St Moritz: The chill of the chase

The horsemen of St Moritz conduct themselves with a certain degree of decorum, says Iain Fletcher. The racing is on snow, the champagne is on ice - and shouting the odds is downright uncouth

It is part of the selling game that underpins all markets, whether they be clothes, cars or travel, and so St Moritz, once the favoured haunt of ageing movie stars, calls itself "the rooftop of Europe" - which, as it sits at over 6,000ft, might be correct, and sounds much better than "the attic". It continues in modest fashion to describe itself as having a "champagne climate", whatever that is, and boasts of an average 322 sunny days each year.

Some claims. Some town. But is it all true? After one wintry week I think quite possibly. On my first morning I left the hotel wrapped in jumpers and a coat that would have comforted a yak, hat pulled firmly over ears and hands snug deep in thick gloves.

It was -12C, and the brilliant sun shining down from the clearest of blue skies blinded me as it reflected off the crisp, white snow, while my first breaths caught in my chest, causing temporary paralysis. Goodness it was cold. Hairs-freezing-on-the-inside- of-nostrils cold. A champagne climate? I don't know, but it was invigorating.

I studied the view. The frozen lake, supine at the feet of the town like an eager servant, was a canvas of startling white framed by dark-green forests. Behind me, the mountains of the Alps beckoned the early bustlers along the main street, skis and poles slung over shoulders as they traipsed to the ski lifts.

I chose to spend the morning in the forests. My path to the lake took me past shops that show no prices and the Badrutt's Palace hotel, a vast, imposing building that looks as if it was relocated from a fairytale. The sirens of screen and stage used to congregate here, but now it is more used to welcoming Russian billionaires and their entourages. Groups of men with chiselled features and perfectly tailored coats, attended by impossibly attractive ladies. Money and fame attracts. It has always been thus; the movie stars knew that.

I marched across the lake, joined one of the many walking paths and set off up hill and down valley to explore. The forest was eerily silent. No birdsong or chatter, just the monotonous tread of my boots and the increasingly quick rhythm of my own breathing. Occasionally a fellow walker would pass (or, to my shame, overtake), offer a brief but pleasant greeting and continue into the distance.

For those who live in St Moritz, a five-mile trek through snow and forest is a constitutional; for others it is an exhausting, but rewarding, challenge. Some younger, and possibly wiser, folk do it differently; I heard the giggles and laughter before seeing the children on the sled run, weaving through the forest towards the next village.

That looked easier, and then I reached a sort of intersection where walkers go straight on and Nordic skiers cross. Swish-woosh, swish-woosh they went in single file, long, slim skis gliding elegantly across the surface as they used their long poles for propulsion. They have a rhythm that generates surprising speed, but I cannot ski, let alone ski hike, so it was time to return to the town for some more passive activity of my own, namely watching a proper horse-race meeting - the White Turf.

The marquees were starting to fill, fur-clad glamour-pusses honouring the European ritual of kissing air and cheeks while insouciantly sipping champagne from long flutes constantly replenished by discreet staff.

Some may have been royalty - there are enough of them in Europe - but even those who were not were treated like it. I accepted the proffered glass, navigated past the grand piano and mini-orchestra and marvelled at the racetrack. Right in the middle of the frozen lake there was a large oval circuit, stands for the spectators, hospitality tents for lunch and a paddock for the horses.

A wet and windy day at Cheltenham it was not. The first race started and I screamed at the poor nag I had backed on the Swiss version of the Tote. More disconcerting than the fact that my horse seemed to have his back and front legs tied together was the reaction of the crowd. With aristocratic hauteur, they looked aghast at my bellowing.

Cheering horses is an English, Irish, American and Australian habit. Even in Dubai, where gambling is illegal, they raise the rafters in support of the nags, but definitely not, I discovered, in sophisticated St Moritz. To the majority of the crowd the race is not a contest to be won but an excuse for a social gathering. They sit and watch, each other mostly, which is presumably why so much effort and money is spent on the latest fur fashions.

After a "normal" race, if racing horses on snow can be considered normal, there are chariot races in which the rider reclines on a sled, legs splayed out in front, with long reins connecting him to the horse. Following that comes the main attraction, the skijoring.

Over 100 years old, the skijoring is a race in which the rider skis behind the horse - it's a bit like water-skiing but with equine power and a cricket box in place to protect the vitals from clumps of flying ice and snow. Is the prize pool of 7,000 Swiss francs (about £3,000) worth the worry?

Such is the thrill of the race that the winners are lauded like heroes, although to my limited understanding of German the reigning champion admitted in his pre-race interview just to hanging on for dear life. I might have been mistaken, yet having watched him later this seemed a fairly accurate description of his technique.

One local ski instructor, previously charged with teaching Patsy Kensit to sashay elegantly down the slopes for the BBC's Holiday programme, explained the thrill of the race, and the downside: the close proximity to the other beasts, the absolute need to stay upright to avoid being trampled and the fact that at the end of the course the riders are covered in slobber.

Most of the riders are Swiss or German, but for the more conventional racing - man astride rather than behind - horses come from across Europe to run, including some from England. Milton Harris, a trainer from Banbury, is a previous winner of one of the feature races, the Grand Prix Novacan, with a horse called Salinas which is still active in Britain.

"The altitude makes a big difference," Harris explains. "The horse has to be constitutionally strong, so it's not best for a young horse, as [the altitude effectively means an animal] has to stay longer than the actual course, and preferably should lead from the front, because horses don't come from off the pace to win out there."

Apart from its glamorous side, St Moritz offers a surprisingly wide range of activities. The winter staples are there, of course - skiing, sledding and hiking - but there is also the notorious Cresta Run, horse and greyhound racing on snow, cricket on ice and the world's first polo tournament on snow. In fact, nearly every weekend during the winter hosts an event designed to appeal to visitors and allow the weekend traffic from Milan to dust down the furs and hats. They is even a showjumping event on the lake, and an annual winter golf tournament.

The summer is no less active. Boating, hiking, windsurfing, mountain climbing, trekking, golf and horseriding utilise the by then green, lush landscape and unfrozen lake. Without all these activities St Moritz would just be another town for skiing; instead it has worked hard to make itself a playground, frequented by but not solely for the rich and famous.

You can enjoy the trappings of the extremely wealthy, the social style of the moneyed European set and the spectacle of some extraordinary events. You can even take part in some of them, though getting barked at by a former sergeant-major at the Cresta Run is strictly one for the adrenalin junkies.

The philosophy of the town is neatly summed up by Harris when he describes the White Turf race meet. "Racing in St Moritz is a fantastic weekend away for the owners. It's a beautiful setting in the mountains, champagne receptions on the lake, dinners in the evening and racing celebrities like Lester Piggott - and the owners get the novelty of seeing their horses run on snow."

The punter's guide to all the action in St Moritz

Easyjet (easyjet.co.uk) fly from Stansted to Basle from £25 each way. From the airport, take the train to Zurich, then on to St Moritz, changing at Chur. The journey costs around £20 each way, takes about five hours and winds through spectacular mountain scenery. A decent mid-range hotel in the town's main suburb, St Moritz Dorf, is Hotel Hauser (00 41 81 837 5050, hotelhauser.ch): single from £65, double from £130.The hotel's Roo Bar is a popular après-ski haunt.St Moritz's sporting calendar for 2006 includes: 20-22 Jan, FIS World Alpine Ski Championship; 26-29 Jan, Cartier Polo World Cup; 5, 12 and 19 Feb, White Turf; 18 Feb, Cresta Run Grand National. For more details of accommodation and events: stmoritz.ch

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