Reindeer racing

5th January 2001 at 00:00
(Photograph) - What's the story?

Who's the fastest reindeer in Lapland? Is it Silver Sputnik, a champion old bull, or Rudolf, a dashing young buck? Our money's on Sputnik as we wait for the off, sipping hot coffee and stamping our feet on the frozen lake.

It's spring in the Arctic and there's sporting fun to be had. The sun is out and it's the season of reindeer racing - an ancient sport that's become big business here in Finnish Lapland, 300 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle.

A crowd of several hundred has gathered on frozen Lake Inari for the Cheltenham Festival of reindeer racing. All the top owners are here, hoping to scoop the top prizes.

Man and reindeer go back a long way. For the peoples of the Arctic, such as the Saami (Lapps), reindeer have for hundreds of years been a source of food, skins for clothes and shelter, transport (they can be easily trained to pull sleds) and entertainment.

Racing used to be just friendly competition between breeders, the only prize for the winner being the satisfaction of knowing that their animal was faster than those bred by other herders. In these traditional races, the reindeer pulled their owners, who were seated on wooden sleds.

But the cold chill of competition has transformed a people's pastime into a serious sport. Reindeer no longer pull their owners on wooden sleds; now they pull teenagers - clad in the latest brightly coloured lycra suits with goggles and face masks - on hi-tech, carbon-fibre skis about a metre long.

The racing reindeer arrive by road long before the races begin. It is obvious they are used to travelling by the way they hop in and out of their owners' transit vans like pet Labradors. The owners lead their prized charges round the two-kilometre track, which s marked out with twigs. "Reindeer aren't intelligent animals," one of the organisers explains. "They really need to be shown where to go."

The reindeer are tethered to stakes inside a special enclosure before being harnessed and made ready for the races. Like racehorses, they are led on to the course and placed in starting stalls; but instead of being seated on the reindeer, the "jockeys" crouch on their skis before grabbing the two reins - one for steering and the other to be pulled by - as they wait for the start.

The reindeer are fast out of the stalls. It's obvious that, like horses, they seem to enjoy racing. Although each competitor is timed against the clock, there are usually between two and four entrants in each race. There are mishaps to amuse the crowd: jockeys collide, and tumble into the snow in a writhing heap; reindeer decide to abandon the course and run off in the opposite direction, while others refuse to leave the starting stalls at all.

But it is obvious from the concentration on the spectators' faces that reindeer racing is a serious matter. The reason? Money. Reindeer race-goers like a flutter, and Silver Sputnik, Rudolf, Mega and the rest can attract serious money at the track. The owners take it seriously too, which isn't surprising as a champion reindeer can be worth around pound;8,000. The price, though, is largely symbolic because owners rarely sell their champions, preferring to keep them for breeding.

For the spectators who take the whole thing less seriously, there are stalls selling everything from the latest reindeer racing harnesses to hats and mittens. And there are refreshments: hot soup, coffee, baked salmon - even reindeer meat stew. Well, they can't race forever

Photograph by Bryan Alexander

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