The White Turf St Moritz is Ascot in furs — and a hell of a lot of fun

Why bother to race on grass when you could race on a frozen lake?

The White Turf is Ascot in furs; the Kentucky Derby with added raclette. Except Berkshire and Louisville are so deeply, dully unimaginative compared to this place. Anyone can host a horse race on the bloody ground, thanks very much. But it takes a special kind of mad, glad-ragged invention to host one on a frozen lake in an Alpine Valley. The kind of invention that could only stem, in fact, from the ur-resort itself — the originator of apres-ski, the snowy cradle of the jet-set, the antidote to the beautifully bored: St Moritz in all its bizarre and buoyant glory.

They’ve been doing this for 113 years now. Most people see a frozen lake and see some ice-skating, maybe a little mortal danger, perhaps an unpunctual goose. The St Moritzer, however, sees a playground.

There’s the annual cricket tournament that takes place out in the middle of the ice each February. (At the first ever tournament, in the champagne glow of victory, David Gower parked his car on the edge of the ice overnight. It broke through and sank.) This year, the Gipsies and Nomads beat out the St Moritz Cricket Club, the Lyceum Alpinum XI and Old Cholmeleians in a not-so-heated battle.

Then there’s the Snow Polo World Cup, which elevates the existing pomp of polo to a deafening guffaw. It’s mallets and Moet a-plenty, all set against a backdrop of sizzling wurst and presumably cashmere undergarments.

In the seventies, Gunter Sachs hosted impromptu supercar drag races out on the ice — the police, grateful for all he’d done for the town, turned a blind eye. And that’s before you get to the deadly dilettantism that takes place off-lake — the Cresta Run, most prominently, which sees amateurs hurtle down an icy luge at up to 85(!) miles per hour towards glory (or at the very least a very stiff drink).

And all in the shadow of the great Badrutt’s Palace (and, just over to the right, the magnificent Kulm Hotel) that bastion of jet-set mischief and high-fashion ski suits. (Sachs installed a pane of bulletproof glass in his penthouse apartment at Badrutt’s, actually — he’d stand behind it while famous people shot at him. But that’s industrialist heirs for you.)

Back to the ice. You can feel the timpani thunder of the hooves on the frozen surface, some four feet thick, as the horses hurtle by. The crowd, bristling at the starting pistol, drop into an eerie hush as the cavalcade swoops round the far bend, against the backdrop of the pine-studded mountains.

And then, as the outriders approach the finishing line, the genteel enclosure bursts into an international chorus of delight and anguish — betting slips ripped with a hard-learned flourish; Persols tossed joyously into the air; a fur hat placed comedically on an Italian Greyhound. Then there’s a collective sparking of cigars. (And, what’s this, perhaps another plate of raclette.)

This whirlwind continues for several hours. There’s the skijoring — the wild race where jockeys are dragged behind the horses on skis at perilous speeds (White Turf is the only place in the world where you can enjoy this particular spectacle); the trotting race — where jockeys are pulled on elevated sleds around the track; and of course the traditional races — where international jockeys and world-renowned horses churn up the snow like a sparkling blizzard.

There are winners and losers, of course: fliers and fallers; gluhwein drank in commiseration or celebration. But the overriding sentiment up here is this: once you’ve made it to White Turf, and set foot on this frozen playground, you’ve probably already won.

SWISS flies seven times daily from London Heathrow to Zurich, and the decadent spirit of White Turf starts on the plane. The menus, which centre on good regional delicacies, change every three months, and are created by guest chefs whose restaurants have received Michelin stars and Gault Millau points.

Now, why not read our insider’s guide to the best ski resorts in Switzerland?

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