When we think of polo, we think of rich men on horseback, on lush green grass competing fiercely while surrounded by VIPs in polka dot dresses and sunhats à la Pretty Woman—except during the last weekend of January. Once a year, the sport of the kings is transported to a frozen lake in St. Moritz, a famous ski resort in Switzerland, for the Snow Polo World Cup.
This year’s tournament takes place this weekend, although the lake added a hint of doubt. “We have remained hopeful until the very last minute that the nighttime freezing temperatures would ensure that the lake would freeze faster,” Reto Gaudenzi, founder and CEO of the Snow Polo Cup said in an email. “And Mother Nature did not let us down.”
Organizers spend $2.7 million (CHF 2.5 million) on the three-day event, which is expected to attract 20,000 fans and generate $22 million (CHF 20 million) in revenue for the region, they said.
The six competing squads are named after their sponsors: The Kusnacht Practice (for the exclusive Swiss addiction clinic), Team Clinique La Prairie (sponsored by the famed Swiss spa), Team St. Moritz, Team World Polo League (captained by Melissa Ganzi, wife of Team Clinique’s captain and a tech entrepreneur Marc Ganzi), Team Flexjet and Team Azerbaijan Land of Fire (sponsored by the Central Asian nation). These sponsors and a range of Swiss brands also sponsor the tournament.
Admission to the grandstand is free. For those who want to reserve a seat, a ticket to Perrier Jouët Chukker Club is approximately $100 and includes a glass of champagne, a warm blanket and canapés. There are fancier options in the VIP section starting at $500, where guests will receive unlimited Perrier Jouët and lunch from one of the most prominent hotels in town, Badrutt Palace. The tournament is known as place to see and to be seen by the members of high society; a week before the tournament almost all of the town’s five-star hotels were sold out.
Organizing the Snow Polo championship is a challenge when compared to regular polo. Every year, 120 polo ponies are trucked in from Spain, France, England or Germany a few days before the tournament so they can acclimatize to the cold temperatures. Organizers say animal welfare is ensured at newly renovated stables, where horses are fed with “fresh spring water and mountain hay.” Special horseshoes create traction, and the animals’ ankles are wrapped with fleece bandages to protect them from injuries. Once off the frozen pitch, they’re cooled off with special blankets. Snow polo, which is also popular in Aspen, Colo., is played on a smaller pitch than the regular game, with a bright red grapefruit-sized vinyl ball instead of the traditional hard ball.
Argentinian players, known to excel in the warm-weather version of the sport, will dominate the frozen tournament as well. Almost half of the tournament’s players come from the South American country, also known to breed top horses.
The Snow Polo World Cup started in 1985. Reto Gaudenzi, who grew up in the region, was introduced to polo by a friend and was immediately hooked. He went to Argentina to train with the best and, upon his return in 1978, founded the first-ever Swiss polo team. Soon after, he combined his two passions, the Alps and polo, on a frozen lake in St. Moritz.
(This story was updated in the second, third and sixth paragraphs to add quotes from the organizers and details about the finances and horses.)