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Snow Polo in St Moritz: Snow Ponies Meet Show Ponies

by John Borthwick

A rolling thunder of hooves and thoroughbred snorting drowns the furious whack of mallets against a red ball. But the phalanx of ponies charging downfield towards you isn’t churning dust and turf — instead, sprays of snow and ice erupt from their studded hooves. Welcome to polo, St Moritz style.

Come winter, this Swiss Alps resort noted for its HiSo visitors, bobsledding and ski jumps hosts an array of winter events that sound like alpine circus stunts — winter golf played on “white greens”, snow cricket and equestrian events where show jumping meets snow jumping — but the big event is the snow polo championship.

Polo’s most recent mutation was invented on the white turf of St. Moritz’s frozen lake in 1985. During what has become an annual three-day tournament, horses and players gather here to contend for the Snow Polo World Cup St Moritz. Spectators slip into arcane polo-speak — chukkas, neckshots, tailshots and backhands — as they watch outfits sponsored by Cartier, Maserati and Badrutt’s Palace Hotel slog it out for victory.

A four-man team of polo players and their mounts bearing down on you evoke the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, with steeds and riders alike blowing steam like dragon’s breath. The action is frenetic. Players swing their mallets with ballistic grunt as they tear across a ground about the size of four football fields towards an unguarded goalmouth. Horses are rotated in the breaks between the four chukkas (of seven-and-a-half minutes duration) that make up a match.

Think blue. Blue blood flows in the veins of these purpose-bred mounts and probably in the veins of some of their comparably pedigreed riders. As a crush of horses tears past the air is tinged, too, with players using more than “occasional coarse language” in a bluetongue babble of German, Spanish, Arabic, French and English.

Snow polo is now 30 years old, while polo itself may be the world’s oldest team ball sport and claims the title “the sport of princes”. Fittingly, a show pony crowd — sultans, celebs and sundry aristotrash — who canter into town on Lamborghinis and Learjets, attends the St Moritz tournament. However, once the mallets and hooves start flying, the “just-rattle-your-jewellery” classes (to borrow John Lennon’s phrase) find themselves shoulder to shoulder on the frozen lake or in the grandstands alongside local fans and the just-passing-through (because-I-can’t–afford-to-stay) crew.

St Moritz has had plenty of practice in hospitality. Back in 1537 the pioneering physician Paracelsus praised the mineral springs of the local Engadine Valley. Thereafter this sunny area on the south side of the Alps gained renown as a summer retreat. In 1864 hotelier Johannes Badrutt challenged four English summer visitors to return in winter: if they didn’t like it, he would pay all their travel costs. If they did like it, they could be his guests as long as they wished. With little to lose, the visitors arrived at Christmas — and stayed until Easter. And thus began winter tourism in St Moritz. Alpine sport followed with events like the hair-raising Cresta run — in which speed freaks fling themselves head-first down an ice canal at 130 km an hour on appropriately-named “skeleton” sleds.

St Moritz Polo Club was long established with the game being strictly a summer pursuit but in 1984 polo aficionado Reto Gaudenzi came up with the idea — at the time considered crazy — that the local team should play in winter on their icy lake. Within a year his “crazy” idea had become a reality and the tournament was born.

Everything about this sport can be extreme, from the ball speed — it travels at up to 200 km an hour — to the weather. Famously, during the 1999 cup when the temperature on the wind-chilled lake dropped to –25 degrees C, the polo ponies were given places of honour in the VIP tent in order to keep them warm. Victory by an outsider team from snowless Abu Dhabi just added to the extremes.

Last February the Australian-British Team Cartier won the 2015 Snow Polo World Cup for the third time. In front of some 12,000 spectators, Jonathan Munro Ford and his team convincingly shut out the Italian-German-Argentine Team BMW, securing a hat trick. Next time, who knows?