Legend has it that the annual tradition began over 200 years ago. A peasant and a gentleman were vying for the hand of the same lass. The gentleman suggested a horse race on the frozen lake the following day in order to decide the matter. The peasant scrounged up two steeds to the best of his ability while the master showed up with six fine chargers and seemed the likely victor. Just as the master appeared to have won the race, the ice cracked under his chargers' feet. He and his team plunged to their deaths accompanied by loud baying sounds. Hence, the lake is named Sartai, which means "a baying of horses" in Lithuanian. Since that time, peasants from the area around Dusetos have begun gathering for the annual races on the weekend near Feb. 5, which also coincides with a church festival allowing Catholics to indulge in a little revelry.
The tradition has evolved somewhat since those days of yore. The modern, more organized version has existed since pre-World War II independent Lithuania and, despite a few lacunae, has been gathering steam ever since. Today's jockeys ride on two-wheeled sulkies harnessed to a single horse. The race has traditionally occurred on the frozen lake but was interrupted by abnormally warm winters between 1989 and 1994 that made the ice far from safe. Organizers have since gotten around this hurdle by building an elliptical 1,600-meter (one mile) hippodrome on land and pumping water from the lake onto the course for several weeks prior to the festival. Jockeys lauded this year's Sartai 2000 surface as one of the best in recent memory, noting that the organizers have learned from past mistakes.
This year, stables from 10 Lithuanian regions participated in nine races. Horses were categorized according to age and sex while jockeys consisted of even numbers of men and women racing alongside each other. Prizes of up to 4,500 litas ($1125) per race were awarded with first place finishers taking the lion's share. Private corporations and government ministries donated the prize money.
The fair operating alongside the races was swarmed with visitors looking to buy local handicrafts such as wicker baskets and ceramics or warm up with a steaming-hot plate of saslykai (barbecued meat on a skewer) and a glass of Lithuanian ale. The traditional folk music and songs of the Aukstatija region were performed by local troupes of musicians and many in attendance, spurred on by the wailing accordions, took to dancing a vigorous two-step in order to ward off the cold.
Opening addresses by Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius, Zarasai mayor Arnoldas Abramavicius and Agriculture Minister Edvardas Makelis, born and raised in Dusetos, were kept to a welcome, light-hearted brevity.
The 10th unofficial race pitted Kubilius, Makelis and Christopher Robbins, British Ambassador to Lithuania, against each other riding in sleighs, with the former president of Lithuania, Algirdas Brazauskas, challenging them in his own two-wheeled sulky. There was some debate as to who actually won the race, owing to technicalities, but the crowd was simply pleased to see the politicians enjoying themselves along with everyone else. Brazauskas has been a long time horse racing enthusiast and unofficial ambassador of the Sartai festival.
"I learned to drive a sleigh as a young man. That's how we got to and from the market in those days," he said.
Also in attendance was Henrik Schmiegelow, the head of the European Commission delegation to Lithuania, who kept to a safe distance by enjoying the spectacle through his binoculars.
"This is my fourth year in Lithuania but my first time at the Sartai festival. It's important for me to get out and be part of something typically Lithuanian. I am enjoying the festive atmosphere and that it's a beautiful day doesn't hurt either," he said.