On the last weekend in January, almost 100 private jets are expected to descend on tiny Samedan Airport, in the Swiss Alps. They will be delivering some of the world’s wealthiest, most influential, and dazzlingly beautiful people to the ultimate high-net-worth hoedown.
Their destination is the frozen lake of Saint-Moritz, almost 6,000 feet above sea level, where they will be attending an event that delivers thrilling sport, a sensory odyssey of food, booze, and schmooze, and more fur than a big-cat sanctuary. Welcome to the Snow Polo World Cup.
Since its founding, in 1985, the three-day extravaganza has grown in popularity and excess. This year, around 25,000 people are expected to attend, and most of the five-star hotels were sold out months ago. While entry to watch the polo is free, $800-a-day V.I.P. tickets provide access to the bustling hospitality tents. Here an estimated 5,000 bottles of Perrier-Jouët will be popped over the long weekend, to accompany meals of oysters and caviar prepared by the famed movie-star hideaway Badrutt’s Palace Hotel.
In recent years, snow-polo attendees have included Giorgio Armani, Monica Bellucci, and supermodel Izabel Goulart and her fiancé, the German goalkeeper Kevin Trapp. A smattering of members from the families Agnelli, Gucci, Niarchos, Mittal, and Cavalli are usually present, too, alongside the Brunei royal family—the sultan is a keen polo player.
The Snow Polo World Cup is the only “high goal”—top level—polo tournament that takes place on snow-covered ice. While it may be played at a slightly slower pace than events played on grass, it offers a unique spectacle: the sight of horses galloping across a frozen lake, which could give even the most jaded Euro billionaire a frisson. Some polo fans may view this less traditional form of polo, along with beach polo—which is played on sand—as a gimmick, but the crowds at Saint-Moritz don’t seem to mind one bit.
The six snow-polo teams competing for this year’s World Cup comprise players from 10 nations, including rugged stars of the game such as Nic Roldan, from the United States, and “Sapo” Caset, from Argentina. A flock of girlfriends, or “stick chicks” in polo parlance, flutter around them.
The sight of horses galloping across a frozen lake could give even the most jaded Euro billionaire a frisson.
The teams are named after their sponsors, which provides for a strange array on the scoreboard. The Azerbaijan Land of Fire team is sponsored by the authoritarian nation where polo is said to have originated 3,000 years ago. Meanwhile, the Kusnacht Practice team is named after the exclusive Swiss addiction-and-mental-health-treatment center where a week’s stay starts at more than $100,000.
One of this year’s favorites is Team Clinique La Prairie—sponsored by the august Swiss spa—which has a strong lineup made up of players from the United States and Canada. It includes Roldan, who has one of the highest handicaps in the tournament at 8 (a 10 handicap signifies you are one of the best players of all time; -2, a novice), and is captained by the tech mogul Marc Ganzi. Meanwhile, Ganzi’s wife, Melissa—one of the few female professional players—captains the World Polo League team, on which she plays alongside her son, Grant. Polo has a strong tradition of dynasties, and it is not unusual for several members of a family to play with, or against, each other.
Nevertheless, teams don’t go easy. As the British polo player Malcolm Borwick says, “Winning the Saint-Moritz Polo Cup is one of the things all polo players want to put on their C.V. You are riding in extreme conditions. Some days it will be minus 17 degrees Celsius [1.4 degrees Fahrenheit], and if you don’t bring your top ponies, you don’t win.”
The event was founded by Reto Gaudenzi, now known as “the godfather of snow polo.” Gaudenzi grew up in the Alps and was a fervent participant in winter sports. He was introduced to polo by an English friend and was instantly hooked. He flew to Argentina to train with the best, before returning home and forming the first-ever Swiss Polo team in 1978. It was not long before he’d combined his two interests and had the idea of holding a polo match on a frozen lake.
There are multiple challenges to producing the event. “First of all, we have to hope and pray that the lake freezes,” says Gaudenzi. “We are building a city for 25,000 people and horses, with infrastructure. That is the weight of about 80 elephants, so we have to do very careful calculations to make it safe.” Then there is the transport and acclimatization of 120 polo ponies—actually horses—more used to playing in the warmer climates of Argentina, Palm Beach, and Europe.
Animal welfare is paramount, and the polo ponies are fitted with special studs in their shoes to give them good grip. The Saint-Moritz stables underwent a nearly $4 million refurbishment a few years ago. Gaudenzi now refers to it as “the horse palace,” where, after a long day, the ponies are fed “sweet mountain hay and fresh Saint-Moritz spring water.”
Similarly, Saint-Moritz’s revelers have plenty of watering holes to which they can retreat after the matches stop. There’s the Polo Bar at Chesa Veglia or the Dracula Club, or one of the many official, or unofficial, parties. Saint-Moritz sits between Gstaad and Verbier on the bougie barometer, so while there are lots of ruddy-cheeked sporty types, there is also plenty of Alpine chic and designer dogs. Borwick sums it up with a wry smile: “The emphasis is entertainment both on and off the field.”
The 38th Snow Polo World Cup will take place on the frozen lake of Saint-Moritz January 27–29,2023
Eleanore Kelly is a former elite equestrian athlete. She is now a journalist for newspapers and television, including the BBC and Reuters.