Global Warming Is Marring the World’s Most Exclusive Horse Races

Historic White Turf events occur on a frozen lake in St. Moritz, Switzerland.

Riders and horses compete in the White Turf races in 2012.Arno Balzarini/AP

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Each February, the rich and famous descend upon Switzerland’s St. Moritz, not just for the slopes and après-ski but for one of the world’s most exclusive horse races, held on ice.

Though the luxury resort has a nearby airport mainly catering to private jets, and visitors can be seen being ferried around in helicopters and Ferraris, moneyed guests are beginning to think about the climate emergency.

This is because the White Turf race, the only such event in the world held on a frozen lake, is under threat. It is held on the vast expanse of water directly under the Swiss resort, and because of global heating, the lake is melting.

St. Moritz was created as a ski resort by Britons, and since then it has been a popular place for extreme snow sports, from the breakneck-speed Cresta Run toboggan race to skijoring, which is standing on skis and being dragged along by a horse on the frozen lake.

The White Turf has been held for 114 years, with spectators, musicians, caterers, horses and their trainers all gathering to stand on the ice. Until now, no one thought anything of riding horses, ice skating and dancing over a frozen lake—the ice was always known to be steady and thick.

Last weekend, 7,000 people from around the world once again descended upon the lake to watch the race. But organizers watched in horror as water “pushed up” under the ice, putting the races in jeopardy.

Organizers of the race say they have had to limit the weight of attractions on the ice as the climate heats and the lake melts. This includes giving instructions to luxury kitchens serving oysters, lobster and venison not to bring too much equipment.

Last year those running White Turf were horrified as the ice under the VIP tent cracked, meaning it had to be dismantled and rebuilt on thicker ice. This year the race had to be shortened because ice on parts of the lake was melting.

A spokesperson for White Turf said: “With enough ice and not too much snow on Lake St Moritz, everything seemed perfectly prepared for this year’s 114th edition of the White Turf. However, over the past week, water pushed through from below in the finishing area, so that the races could not be held as planned. All racing events—flat and trotting races as well as skijoring—were shortened to 800 meters. Since the starting boxes were not in use either, all races were started with the flag.”

Because of this, only four horses took part in the main race of the day, competing for a prize of 20,000 Swiss francs (about $21,600). All the Swiss trainers snubbed the race because of the shortened distance. The race was further marred by the death of a horse, Echo Beach, which fell after the start and was believed to have suffered an aortic tear after intense exercise.

While for now the races go ahead on the ever-creaking ice, visitors joke that one day the White Turf will become a swimming race. As the winters grow warmer, the future of the race is in doubt.

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