Snow? Bah. Photographer captures stunning St. Moritz horse race
Sport photographers can get a bit obsessed with the weather, and as I was getting ready for a recent assignment I have to admit it was occupying my mind.
It’s not very often we get chance to shoot horse racing on ice at the playground for the rich and famous, and I was hoping that just for one day the weather would be perfect … but the forecast wasn’t looking good.
Usually snow can ruin an event, but that’s exactly what I hoped for as I headed off to Switzerland to cover the spectacular White Turf Horse Racing meeting held on the frozen lake in St. Moritz. But it was the lack of sunshine that was worrying me.
After landing in Zurich and then travelling by train for four hours on the superb Swiss Railway, I finally arrived at St. Moritz station at 10.15 Saturday night. Lucky enough, my hotel (the La Margna) is only across the road. I’m told at reception that my room has a beautiful view of the frozen lake and the racecourse where the White Turf Race Meeting is being held the next day – but it is pitch black so I just had to take his word for it.
I mentioned to the receptionist that I’m here to photograph the race meeting and he told me that “Today we’ve had the most beautiful day with blue sky and sunshine; it will be a great day tomorrow for the racing.” That’s strange, I thought, because unfortunately I read a weather report on the internet assuring me of heavy snowfall and grey skies. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and headed to bed a bit more positive that a local might indeed have a better knowledge of the St. Moritz weather forecast than any meteorologist miles away in Zurich.
I woke up early on Sunday morning eager to see what kind of day I’d woken up to. I pulled back the curtains to find that the receptionist is correct: the view over the lake and racecourse is magnificent with the Engadine Mountains surrounding it. However, there was no sign of sunshine and definitely no blue sky!
As I ate breakfast and stared past my boiled egg and out of the window, the weather was gradually getting worse; dark clouds were gathering and it was starting to snow quite heavily.
As a sports photographer the light and weather conditions play such a significant part in our working life – it’s a very strange feeling to be surrounded by the most breathtaking scenery waiting to shoot a spectacular event, but feel extremely deflated.
Working in dull overcast conditions suits some sports better than others. Unfortunately anything on snow or ice can look very flat in these conditions, so I knew I had my work cut out today, especially trying to use any remote cameras with lots of sky!
Since 1907 the White Turf meeting has been the most important event on the Swiss racing calendar, with trotting, flat racing and skijöring races. This is to be the 105th year of White Turf racing and my second time (after being lucky enough to catch a day in 2003 whilst covering the World Ski Championships held here in St Moritz), so I had an idea of what to expect.
One thing I remembered from 2003 is that the most dramatic picture came from the first bend in the first race. It was a short sprint race and the horses hit the first bend in a tight group, neck and neck. One look at the race card showed that the first race today was again the short sprint race over 1,300m, so no pressure then!!
I noticed that the starting gates were in a different position from the last time I was here. This means the first bend is not a good position to be in now, as the background is a mess of temporary stands and champagne tents. So I take the second bend instead as this has a cleaner background and I figure that any outer fencing that can be seen will disappear behind all the snow and ice that the horses kick up – I just hoped that the group of horses would still be tight enough together by the time they get to me. I put a remote with a 15mm fisheye lens under the inside rail and another remote with a 16-35mm lens looking in from the outside rail which is where I will be stood working on a 400mm.
Then I waited as the horses were loaded into the starting gates.
It was zero degrees, without taking the wind chill in to account, grey and overcast but at least the snow had stopped falling and I would now be able to see clearly as they take the bend.
The gates flew open and they were off – 11 horses came thundering down the track and by the time they reached the first bend I could feel the ‘turf’, which is a 70cm thick layer of ice, shaking under my feet. It was the most amazing feeling as the field passed me on the second bend and everywhere tremored.
With all the temporary buildings and spectators on the ice, the course apparently weighed 3,500 tons; however, ”according to physics there’s absolutely no risk,” said the White Turf director Rudolf Fopp. Well, I was glad he was so confident – I was not too sure as the horses disappeared past me in a cloud of ice and snow.
I checked my remotes to see if they had fired then looked at sequence on the back of my main camera, which, considering the conditions, looked remarkably good – and that’s that, the most exhilarating few seconds of horse racing that you can ever experience.
A trotting race followed next on the card which all seemed quite tame and slow in comparison to the first flat race I’d just witnessed.
Then in the third race the undoubted drama of the day was provided by the Skijoring race. This crazy race (first run in 1906) has rider-less horses towing skiers around the 2,700m track at speeds up to 60km/h. One skier had a ski trodden on by a horse on the first bend, which caused pandemonium. Though medics managed to get the stricken ski-jockey with a broken pelvis off the course before the horses came round again, the loose horse ended up jumping into the crowd and the unlucky runner-up went the best part of a mile and a quarter on one ski.
By the fourth race the weather had closed in, and, yet again, heavy snowfall had started. Two more flat races and a trotting race completed the final White Turf meeting of the year and even though it was frustrating to travel all this way to Switzerland and be let down by the weather, I had a great day and it beat shooting Haydock races on a wet Sunday afternoon!
Just in case you were wondering, as I departed St. Moritz train station the next day, it was sunshine and blue sky!!
Editor’s note: Alex Livesey is a Sports photographer for Getty Images and a contributor to the Getty Images Blog.