The annual post-Davos tradition gets more luxurious with every passing year. But don’t call it undemocratic. By Benedikt KammelOctober 10, 2019, 1:00 AM EDT
The hills are alive with the sound of private jets. The aircraft glisten in the sun as they thread their flight path into the Engadin valley toward St. Moritz, flanked by snow-coated slopes. Photographers hoping to score a celebrity shot mill around on the edge of the runway, where a vintage Rolls-Royce and a racing-green Porsche Macan await their masters. Passengers in cashmere shawls and cascading furs are swiftly reunited with their Gucci weekend bags, then whisked down the hill for one of the glitziest gatherings on Switzerland’s social calendar: the Snow Polo World Cup St. Moritz.
On the last weekend in January, the ski resort becomes the icy diadem of the elite polo circuit. The three-day tournament features four teams of globe-trotting players in white jeans and knee-high leather boots atop artfully groomed horses, chasing a cantaloupe-size red plastic ball across a frozen, snow-covered lake as they swing willowy mallets. Equally impressive is the display on the VIP grandstand: Spectators, who’ve paid 680 Swiss francs ($684) each for a day pass, are stacked eight rows deep, holding glasses of Champagne and puffing on cigars. Not to be outdone, their canine companions also arrive in style: Pugs are pimped out in lacquer-shiny Moncler puffers, papillons peep from Hermès handbags, and dachshunds don cashmere cozies.
The tournament is the brainchild of Reto Gaudenzi, who hatched the outlandish idea in 1983 and has watched the event become so big that it requires military-style planning coupled with renowned Swiss technical know-how. An army of workers spends three weeks setting up the infrastructure on the lake. The horses wear protective braces and special hoof studs for extra grip. The outlay to pull off the extravaganza is about 2.5 million francs for the organizers, and the tournament rakes in more than 12 million francs in additional revenue for the Engadin. “It’s a unique blend of nature, sport, the mountains, parties—you just can’t find this cocktail anywhere else,” Gaudenzi says. “And the moment the bell tolls for the last match, we start working on next year’s event. It’s a huge undertaking.”
This is the only polo competition anywhere in the world played on ice, which in January is about 60 centimeters (24 inches) thick. That’s strong enough to carry almost 3,000 tons of tents, stands, and fences, plus thousands of spectators, who follow the four teams and their bursts of 7½-minute matches, called chukkas. The 100 horses involved are brought in from Spain, France, and the U.K. several days before the matches; they’re cared for in state-of-the-art stables on the banks of the lake.
The field for the tournament is smaller than the grass equivalent, giving spectators more immediate access to the action. Each player has four horses to substitute between chukkas, and the play is fast and furious: The red ball flies, sticks whir, and riders shout. The occasional player dismounts or is forced out of the game only because of an injury, almost always minor. (Major ones, like a hit from a mallet, are uncommon—and the horses rarely slip.) After each goal, The Final Countdown blares from the speakers. The crowd roars, the commentator unloads a verbal salvo, and the teams realign their steaming horses for the next attack.
Gaudenzi is quick to point out that the matches don’t cater only to the well-heeled. Rather, everyone’s welcome, and like the denizens of first, business, and economy class on a plane, they all mingle on the ice in between the chukkas. Access to the lake and a big section of the grandstands is free of charge, and whether you wait in line for bratwurst or a blob of caviar spooned directly onto your clenched fist is a matter of personal preference.
“We want to bring the game into a much wider audience,” says Malcolm Borwick, a professional polo player from England whose grandmother was on the first U.K. women’s polo team in the 1920s. “We’re trying to get to the beer and Coca-Cola audience, to show them that it’s the sum of all sports: It’s adrenaline, teammates, horses, physicality—the most technical sport you’ll ever play.”
For the weekend, a glass of Perrier-Jouët served in a lime-green flute (the color is more Instagrammable, owner Pernod Ricard SA says) costs 18 francs; a bottle of its Belle Epoque 2011 vintage runs a cool 360 francs. Soda and water are a manageable fiver.
Bratwursts notwithstanding, polo has always attracted a crowd with more financial firepower than, say, soccer or baseball. Britain’s Prince Charles and his offspring are keen patrons. Brands from La Martina to Hackett to Polo Ralph Lauren have built their pedigree on it; and major sponsors such as Deutsche Bank, Cartier, Maserati, and NetJets eagerly line up each year to host lavish dinners for loyal or prospective customers in St. Moritz.
Maserati, which organizes driving-skill experiences and test runs on the snow, closes about a dozen deals during the event, estimates Piergiorgio Cecco, general manager for Central Europe and Germany. Calling the tournament the perfect blend of “opulence and discretion,” he says it complements the brand. For NetJets Inc., the event is a welcome extension of the business ferrying clients to the World Economic Forum, which takes place in nearby Davos earlier in the week. About 20 flights come into St. Moritz for the polo, the company says, a tenth of its annual traffic to the airport. “It’s an important event for us, and it helps bring in a younger crowd,” said Mario Pacifico, who at the time was chief executive officer of NetJets in Europe. He has since left the company and been replaced by
For last January’s event, NetJets flew in celebrity chef Jason Atherton from London to cook for about 50 guests atBadrutt’s Palace Hotel. He served lobster tea alongside oscietra caviar, langoustines buried under Périgord truffle shavings, and poached pear wrapped in gold leaf. Downstairs at King’s Social House, he fed VIPs at a Cartier event spiced confit duck leg and flaming baked Alaska. Up at the Kulm Hotel, Pernod Ricard hosted an “olfactory studio dinner,” where drinks were paired with fragrances.
“The timing to be here was perfect for me,” says Mike Khalesi, a spectator in January. The CEO of luxury real estate broker Beverly Hills One had spent a week mingling at the World Economic Forum before hopping over to St. Moritz for the polo. “It’s a unique opportunity if you’re professionally moving around in a luxury network. And as somebody from California, the snow added a nice touch.”
As the chukkas got under way on Friday, Gaudenzi observed the proceedings in a box above the stands. From here, polo commentator Jan-Erik Franck whipped up the crowd with a blend of sharp analysis of the action, delivered in the rapid-fire narration of a livestock auctioneer, and trashy jokes. (“They say there are no canaries on the Canary Islands. The same can be said of the Virgin Islands. There are no canaries.”)
“It’s not just a weekend of sports, it’s more about lifestyle and glamour,” said Roberta Ruiu, who followed the polo from the grandstand in a full-length coat with silver-feathered fur trim and white flared pants while toting a cream Ferragamo handbag to match. “Whether you’re a fan or not, you just have to be here, because it’s Snow Polo St. Moritz.”
Badrutt’s Palace, perched above the shores of the lake, had its own team in the competition. For the tournament, the hotel became the beating heart of St. Moritz. General Manager Richard Leuenberger said the first thing he does in the morning is check his phone for arrivals at the Samedan private airfield, where guests are picked up by a fleet of Rolls-Royce limousines. The hotel is half Hogwarts castle, half cathedral, and by early afternoon, an eclectic mix of fur-dripping polo enthusiasts, generations of returning families, and locals have transformed the black-and-white-tiled main atrium into a procession of prosperity that ranges from discreet to ostentatious.
Badrutt’s hosted the annual black-tie gala on Saturday ahead of the grand finale. Once the bow ties were loosened, guests filed into King’s Social House, a basement restaurant-cum-disco that is Switzerland’s oldest nightclub. Revelers ordered bottles of Dom Perignon at north of $400, and women with hair as elaborate as their jewelry held court at the horseshoe tables.
Later, the party moved up the hillside to the St. Moritz bobsleigh clubhouse, a members-only wood-paneled watering hole that transformed after nightfall into the Dracula’s Ghost Rider’s Club. Generations have gyrated under its disco ball shaped like a garlic glove.
Come Sunday, bleary-eyed spectators snaked their way down to the lake for the finals. After two days of blinding sunshine, snow had set in, powdering the fur coats, horses, and grandstands. Badrutt’s team pulled off a major upset, beating the favorite, Maserati, and bringing home the trophy in the hands of Melissa Ganzi, the first woman to captain a winning team there in the 35 years of the tournament. The crowd applauded one last time and drank up whatever was left of the Champagne before filing back up the hill to their limousines and private jets.
“What’s unique in St. Moritz is that you are so close to the field that you can practically smell the action,” said Adrian Laplacette Jr., a player from Argentina who rode for the team from Azerbaijan. On the first day of the match, Laplacette came a little too close to the action when a mallet struck his left ear, and he required multiple stitches. But he was back on the horse the next day. “The intensity is on another level. The horses actually adapt to the game faster than the players.”
Laplacette’s appetite has even been whetted for more grand-scale versions of the sport. “Still on my bucket list: elephant polo,” he said.