A Race on Ice
An annual horse race celebrates its 101st year
Once a year, life heats up in Dusetos, a small town in northeast Lithuania. People from all over the country come to watch the horse races on the ice of Lake Sartai. Craftsmen sell their work, and a large crowd gathers on the shore.
For the horses and their drivers, this is a competition in which horses that have been trained for a whole year are tried out.
For the thousands of spectators, it is a show, a spectacle brimming with emotion and energy. People bet on their favourite horse, music plays, the horses snort, and the voice of the excited announcer can be heard everywhere. Races follow one after another, and the size of the prize increases.
The race that took place on 4 February this year was announced as the 101st, but local people will add that the race has been taking place for even longer.
An English mile
The well-groomed horses, with numbers on their sides, are restless, and stamp the ice with their hooves. The racers in their carriages wear colourful helmets, and look grave and composed. They are ready to start.
At midday, a shot announces the beginning. It is a race of sulkies, that replaced sledges about 20 years ago. On hearing the long-awaited signal, they all charge forward. The harness bells jingle, the reins are swishing, and encouraging whoops can be heard. The crowd, standing around the racetrack but at a safe distance, shout louder.
The horses, excited by the race, do not need much urging on. They seem to be created for racing and competing. They are just as keen to win as their owners are.
One race takes only two or three minutes, and in this time the horses can get up to a speed of 40 to 50 kilometres per hour. The racetrack is 1,609 metres long, an English mile, a longstanding tradition.
On finishing, the racers leave the track, and the horses steam in the cold air. The participants in the next heat, adult horses with an A rating, are already at the starting line.
A horse’s rating is determined by the amount of money won in the three most recent competitions. Horses with the highest winnings are given an A rating, those with lesser wins B, C, D or E ratings.
Horse races take place almost every week in one town or another, but only Sartai attracts such large numbers of spectators. This is maybe because the races have been taking place for a long time, or maybe because the competition is held on a very picturesque lake.
The next race starts, and again those few minutes of racing cause an immense rush of adrenalin.
A traditional gathering place
Horse racing has long been popular in Lithuania. In winter, races would usually take place on the ice of lakes, because, in a country of low hills, this would often be the only flat place. In Dusetos, the race traditionally takes place on the first Sunday of February.
On this day, apart from the religious festival and the horse races, there would be a large horse and harness market, merrymaking and betting.
Initially, the racetrack on the ice of Lake Sartai was straight, from the church on one shore to the manor house opposite. When the ice was thin, or when there was too much snow, it would take place along the town’s main street. Later, for the convenience of spectators, the track was changed to a circle, and later to an ellipse.
The horses would be harnessed to ordinary or special, lighter, sledges. Noblemen who visited each other often competed; while horse breeders tried to breed ever-faster horses.
Equestrian sports developed more rapidly in the 19th century, when new horses were brought to Lithuania, both for breeding and for racing. Until the 20th century, races would be spontaneous and unorganised. The losers would simply open a bottle of strong drink. When the local authorities saw that more and more people were gathering to watch races, they took them over.
In 1905, the horse race on Lake Sartai was formalised. Since 1955, participants have come from all over the country.
In Soviet times, the remains of the estate buildings were destroyed, and stables were built in their place. The stud farm established there bred racehorses and trained them.
In recent years, the event has attracted racers from Latvia, Poland, Estonia and the Scandinavian countries. In all, this year about 53 horses and 35 drivers competed.
A race of enthusiasts
The drivers in the race are from 18 to 70 years of age, and both men and women compete. Some have been participating for decades.
In Soviet times it was a competition between state-owned stud farms (there were no private horse breeders). Now it attracts farmers who keep and train horses for the race.
Although the racers come from all over Lithuania, approximately ten out of the 60 horses participating come from Sartų žirgynas (Sartai Stables) in Dusetos.
“I inherited my passion for horses from my grandfather, who was a racer,” says Inga Semionovienė. “I grew up at my grandparents’ and when I moved to Dusetos, I took a job in the stables. I teach children riding, and when tourists come, I help them to learn to ride.”
She has not missed the annual Sartai race for ten years, and has won a number of races with her mare Tradicija.
“At present I look after seven horses. Every day they have to be fed, groomed and trained. A horse must be prepared for races. Rain or snow, you have to train him every day. I take part in races every year. Sometimes I come first, second or third, and sometimes I return home without any prizes.”
The total value of prizes for this year’s race was 50,000 litas. The participants in each race compete for the cash prizes provided by one of the sponsors. There are prizes established by the president, the minister for agriculture, regional authorities, and the country’s largest companies.
The winners received up to 8,000 litas. The runners-up win smaller amounts. From three to ten racers compete in each race.
The Sartai races take just a few hours. The breaks are short, the horses cover the distance very fast, and the winners out of several tens of horse owners become known very quickly.
Twenty years ago there used to be a clown in the race, recalls Povilas Statauskas, the director of the stud farm. Dressed like a racer, the clown would stick the number 101 on his clothes, and, in a sledge drawn by an old nag, he would take his place with the real racers at the starting line. As soon as the race started, he would take a shortcut to the finish, and happily claim to be the winner.
Is it getting warmer?
And yet in four recent years, the races took place in the hippodrome on the shore of the lake.
“The winters are no longer as cold as they used to be. A power station built on the River Šventoji, which begins in Lake Sartai, is also a factor influencing the freezing of the lake,” says Statauskas.
For the race to be safe, the ice has to be at least 35 centimetres thick.
“Two years ago, it started raining on the day of the races. Fortunately, we had prepared ice in advance in the hippodrome,” he recalls.
Once a tractor fell through the ice while cleaning the snow. Often the ice would be thick enough, but after rain, water would collect on the surface. Then holes had to be drilled to drain the water. They were stopped with wooden pegs and covered with snow. Nobody even suspected that water had covered the racetrack only the day before.
The director of the stables says he has not heard about horse racing on the ice of a lake anywhere else in the world.
“Maybe only in Scandinavia, because the climate there is
similar, and horse racing is popular.”
For several weeks before the event, the residents of Dusetos work hard. For a small town, such crowds are not simple.
However, those who are thinking of setting off to the races in Dusetos will not find anywhere to stay the night, as there is not a single hotel there. There are only some bed and breakfasts situated in picturesque places nearby. In summer, Lake Sartai, one of the biggest in Lithuania, attracts large numbers of holidaymakers. A landscape reserve and a regional park have been set up there.
Honeycake horseshoes, wicker baskets and games
While the horses are competing on the racecourse, crowds are milling around the track. People crowd around the stalls selling tea. A bustling market abounds in souvenirs bearing symbols of the race, wooden articles, ceramic bells, cups and saucers, ring cakes and horseshoe-shaped honeycakes, bread baked on leaves of sweet flag, freshly roasted skewered meat, and potato pancakes. The market at Sartai yields by only a fraction to the famous Kaziukas Fair in Vilnius.
Blacksmiths deftly hammer on a portable anvil and make a decorative horseshoe, a nail, or a poker out of a bar of metal. Weavers sell baskets and even wicker furniture.
Men compete in a tug-of-war, and throw a 32-kilogramme weight or a log. There is also a contest for hitting a target with a snowball. On a platform bands, folk groups and local pop stars come on one after another.
People know the songs well and sing along. The merrymaking in Dusetos continues until the morning.
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