Prized ponies, luxury hotels, and lots of champagne: an inside look at The Snow Polo World Cup, in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
While us regular folk commemorate the colder months by, say, slapping on the skis once a season, the international jet takes a more inventive (not to mention, ceremonious) approach to wintertime recreation.
Enter snow polo, a death-defying take on the Sport of Kings that challenges even the most gifted players on the circuit through freezing temperatures, gusting winds, and of course, vision-blurring swirls of snow.
To witness a match first-hand, I trek to St. Moritz, Switzerland — the small, luxurious ski town located three hours away from Zurich by train — where the annual Snow Polo World Cup is set to unfold over the course of a weekend. The route weaves through the Swiss Alps and offers views so picturesque that the journey has earned a UNESCO “World Heritage Sight” distinction.
Stepping off the train, I scan my surroundings, counting the number of floor-length fur coats and feather-covered caps in sight. Much like Aspen, St. Moritz is a town of just 5,000 year-round residents, but its population swells during the winter months, when a well-heeled set of regulars come to partake in exclusive sporting events like snow golf, white turf horse racing, vintage car rallies, and of course, snow polo.
I check into The Grand Hotel Kronenhof, one of the many high-end hotels in the area, which sets a distinctly Wes Anderson-worthy scene with its pastel-hued, symmetrical architecture dating back to 1864. Today, it offers all of the modern bells and whistles, in addition to write-home-about amenities like a lavish restaurant, a cozy, wood-paneled parlor, and a basement bowling alley that serves Swiss treats like fondue and potato roti. These hideouts, I come to learn, are where snow polo players come to sip their signature post-game cocktail, a mix of mix of Coca Cola and Fernet-Branca digestif.
Ahead of the Snow Polo World Cup final, I meet with lifelong polo player Malcom Borwick, who refreshes me on the brass tax and nuances of the game. Sporting his branded riding gear, he explains that the game is divided into six seven-minute play periods called chukkers, and that players are restricted to using the polo mallet in their right hands.
But the similarities between the average game of polo and snow polo end there. With snow polo, the “field” takes the form of a frozen, snow-covered Lake St. Moritz. A bright red inflatable ball replaces the white, usually wooden variety. And horses wear metal race plates and snow rim pads (“essentially like snow tires for their hooves”).
Later that day, I dine with many more skilled players at the Snow Polo Gala, a black-tie affair held inside the Badrutt’s Palace Hotel. I notice that nearly all the players are sporting an assortment of nicks, cuts, and bruises from their battles on the field. One competitor in particular, Adrian Laplacette earns many glances thanks to the bandage wrapped around his ear — the result of an opponent’s hard-swinging polo mallet.
Turning heads in a different way is Melissa Ganzi, the first and only woman to earn a spot in the Snow Polo World Cup Final, dressed in a show-stopping sequined Louis Vuitton number. She’s accompanied by her husband, Marc, and son, Grant, both talented players in their own right.
This being the eve of the final match, I’m impressed by how the players are taking it in stride.
“I don’t have any pre-game routine,” says the dashing Alfredo Bigatti, one of the four players on the Badrutts Palace team. “I just get up and go.”
When Sunday morning arrives, an appropriately heavy flurry blankets the town as we make our way to the lake. The scene inside the grounds is a mix of runway show, cocktail party, and sporting event, set to the sounds of clinking glasses and galloping hooves.
I take in the match first from the grand stands to get a bird’s eye view of the action, and later relocate to the sidelines, where the horses whiz past my head and an announcer often cautions us to stand back. Throughout the game, I see the eight dueling ponies and their riders race across the field, usually concluding in a scrum around their respective goal posts. It’s a nail-biting mix of flying mallets, bucking ponies, and more than a few expletives in foreign languages.
But with tensions high and their sights set on making history, Melissa Ganzi and her partners eventually pull away from Team Maserati, winning 7 to 3. As the proverbial crowd goes wild, Ganzi gallops past us, raising her mallet in triumph.
She’s the first woman to ever win the Snow Polo World cup in its 35 years.
Later, the players celebrate this historic moment in a trophy presentation, complete with speeches, photo opps, and a toast. And corks popped, the team and the crowd sprayed in a shower of champagne.
“I am beyond happy,” Melissa yells, jubilant. “We’ll be back next year.”