Each year, as winter descends on St. Moritz, the world’s glamorous prepare for White Turf, one of the most historic horse racing events on the global calendar.
From the windows of the Bernina Express train, St. Moritz emerges from a snowpowdered landscape from the top down. First, it’s the chair lifts of the ski slopes that tower over the Swiss village, then the town’s iconic 12th-century leaning church tower. Chalets in cream and egg yolk yellow lie nestled in thick snow and the sun catches the gleaming gold lightning rods atop Badrutt’s Palace, one of Europe’s most famous hotels.
St. Moritz has long been an alpine destination content with shunning the paparazzi, the flashy new money, and the ostentatiousness you’re likely to find in Zermatt and Megeve. That’s not to say St. Moritz isn’t glamorous — quite the opposite. Its breathtaking peaks and legendary après-ski scene has seduced the wealthy of Europe for generations and the alpine village continues to be a byword for luxury from Berlin to Shanghai.
However, St. Moritz offers a different, more historic, and more established take on high living. If Courchevel is a yellow Lamborghini Urus, then St. Moritz is a classic Rolls-Royce Phantom, revered and polished to a loving shine.
While the skiing is brilliant, the dining world-class, and the landscapes breathtaking in both summer and winter, it has been the village’s calendar of lavish events that has allowed St. Moritz to remain relevant, beloved, and seductive. From its hosting of the Winter Olympics in 1928 and 1948, to its invention of snow polo, and the more curious snow cricket, St. Moritz remains a luxurious leitmotif, offering global power brokers, royalty, and celebrities reason to return time and time again, to rub shoulders on the frozen lake, and to forge alliances around the dinner table.
I’ve travelled to St. Moritz for just such an event. White Turf has been held annually over three Sundays in February since 1907 and draws crowds to the valley’s frozen lake for an equestrian carnival quite unlike any other. A marriage of modern horse racing and traditional skijöring (more on that later), White Turf is pure St. Moritz.
Sure, there are VIP tents, luxury car companies sponsoring champagne brunches, and the whine of private jets as they fly down the valley on their approach to St. Moritz’s tiny airport, but at the same time there’s no overt flamboyance, no misplaced decadence, no Instagrammers shamelessly posing for selfies, no ice fountains overflowing with caviar, and no ski suits emblazoned with fashion house logos (ok, not too many).
Instead, billionaires, celebrities and locals alike huddle shoulder to shoulder at the edge of the racetrack, root for their favourite horses and jockeys and embrace the beauty of their surrounds. When you do get a flash of neon or the shimmer of metallic couture from some nouveau riche ensemble, it tends to stand out like white after Labour Day, with regulars slowly but politely shaking their heads and tightening their scarfs, lest the insecurity of all that new wealth seep in like the winter chill.
The ride from the train station to Badrutt’s Palace may be short but it’s done in style thanks to the hotel’s vintage Rolls-Royce Phantom, which once belonged to Queen Elizabeth II. With its rich leather seats and gleaming mahogany panelling, I’m tempted to ask the driver to take another lap around town as we draw close to the hotel, its forecourt a bustle of activity as skiers depart for the slopes and couples in fur coats and felt Tyroleans arrive for a late lunch.
In many ways, this esteemed hotel epitomises St. Moritz to perfection. Grand, timeless, and always a hive of activity, luxury hotel Badrutt’s Palace is perched high above the lake and offers spectacular views of the towering Engadine mountains from its guest rooms, restaurants, and baronial Le Grand Hall, part lounge, part unofficial catwalk, and always a hub of sociality and supernumerary style for the alpine town.
Few hotels boast the palace’s rich history. Officially opened by Queen Mary of Teck in 1896, Badrutt’s Palace has welcomed more than its fair share of nobility, tycoons and political leaders – some in blissful exile. Alfred Hitchcock honeymooned here and returned 34 times, while Marlene Dietrich (who used to perform in the ballroom), Audrey Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Elizabeth Arden, Noël Coward, and the Shah of Iran all enjoyed nights at the hotel, many holding court in the intimate Renaissance Bar.
Many of these guests would arrive in late winter for the White Turf, a rather curious but undoubtedly glamorous affair that married the majesty of horseracing with the spectacular backdrop of the Swiss Alps.
In preparation for the first races I wrap up and descend to the frozen lake below, where the crowds (30,000 at this year’s event) are gathering at the course’s edge and at a tented city that’s formed on the lake’s edge. Here, amid the private jet showrooms and luxury car exhibits, the champagne and oysters are already flowing, along with mulled wine, coffee, fresh pastries, and even steaming mugs of holdrio, a combination of rosehip tea, sugar and local, soul-soothing schnapps. You would never have imagined that many in the crowd had been at Badrutt’s Renaissance Bar or at iconic Chesa Veglia, a rustic restaurant operated by the hotel that’s been welcoming celebrities since the 1930s, until the early hours.
The first races are conventional horseraces, with thoroughbreds and jockeys from across the globe lured by the event’s glamour, as well as its US$385,000 purse. Not all horses are suited to run on the ice, which is checked between races for its thickness and density, while others take to the 1,300-metre sprint as if they’re running across verdant pastureland. With the thunder of hooves on ice, the first race’s horses whip by, great plumes of snow in their wake, to the joy of the crowds in their fur coats and kidskin gloves.
Next up are the harness races, with jockeys riding ski-mounted buggies; the races are slower but possibly more elegant as riders and steeds trot by, all rippling muscles, glistening coats and showering snow, the towering Engadine Mountains an awe-inspiring backdrop to each race.
There’s a break in the racing as noon arrives and the sun emerges to warm attendees seated at alfresco tables and serenaded by jazz bands. There is a truly elegant carnival atmosphere, one that’s blissfully inclusive despite the pedigree, and that’s what makes White Turf so unique. Whether you arrived by train or private jet, whether you’re drinking Cristal or hot chocolate, everyone comes together on the ice for the thrill of the race and the chance to witness glory.
However, it’s the skijöring races, a touch of proud tradition amid the celebration, that draws revellers from their tables once more. Derived from the Norwegian word for “ski driving”, skijöring involves jockeys on skis
pulled by unsaddled thoroughbreds who tear down the beaten ice course at 50km/ph. The 2,700m skikjöring course is a White Turf exclusive and arguably the most popular (and definitely the most dangerous) race of the event, requiring determination, agility, courage, and stamina for both horse and jockey, who are connected to their steeds by brightly coloured ribbon strips.
After a series of qualifiers, the final race takes place as the crowd roars as the winning skijörer, (in this case Adrian von Gunten), wins the Grand Prix Credit Suisse race on his horse Zambeso and the overall skijoring class, and is named “King of the Engadine” in a breathtaking finale to the lake’s racing events.
The festivities that have made this iconic race and its frozen lake setting so famous are only just ramping up. Some in the crowd return to the catering tents and alfresco dining tables, where celebratory champagne bottles pop and the band strikes up once again, while others begin to make their way back up to the great hall at Badrutt’s Palace, where the victorious will celebrate in truly timeless style, as they have for more than a century.
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