Each year, in the ether regions of Earth, there takes place the world’s most ritzy horserace: the Gübelin Grand Prix of St. Moritz. Founded in 1939 and quickly establishing itself as the marquee equine event in St. Moritz, where organized horseracing dates back to 1907, the one-and-a-quarter-mile-long Gübelin unfolds at 1,800 meters above sea level, atop snow-covered, frozen, Lake St. Moritz. The gallop race, featuring some of Europe’s most esteemed Thoroughbreds, is arguably the highlight of “White Turf,” a series of winter sports—from polo to skikjoering to tobogganing—held on three consecutive Sundays in February.
Each winter, when the lake freezes—as determined by sonar devices—to about 60 centimeters (2 feet) thick, thereby assuring safety for the approximately 15,000 spectators and scores of horses, a racetrack, dubbed “the world’s flattest,” is constructed on the frozen surface. And there, at “the top of the world,” the “sport of kings” plays out more like the “sport of gods.” There, Europe’s best racehorses temporarily abandon their familiar racing surfaces of grass and dirt for a more enchanting one of glimmering snow where the notorious horserace “kick-back” is ice particles, not dust, mud, or herbaceous cuttings.
Getting to St. Moritz, “The Top of the World.”
But if the race on “white turf” is spectacular, then the dramatically beautiful journey to St. Moritz is a most fitting prelude. St. Moritz is situated on the southern side of the Swiss Alps, in the Engadin Valley, within relatively easy reach from Milan, Zurich, and Munich. The nearest major airport to St. Moritz is Balzano Airport in Balzano, Italy, located 167 kilometers (104 miles) from the famous city. Another major airport is St. Gallen-Altenrhein, (located 172 kilometers from St. Moritz), which has international flights from Altenrhein, Switzerland.
.But for jetsetters—who tend to frequent St. Moritz—those options are simply too remote. After all, one of the appeals of St. Moritz is to arrive early and stay late. Thus, open only to private and charter jets, planes, and helicopters, the Engadin Airport, located a mere seven kilometers from the resort town, is the preferred option for the “glitterazzi.” Upon request, Engadin Airport offers flights to any European destination (See www.engadin-airport.ch ). And upon arrival, elite-types are transported by limousine service from the airport to their respective hotels, the city boasting five 5-star accommodations, the oldest of which is the Kulm Hotel.
For “normal” rich-and-famous types, however, there are options that are as glamorous as the White Turf itself. Arriving by railway is widely regarded as the most storied and memorable. There are two heritage railway lines: the Glacier Express and the Bernina Express, both of which are world-famous. The 1930s restaurant car of the Rhaetian Railways is also a highly recommended option. Departing from either Chur, Switzerland, via the Albula Pass, or Tirano, Italy, via the Bernina Pass, the route is regarded as one of Europe’s most stunning. From Landquart, one may journey to St. Moritz via Klosters and the Vereina Tunnel. From Zurich’s main train station, the trip to St. Moritz takes three hours. Train tickets and schedules are available at www.rhb.ch or www.sbb.ch .
By car or bus, one takes any of the picturesque mountain passes: from the northern parts of Switzerland; Ticino, Italy (Switzerland’s Italian region); and from Austria. Arriving from the south, vehicles travel along Lake Como, the Valchiavenna, and the Val Bregaglia. (Driving from Milan or Zurich takes approximately three hours, four from Munich.) [One who wishes to avoid driving through the breathtakingly gorgeous mountain passes can take the car-train in Klosters/Selfranga. See www.vereina.ch . The website www.strassen.gr.ch provides regular updates on road conditions in the Canton of Grisons.] Another option is the famed Swiss postal car, which has regular service running between Chiavenna (Italy) and St. Moritz. Then, of course, there is the Palm Express, from Lugano (Italy) all the way to the Engadin.
But how remote St. Moritz became the site for one of the world’s most celebrated and celebrity-attended horseraces begins not in 1907, but in the middle of the 1800s when, in 1856, Johannes Badrutt (1819-1889) acquires a guesthouse situated at the site of the present-day Kulm Hotel. Cognizant of St. Moritz’s crisp, cold, sunny weather—even in the throes of winter—Badrutt thought that the area would be an excellent site for a then-novel concept: winter tourism. So, in 1864, he made an often-recounted wager with a Brit: that the Brit would love St. Moritz’s winter weather; and if not, Badrutt would pay for the Brit’s trip and accommodations. And the rest, as it is said, is history: The Brit so liked the sunny Alpine weather—today referred to as “Champagne climate” on account of the lake’s cold, sun-sparkling atmosphere—that he extended his stay. And other Brits soon followed suit, what would become “the season” at St. Moritz extending from Christmas to Easter.
“When the sun is out, the Brits will play…,” or so they say. So, winter tourists began organizing winter sports to amuse themselves while at St. Moritz. And by the early 1900s, horseracing was one such amusement.
But winter at St. Moritz is not only about sports: It is estimated that between Christmas and Easter, winter tourists spend one-half a billion dollars each year. At St. Moritz, all the playthings of the über-wealthy can be found: luxury cars; private aircraft; fine furs; enviable jewelry. Every major fashion brand is represented there. Fine Champagne flows seemingly uninterrupted in the “Champagne weather.” And there is, of course, fine dining, meals at the world-famous restaurant “La Marmite” being almost obligatory.
Certainly, there are other exclusive, extravagant, elegant destinations on the planet. But if one wants to experience what is widely considered the most intriguing horserace on the planet—a race that feels like a hybrid of the Cannes Film Festival and the Kentucky Derby—one must venture to the top of the world to find it at “White Turf St. Moritz.”