Set on a frozen Alpine lake in the glitzy Swiss ski resort of St. Moritz, the 37th annual Snow Polo World Cup — the world’s oldest snow polo tournament, held over the last weekend in January — is quite the sight to behold.
With 322 days of sunshine per year, St. Moritz’s cloudless winter sky is the kind of highly saturated, completely uniform cyan blue usually only found on Pantone colour swatches. Standing in contrast are the snow-capped mountains, blindingly white and fleecy with larch pines. On the polo grounds, which is actually a frozen lake roofed in 50 centimetres of ice, scampering ponies armed with studded snow shoes kick up frosty clouds of snowflakes as the players —four per team — whack their mallets against the ball, red and glossy against the ice. Lasting four chukkas (periods) at around just seven minutes each, the matches are swift, action-packed, and full of thrills, but the spectacle of the three-day event isn’t just confined to the games.
Crowd-watching at this prestigious tournament is a sport in itself. It’s all Alpine-glam-meets-preppy-chic. Metallic gold Jimmy Choo snow boots and tailored Ralph Lauren jodhpurs pair with fluffy designer puppies and the kind of massive, muddy-pawed mountain dogs that you can only own if you live on swathes of open land. Everyone’s wearing fantastic sunglasses. No one’s wearing heels (save for the fabulous Swiss model who keeps getting mistaken for Lady Gaga). As you may imagine, fur features prominently. Oversized hats. Floor-length coats. Thigh-high boots. It’s haute couture Winterfell; high fashion goes North of the Wall.
The 12,000-strong event attracts an incredibly affluent crowd—especially the 700 personalities who crowd the VIP marquee and grandstands. Over the course of the three days, it is estimated that around 80 private jets scrape through the skies above the Engadin Valley of St. Moritz.
'Private aviation plays a big role for the Snow Polo World Cup,' says Reto Gaudenzi, the event’s Founder and CEO, who is sometimes affectionally called the 'godfather of snow polo,' as he was responsible for the world’s first-ever snow polo tournament in 1985. 'Many of our guests only travel [in] for the weekend.'
Quick and easy access is especially key because of the tournament’s exclusive location: 'St. Moritz is a considerable distance from any commercial airline airport,' says Marine Eugene, European Managing Director of Flexjet, one of the world’s leading aviation brands and first-time sponsors of the event. Zurich is over three hours away by car or train, but Samedan, St. Moritz’s private airport, is just minutes from the town and the event venue, making it 'very attractive for the large numbers of VIP guests and visitors who attend this unique spectacle, in addition to the teams and players,' says Eugene.
According to Gaudenzi, Samedan recorded 3,843 private jet flight movements in 2020, generating a stimulated revenue for the Engadin Valley of CHF 12 million (approximately GBP 9.6 million). The polo ponies, which are only ponies in name and are actually just slightly smaller than standard horses, often fly between events too, as ground transportation is either not an option or distances between tournaments are too considerable to manage.
While the polo games are the main draw, many polo habitués come for the extravagant social scene. One of the highlights is the much-hyped, black-tie Gala Dinner. Tickets are coveted and almost always sell-out (as they did this year). Six teams compete in the tournament, and Badrutt’s Palace Hotel actually sponsor their own team, which includes the tournament’s only professional woman polo player, the crowd-favourite Melissa Ganzi.
Team Badrutt’s Palace Hotel didn’t bring home the trophy this year; instead, victory on the ice was seized by the land of fire, Team Azerbaijan, but the event is about so much more than just who wins — this year more than ever. '[The Snow Polo World Cup] didn’t happen last year because of Covid, so it’s great to come back,' says British polo player Max Charlton, who came in second this year with Team Clinique La Prairie. 'It’s an amazing tournament, and it’s great fun.'
So there's an added excitement among this year's players and spectators: 'We call this phenomenon travel revenge,' confirms Eugene, '[It’s] where people are really keen to engage…If you go to events like this all the time, it can become blasé. But in the last year and a half we’ve been deprived of social engagements, so we rejoice at the idea of going out again, to go to events and interact with peers, colleagues, and friends. It’s a great couple of days.'