake, beyond the gaze of the media.

"We are very discreet. People don't want everyone to know they are here," Staub said, pointing out that in the past he hosted the likes of model superstar Naomi Campbell and Swiss tennis great Roger Federer.

The businessman also organises receptions at the town's numerous hotels, including one with well-groomed miniature ponies making the rounds on a catwalk.

--- Exuberance, the name of the game --

During the races, exuberance is the name of the game in St-Moritz, where luxury bags, Cuban cigars and carefully coiffed dogs are prominently on display along the shores of the frozen, glistening lake.

Dressed in a long, shiny black fur coat, Alicia Brivio, an American from Michigan, sat on a terrace surrounded by palm trees, seeming not to care about the freezing temperatures as she delicately sipped champagne.

"It's so exciting. When you hear the feet of the horses in the snow, it's incredible," enthused Brivio, who has a Swiss husband and lives in Mendrisio in the south of the country.

Closer to the lake, four elegant and heavily-made-up women in their 60s, each donning beige fur, shook loose to reggae music, while a group of equally elegant men stood nearby admiring a line of parked Rolls-Royces.

The races however do not just draw the wealthy. They also constitute an important local tradition, says Daniela Bolfing, who runs an art gallery at the St-Moritz train station.

Skijoring "belongs to St-Moritz," she said, pointing out that she loved the annual event and the chance to hang out with her friends there, even though "I am not the type who likes horses."

Franciska Fasciatti, a St-Moritz lawyer who had come to admire the horses with her young son, agreed.

"This is an event for everybody," she said.

Seeing the skiers being pulled behind the horses was "something very special," she said, adding though that "it's also dangerous."

She described how she once saw a horse fall after getting tangled in the ropes of the skier trailing behind it, saying sadly that the animal had to be put down.

"I'm happy when it's finished" and everyone is ok, she added.

Swiss jockey Franco Moro, who runs a local ski school and has been taking part in the skijoring events for the past three decades, does not agree that the sport is dangerous.

When it comes to speed, "it is pretty much the same thing as on sand," he said, pointing out that "the skiers slide, and for the horses it is no problem pulling someone who simply slides along."

It remains uncertain until the very last minute though how the horses, most of which are taking part for the first time, will react to the new challenge.

"Some horses can be very good on sand or on grass, but do not feel comfortable on snow," explained Christian Lampert, the farrier tasked with shoeing the horses for the races.

One thing is certain: the purebreds do not suffer from the cold, he said, pointing out that such horses can live outdoors at temperatures ranging from minus 30 degrees Celsius to 30 plus ( minus 22 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit).

And to ensure that the purebreds don't slip and fall, Lampert sets them up with special, extra-light aluminium shoes with a kind of spike at the front that grips the ice.

To make sure the shoes don't stick to the ice, he then equips the horses with a sort of rubber cover-shoe, a model thought up specially for the St-Moritz races about 15 years ago.

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