Behind the stars of polo thundering across the frozen lake, the glamorous attendees and its beautiful photographs, the Snow Polo World Cup in St Moritz is a huge operation
The Snow Polo World Cup always reminds me of Fitzcarraldo, the 1982 West German surreal adventure-drama film written and directed by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski as the would-be rubber baron Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, an Irishman in Peru.
In the film, ‘Fitzcarraldo’ – the moniker Fitzgerald is given – is determined to transport a 320-ton steamship over a steep hill in order to access a rich rubber territory in the Amazon Basin. There were no special effects, and it includes impending chaos.
Team Cartier are defending champions this weekend (GETTY IMAGES)
But it is a dream that polo visionary Reto Gaudenzi, founder and CEO of the Snow Polo World Cup, had and continues to realise as he has created a mammoth polo masterpiece each year which has similar traits harking back to 1985.
This weekend, horses, trucks, players, media teams and equestrian sports enthusiasts from around the world will alight at the Snow Polo World Cup. Construction of the infrastructure began a week ago; by Thursday, tents with a total surface of 3,500 square metres and grandstands for 1,100 spectators will have been erected.
See-Infra Ltd, the town’s dedicated building company, will prepare the polo field, boasting a surface of 20,000 square meters. In cooperation with specialised companies, a good dozen towers and platforms, as well as all the enclosures springing up on the lake for 12,000 visitors, with restaurants, VIP areas and a media centre.
It is the world’s only high goal tournament on snow. “It is a very hard piece of work because of the machinery and we must never forget that we are on a frozen lake. We are completely depending on nature and you cannot beat nature,” explained Gaudenzi to Telegraph Sport.
“We’ve been very successful over all the years. And we’ve only ever had to cancel it once,” added Gaudenzi, who started playing polo in 1978, was captain of the Swiss national team with a handicap of +3 and co-founder and president of the Swiss Polo Association. In 1978 he was running hotels in Spain and was introduced to polo by a friend. By 1980, he had won the Gold Cup in Sotogrande.
The only year the dream-maker was defeated by nature was 12 years ago. “The World Cup always depends on a combination of things. The quality of the ice, too much snow, water can come through, there can be many things. Don’t forget, we are 1,800 metres high and we have a lake which is 80 metres deep, which has to freeze.”
“We bring thousands of tonnes of material and we bring 20,000 people to that lake and we have to build everything. It’s huge. When people come up here some of them don’t even realise they’re on a lake.”
The weather thwarted them in 2012. “That was because there was too much snow on the ice and we were not able to prepare the field in time. It had nothing to do with the climate change and things like that. Obviously in the winter it gets cold later and warmer earlier, so there is the time span for us to do things on the lake, but it’s getting shorter.”
“At the moment we have 100 people working day and night on the lake. This year we have very good ice. There’s a little snow, so we are making snow to make the fields safe for polo. You have a frozen lake, which is ice, and then you put snow on it and that snow has to connect with the ice so it doesn’t get slippery. You do that with humidity and water. If you put too much water, you get ice again. It’s a very tricky thing. We use mechanical snow. It’s much easier to work with because it’s molecules and not crystals.”
Gaudenzi could not care a jot that some have labelled it as ‘a spectacle, not sport’. As its mastermind, Gaudenzi knows every little detail which has gone into creating an impeccable, perspicaciously-run event.
He said: “I am very happy if people see it as a spectacle but it is also a very, very serious sport. We are the first ones that did it here all those years ago. We are the only ones which have a full-sized field. We play four against four and not three against three. I think it’s fair to say we are the original, we are high goal and we are the best.”
Gaudenzi is proud of its standing in the region. “If you look at the numbers, we fill the city for a weekend and generate something between seven and 10 million Swiss francs in revenue for the whole region. It is definitely a major operation.”
“First of all St Moritz is the place where everybody wants to go, so that makes it easier. Not everybody wants to go to the North Pole, and in terms of adventure, everybody wants to come here.”
Indeed, Evviva Polo St. Moritz Ltd has signed a long-term contract with the city, thus securing a sustained continuation of the Snow Polo World Cup St. Moritz.
Looking back on the start, though – it was a very different affair, Gaudenzi told Telegraph Sport.
“Indeed, it was quite an operation 32 years ago because we couldn’t get the big trucks over the mountains,” he added. “We had to load the horses into the train and that was really an adventure. A train ride with the horses is not something very amusing and easy.”
Snow polo is as fast as the version played on greener fields (TONY RAMIREZ / IMAGESOFPOLO.COM)
Gaudenzi agrees it was crazy in the beginning. “When we started with sport in St Moritz 150 years ago, the people were crazy and they were British. They got up here because the locals made a bet that they would like it. If they didn’t, they’d get their money back. A little bit of craziness must be behind every good idea and good adventure, but it turns out to be a great event.
The job of getting ponies, and the teams, up to the lake changed 12 years ago, with the building of the tunnel.
“Now it’s much easier because the machinery is easier. Now we also have a tunnel which is basically going from the side of Cours to the Engadin valley. We don’t have to really go over the mountains again anymore.”
“That definitely makes it much easier. Now we have a tunnel so you can load the trucks on the train and bring them into Engadin and drive them up the valley. That has made it easier and it also makes it more comfortable for the horses.”
Yet for 20 years it was a painstaking and long journey. So, too, was the safety aspect for the ponies. It meant new designs on their shoes.
“We had a blacksmith here in St Moritz. His name was Pepino Catanaio. He invented the hoof grip, which is a piece of leather between the hoof and the shoe of the horse so the snow doesn’t get into the actual hoof. Then it gets very unsafe for the horse. Of course, the shoe itself got much more sophisticated with very good studs. Now we have a very safe grip. Obviously horses on show were nothing new to humanity, but polo ponies stop, turn and twist quickly. You need a very safe grip.
“I’m very proud and proud together with my team,” Gaudenzi said. “Organising polo and an event like that and playing polo are the same – it’s a team sport. Everybody that helps is part of this. We are all very proud and are even prouder on Sunday evening when our guests leave happy and want to come back.”