Racing on thin ice

  • 2009-02-11
  • By Justinas Vainilavicius

LITHUANIAN BEN-HUR: The popular races see contestants tearing across an icy surface on two wheels. It has become a national pasttime and a popular event for gambling.

SARTAI -  Mention global warming and everyone starts rolling their eyes. It may have become a trivial topic to some, but try telling that to the huge crowds of people who gathered in the small village of Dusetos in northeastern Lithuania at the beginning of the month.

Once the coldest month of the year, February has exhausted its chill. The higher temperatures make one of the oldest traditional Sartai Winter Horse Races on the frozen lake of Sartai impossible. Started in the early 19th century, officially recognized in 1905 and granted national status 50 years later, the race has been canceled several times in the past few years because the condition of the racing track had become too dangerous. The ice on the lake was either too thin to sustain dozens of racing trotters or there was no ice at all.

Although the situation has not changed this year, the event did take place again and was even more grand and inviting than ever. It attracted about 50,000 people in the first weekend of February, the traditional event date. Some 2,000 tons of lake water was poured into the hippodrome nearby, to make the setup as similar to the original race setting as possible. About 70 racers from Lithuania and abroad competed in 10 rounds of the race, with the three winners breaking Sartai Race records.

The harness race is similar to regular horse racing of this type, just with the addition of ice and snow. Horses are harnessed and pull a "sulky" 's a light two-wheeled vehicle for one person who tries to overtake their rivals in a circular route. People are encouraged to bet on their favorite trotter 's the Winter Race is a popular place among gamblers.

A festival also includes folk art and a food fair, as well as live performances by brass bands and choirs playing folk and country music. Those, who did not want to miss the action in the hippodrome but also enjoyed buying overpriced cookies and souvenirs, or just did not feel like leaving the comfort of roasted meat and beer on tap in the market square, could watch the race on a huge screen broadcasting live from the arena.
Agriculture Minister Kazys Starkevicius opened the Sartai Race 2009. Usually the event attracts the highest-ranking authorities, including presidents and prime ministers.

Algirdas Brazauskas, the former President and Prime Minister, is among the most enthusiastic fans. He used to harness a horse and take part in the competition, which was a brilliant example of public relations, but current leaders have failed to follow suit.

The festive atmosphere lingers around this time in Dusetos. Residents start preparing well in advance 's such huge crowds for a town of little more than 800 people takes no small amount of effort to handle. People start coming in the morning and wander around the fair waiting till midday, when a shot announces the start of the race.

The air fills with excitement and joyful cries when horses snort and start running, making people gasp at the sudden turns. Everyone shouts, urging the horses they bet on to run faster, causing waves of both jubilation and disappointment when after a few minutes the English mile, the traditional length of the race, is finished. More racing follows, every time requiring different qualifications from the participants.
After a couple of hours, the winners are awarded and the Sartai Winter Horse Race ends, but the festival continues with crowds indulging in the music, dance and activities the fair offers.