- Dr Paull Khan
Ice cold nerves required: White Turf St Moritz beckons
In contrast to Racecourses in the USA, every single course across Europe has different characteristics and topography. Unless recently developed to appeal to an international All-Weather market, they each present unique challenges to horses and riders in race-riding.
The undulations of courses like Chepstow in Wales, Cheltenham or Epsom in England, or Pompadour in France bring out the versatility of the modern-day thoroughbred and play to breeding characteristics like stamina and even balance. What's more, right-handed tracks favour some, whilst for the most balanced horses, venues like Fontwell's figure of eight, or the 3,600m of the Grand Prix de Pau mean leg changes are mandatory.
But even allowing for these quirks of the over 400 racecourse venues all over Europe, there is surely one that stands out as the most unique, as the racecourse is most definitely a temporary surface. Yes, I'm referring to the White Turf meeting at St Moritz, which stages racing on three consecutive Sundays next month, on February 6, 13 and 20, including the Longines Groβer Preis von St Moritz.
In a list of the premier racing nations of Europe, even the most ardent Swiss racing fan would be pushed to put Switzerland in the vanguard, yet this extraordinary meeting combines the spectacular scenery of the Alps with the high fashion of Ascot during the winter months to create an unparalleled racing experience.
St Moritz has a small population of around 5,000, bolstered by European tourists for the ski season. The race meeting is in stark contrast to most winter flat fixtures anywhere else in Europe. Big crowds attend the races, enjoying champagne and oysters, and that brands like Longines and Credit Suisse are in attendance gives the event a premium feel. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised; this is the same venue that featured in blockbusters like Goldfinger and For Your Eyes Only. Bond would expect nothing less, and the event is a socialite's paradise.
But most remarkable of all, the event is held on the frozen lake of St Moritz, and the surface is snow. The lake is frozen to a depth of 30cm. There's many a British Clerk of Course would chuckle to learn that the only time in the history of the race meeting when there was a cancellation was 1964 - when the weather was too mild and the snow melted!
A total of 400,000 CHF (c £320,000) is offered in prize money, on top of which owners receive bountiful hospitality and foreign runners a 500 CHF contribution toward travel. Whilst the prize fund is unremarkable over three days' racing, the occasion is the winner. The event is well supported by trainers in Germany and France, and increasingly by British lovers of the wintersports scene.
Wargrave, trained by George Baker, and ridden by Germany's Dennis Schiergen, won the 2020 running of the feature race, whilst Kent's John Best has also been sending horses here to win over the past 10 years or more.
The same surface that acts as a racetrack one day performs for winter polo and other sports on other days - truly a versatile surface.
So, if you are considering your must-visit list of European racecourses, be sure to visit St Moritz in February. Go there in any season than winter and the racecourse won't exist!