08 February 2011

St Moritz: white turf racing

By 1883 it looked as if Davos had positioned itself as the premier resort for fun-loving snow-sports fans in Switzerland's winter wonderland. Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, amongst others, sang the praises of Davos' crisp mountain air and perfect snow.

But it was St Moritz that became the primary alpine health resort, the place where large scale winter sport and tourism were founded. You would think it would be enough that St Moritz had an idyllic lakeside setting at a high altitude, health-giving mineral springs and 320 days of annual sunshine - the place was snowy bliss on earth. But no, they wanted something very special.

As I found in an early post, the First Cresta Run took over two months to build, and was completed in January 1885.

skijoring today

In 1906, St Moritz again invented a brand new and scary winter sport called skijoring. Nowhere else in the world did thoroughbred horses run their race with jockeys being pulled behind the horses, not sitting on the horses’ backs. The race followed a 10 ks route by road from St. Moritz to Champfèr, and the participants did not start all together, but individually at one-minute intervals.

Ever since skijoring was transferred to the racecourse, it has been run like any other horse race – in a group, horse against horse. This demands a great deal of skiing prowess on the part of the athletes, as well as firm control of the horses. As the organisers admit, the start of the race can be very dangerous. At that point, the reins can easily get tangled up or the thoroughbred horses may not know in which direction they are supposed to run. Chaos can reign, and does.

skijoring, 1928, demonstration sport

The racing programme became enlarged over the years. As well as skijoring, St Moritz has had a galloping event since 1911; a wild, snowy 1,100-m sprint on the flat. In 1922 steeplechasing was added. If you think that steeplechasing in the snow is reckless, I wonder what the competitors' insurance companies think.

In 1923, 5 years before the first ever Winter Olympics were held, they considered the idea of skijoring becoming an Olympic discipline. When the 1928 Winter Olympics were finally held, in St Moritz of all wintry places on earth, skijoring was indeed a demonstration sport. Even today, the organisers still think it is a shame that this mixture of skiing and horse racing has been OFF the Olympic programme agenda since the very beginning of the Winter Games.

white steeple chasing

At least the jockeys wear ski goggles and motocross face masks as protection on the icy track. But what do the horses do, when it is -20c outside? And how do the horses handle the high altitude and the lower oxygen levels?

Although the quality of the horses used in these races has improved and the safety of the 2,700 ms long racecourse on the 60 cm thick ice has been increased, most mothers would not want their children to get involved in skijoring. The rider needs strength, balance and heaps of luck to manage the compressed turf, high speeds and falling snow. Summerhill blog rather tellingly described the participants as courageous young men and women who don skis and are drawn behind horses, at cheek-wobbling speeds.

white trotting

white turf racing on the flat

Trotting races have been added more recently to the St Moritz calendar.

These days, the busiest horse racing season in St Moritz starts in late January every year.  During February,  the White Turf Events take place in front of  some 10,000 spectators for each of the three days of the racing carnival. And record-breaking prize money is awarded to each successful owner, jockey and trainer.

St Moritz hotels

Even the hotels have been serving sports-loving or health-seeking guests since the mid 19th century. As the first guest house in St Moritz, for example, the Kulm Hotel opened for business in 1856. The hotel is appropriately located in a quiet, sunny setting with fine view of the Upper Engadine valley, lakes and mountains.

To show how utterly glamorous the winter sports were, Pullman Editions has a collection of original winter sports posters called Art Deco in the Alps, designed and printed in the 1927-37 period. I have selected those posters that were identifiably advertising winter sports in St Moritz and not, for example, in Davos or Gstaad.


weather said...

weather forecast from GFS,

snow rain maps

Hermes said...

Just another subject I had no idea about at all. Thanks. A few people I might have personally tied behind a horse at Davos recently mind you!

Hels said...

I didn't know much about it either, being a beach-oriented Australian.

But I kept seeing Davos and St Moritz mentioned in late 19th-early 20th century novels. More for their health-giving value than their sport, but even so, it struck me as interesting.

I will return to my more normal topics next week :)

Hels said...

thank you for the snow rain maps. I hope they are useful for those dare devils who are prepared to risk life and limb skijoring :)

Trainman said...

I would say I am a beachy person as well, but White Turf Carnival at St. Moritz was very well done. The apres ski events were also very well done.

Hels said...

Mr Train
Here is the crunch question - did you participate in any or all the events yourself? Or were you watching safely from beyond the race course boundaries?

Lord Cowell said...

It all looks great fun, but terribly dangerous!

Hels said...

Lord Cowell,
I wrote and scheduled this post 6 months ago yet TODAY I saw an ad for Volkswagen Passat CC that included an image and text about skijoring!

I am not sure what theme Volkswagen was alluding to, but they specifically mentioned impossible glamour, extreme sports, beauty, unique travel destinations and adventure. The word "danger" did not seem to appear :)

redhy said...

nice blog ,,this is my first time i visit your site...hope i'll learn much about information on your site..regards

Hels said...

welcome aboard :) History of sport is a rare topic for me. But I do love the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.

marc aurel said...

I vividly remember the horse and ski races at a smaller venue when I was five. That was the winter I spent a month with my mother alone and we stayed at an inn at the top of the ski lift. We were the only guests and there was only one other child about. The locals were as epate by me as my mother was. I learned to ski between her legs and then took off at furious speeds, an early "bomber". My skilled brother joined us after this month and on his first run was a more stylish skier than I had become , which infuriated me. He was three years older than me and I could never understand at that age why I could not catch up with him.

Hels said...

oh I hear your pain!
I tell my grandchildren that things might be tough now but eventually it will be easy for them. I am thinking of riding a bike and swimming, not skiing, but your mum was brave :)

st. moritz said...

When it comes to booking a hotel, the lowest price isn't necessarily the best deal. A good deal is one which includes a lot of extras.

Hels said...

St Moritz
Good to see you.
I was in St Moritz when I was a post grad student and found everything VERY expensive. But you are quite right.

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Hels said...

Thanks Turf :)

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Charles said...

HI All,

I can give you some additional information to this topic on my blog:


St. Moritzis famous for being a place for the rich...... Awesome!!!


Hels said...

Thank you Charles

your photos are quite stunning.