An unconventional sort of race

  • 2006-01-25
  • By Milda Seputyte
VILNIUS - Believe it or not, some people rejoice in the cold weather and pray for it to get even more brutal in February. They are neither madmen, nor Finnish, but dedicated enthusiasts of the traditional horse race at Lake Sartai.

The race, which is one of the country's most popular events, is held on the frozen lake every year on the first Saturday in February. And yes, the horses gallop at amazing speeds over ice.

No, the riders don't break their necks, and most years the event goes off as smooth as the ice itself. The 70 carriage drivers that will be competing at the Lake Sartai race on Feb. 4 are experienced hands, and for them there's not much difference between racing on ice or dry ground.

Horse racing on ice began hundreds of years ago. Some believe that the Lake Sartai race is the oldest sporting event in the country. Last year the event celebrated its official 100th birthday, although you should probably add another 100 years on top of that to get an idea of just how far back this tradition really goes.

The Lake Sartai race survived the restrictions of the Russian empire, and later, German and Soviet authorities, who all considered the race to be a dangerous display of national pride. Some 40,000 people make the annual pilgrimage to Sartai to watch the races and to enjoy the traditional fair which accompanies it.

Surrounded by endless forests, Lake Sartai, the fifth largest lake in the country, lies 150 kilometers northeast of the capital, in the Zarasai district. You would normally expect the lake to be sufficiently frozen for racing in early February, but in several recent winters the ice has been dangerously thin. When that happens, there's a special ice track around the lake's shore that serves as a substitute.

The organizers this year are already preparing the ice track, spraying it daily with water to ensure that it will be slippery. Yet given the low temperatures this year, one might even expect seeing some reckless riders testing the density of the lake's natural ice.

Some elderly locals in Sartai tell you that preparations for the horse race these days aren't all that different from those in their youth. They would start training their horses in early December to help get them accustomed to the icy surfaces. Then, during the last week before the race, the drivers would feed their horses more generously than they would themselves, with a special diet consisting of sugar, eggs and even homemade bread baked from the best available wheat. When competition day finally came around, they would adorn their horses with beads, bands and curls. Whether or not the horses actually appreciated all this special treatment is anyone's guess.

The tradition of adorning the horses has remained although they are decked out more tastefully these days. But just how the riders spur their horses on to make them gallop a mile-long oval in just three minutes remains unknown.