Dashing through the snow

Feature Each year, the Swiss town of St Moritz hosts an international racing carnival in which jockeys from across Europe dazzle with their skills.

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Geoffrey Riddle

As the sound of thundering hooves approached, I could see the freezing breath of the snorting horse that was galloping towards me. A racehorse going at full speed reaches around 50km an hour, and chunks of ice and snow were flying off his hooves and into the face of the man being dragged along behind. Reins in hand, he was delicately balanced on a pair of skis, holding on for dear life. Four men had already fallen in the three minutes since the race had begun, but this pair was on the road to victory, motoring past the field into the lead. As man and beast came into focus, the 13,000 people watching from the grandstands burst into cheers of excitement.

I was in St Moritz watching the unusual sport of skikjöring at White Turf, the international racing carnival, earlier this year - next year, it takes place on February 8, 15 and 22. The Swiss resort is also home to the Cresta Run, the world's scariest toboggan run, which is open for nine weeks each year until the end of February, and the Cartier Polo World Cup on Snow, which runs from January 29 to February 1.

Lake St Moritz (known as Lej da San Murezzan to Romansh speakers) freezes over from the beginning of January until the end of March. During these major winter sports events, the ice is between 40 and 80cm thick. White Turf, which takes place on the lake on three consecutive Sundays, has US$354,000 (Dh1.3m) of prize money on offer. One race - the Gübelin 70th Grand Prix of St Moritz, the European championship on snow, held on the final Sunday - boasts a prize fund of $100,700 (Dh370,000).

The Swiss town sees some 3,500 visitors from the UAE each winter. At White Turf, ticketholders have access to a 130,000-square-metre tented village and among the VIP tents, there are art and antiques stalls and tents devoted to the sale of Rolls Royce cars. And for those that miss the Emirates, there are palm trees planted in ice. Unlike most racing festivals, there are three disciplines for which jockeys come from all over Europe to exhibit their skills. There are six races on the racecard each Sunday: three flat races and two trotting races, but top billing goes to the skikjöring contest - the feat of being dragged along on skis by a galloping thoroughbred. The story behind White Turf is that on March 1 1906, 13 somewhat foolhardy men gathered in the town's Postplatz to race to the village of Champfer, three kilometres away, and back. None of them brought a sled, so they attached their skis and allowed their mounts to pull them along. Thus the sport of skikjöring was born. The name is said to have been derived from the Norwegian word snörekjöring, meaning driving with ropes.

It is a sport that requires bravery. Even Robert Havlin, a British jockey who won in his debut flat race at White Turf five years ago, and has since been crowned leading rider at the meeting, does not dare try skikjöring. "You'd have to be mad to do it," he said. "I've been offered the chance to do it several times but so far I've politely declined. There used to be a lot of fallers, and I've seen skiers fall, and dragged along by the reins. The organisers have made things a lot better now though, because last year they brought in starting stalls in the skikjöring races, meaning there is less chance for things to go wrong."

Such is the danger of skikjöring that the organisers have brought in further safety measures for White Turf 2009. New harnesses have been introduced so that in the case of a sudden fall, the reins will be separated from the horse mechanically and will stay with the skier. Spectators no longer witness scenes like those in 1965, when not a single skikjöring skier crossed the finishing line. Even before I witnessed White Turf, I had my misgivings. Around the world racing takes place on turf, dirt or even sand for good reason: the horses are bred for it. Anyone who fell over when learning to ice skate as a youngster must understand that most animals, like humans, are not used to the peculiar qualities of ice.

Steve Drowne, a British jockey who competes regularly at White Turf and has won races at Royal Ascot, explained why the horses do not skid and slide everywhere. "There is generally around four inches of snow on top of the ice," he said. "The crust of the snow gives to the weight of your mount. The horses also wear special studded shoes that enable them to get a grip in the snow." Havlin was adamant that the flat racing on snow is not dangerous for jockeys, or their mounts. "None of my horses have ever slipped," he said. "I've never seen a horse slip on the ice. But going around the first bend, having not ridden there for a year, in your mind you always think you are going to be the first one to slip."

According to Halvin, the biggest problem for jockeys is the amount of snow and ice that is tossed by the horse in front. "When you are stuck behind horses, it's like there's someone throwing snowballs at you," he continued. "I wear a motor-cross helmet to ride there - the ones with a plastic mask. There are some jockeys from the continent who wear normal riding goggles. They're crazy."