For those unfamiliar with the game, polo is, in effect, hockey on horseback. Providing speed, power and noise – the thundering of hooves – with literal horsepower; polo is eco-friendly Formula 1.
Polo’s daredevil sibling, snow polo, takes the artistic sport of polo to a new level. Doing exactly what it says on the tin, snow polo is quite literally polo played on snow. One would be forgiven for initially thinking the concepts of snow (cold, slippery, dangerous) and polo (horses, galloping, swinging mallets) sit together like chalk and cheese, but the alpine polo phenomenon is gaining momentum. The agility, strength and nerve of the players are put to the ultimate test in polo’s latest incarnation as it grows in popularity across the globe.
The St. Moritz Polo World Cup on Snow takes place on the frozen surface of Lake St. Moritz. Established over 25 years ago, St. Moritz is the grand daddy of snow polo tournaments and sets the bar for all others. Spread across four days, the tournament attracts audiences of over 15,000 from all around the world as players compete for the ultimate Snow Polo trophy.
The pitch, constructed from snow, is slightly smaller than a traditional polo ground at just under 100 yards long. The polo ponies wear modified horse shoes with studs to grip the snow and are surprisingly amenable to the Alpine environment. Teams consist of three players, rather than four, and the ball is larger, brighter and inflatable. Each game consists of four chukkas (periods of play) lasting approximately seven minutes. Besides these alterations, the objective of the game remains the same with players aiming to score goals by ‘tapping’ the ball between the two goal posts, similar to those in rugby. Opponents must ‘block’ and ‘hook’ each others’ mallets to prevent them from gaining possession of the ball. The frozen terrain makes the fundamental ROW (right of way) rule, pivotal to the game of polo, much more difficult and thus exciting.
The world’s most prestigious winter polo tournament has, for the first time in its 28-year history, had to be cancelled this year (2012) owing to weather conditions. Despite reports of record snowfall in certain European ski resorts, the ice is too thin on the St. Moritz Lake, with experts stating it is dangerous to erect the necessary tournament infrastructure on the surface of the lake.
Other Alpine resorts are jumping on the Snow Polo bandwagon and the sport is becoming increasingly widespread. Klosters, Courchevel, Kitzbuhel, Val d’Isere and Megeve combined with St. Moritz, create the basis of Europe’s Snow Polo community, with each resort hosting its own tournament during January.
The Courchevel leg – contested on the resort’s airstrip – plays host to a weekend of top class equestrian action. This Trois Valées Snow Polo venue is the highest in the world at 2007m above sea level. Val d’Isère gets the competition underway, while the second leg is played in Megève.
On the other side of the Liqurian Sea, the Cortina Winter Polo Audi Gold Cup takes place from 19-25 February 2012 on the frozen surface of the Misurina Lake – at 1800m of altitude, it is amongst the most celebrated landscapes in Italy, the Dolomiti Ampezzane.
Now in its eighth year, the Snow Polo competition in Klosters takes place at night for added spectacle and draws in excess of 7,000 spectators who watch the game from an ice wall surrounding the pitch, before retreating to any number of après-polo events.
This year (2012), Klosters Snow Polo announced that Sentebale was the chosen charity partner for the tournament. Founded by HRH Prince Henry of Wales and Prince Seeiso of Lesotho, the charity provides support to orphans and vulnerable children living in Lesotho, a small landlocked country in South Africa. A charity polo match took place followed by a concert, with Duran Duran singing to several thousand polo enthusiasts revelling in a bar and nightclub made out of shipping containers and snow. The centre of attention, however, was singer/songwriter Annie Lenox, who was chosen to represent the Sentebale charity, appropriate considering she was presented with an OBE in January 2011 by HRH Queen Elizabeth II for her hard work and dedication as a humanitarian.
In Austria, 2012 will see Kitzbuehel hosting the 10th Annual Valartis Bank Snow Polo World Cup, with German car manufacturer, Mercedes-Benz, as the official sponsor. Breathtaking Alpine scenery will act as the spectacular backdrop for the tournament, combined with excellent slopes for pre-polo skiing. One of the key concepts behind Snow Polo is the opportunity to combine two popular sports in one magnificent location, which makes acclaimed ski resorts ideal locations for the tournaments.
Moving over to Eastern Europe, many new markets are turning to Snow Polo as a way of showing off their impressive ski resorts. In a bid to re-enter Romania into the global circuit of equestrian sports, the Royal Polo Club Rasnov, founded in 2011, is introducing a new Annual Snow Polo event: The Carpathian Snow Polo European Championships. Situated in Eastern Europe’s Carpathian Mountains, the event is being held for the first time this year during “Brasov Sports Week” from 2-4 March 2012 – a time when many of the key business decision makers from Romania’s capital city will be there watching the inaugural event. Expecting to attract some 20,000 spectators, the tournament will consist of six Eastern European teams representing six countries including Romania, Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovak Republic and Austria.
Recent years have seen Snow polo extend beyond the boundaries of Europe, with world class polo players competing at the United States Polo Association World Snow Polo Championships in Aspen, Colorado – one of the world’s most expensive ski resorts and the only place in the U.S. where Snow Polo is competed.
China has also taken on the challenge of promising to become the largest Snow Polo tournament in the world this year. The inaugural Federation of International Polo (FIP) Snow Polo World Cup will be hosted from 4-12 February 2012 at Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club, taking polo away from the mountains into the city, to open air arenas in the city centres. Metropolitan Polo Club hosted Asia’s first Snow Polo Challenge in February 2011, which attracted more than 7,000 spectators. This club features state-of-the-art equestrian facilities with the largest polo facilities in China including two international-sized polo fields with stabling for 150 horses, training facilities, a riding school and a luxury club hotel.
12 teams from 11 nations and one Special Administrative Region – all of which are members of the FIP – will be taking part, including: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, England, France, Hong Kong SAR, India, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA.
The key elements of every successful polo team – skill, pride, team-effort, discipline and passion – translate beautifully into the world of successful business, and as such polo makes a perfect partner to showcase itself to the world. In terms of sponsorship, Snow Polo is a relatively new and exciting concept, offering premium brands a platform to create meaningful relationships with those individuals who have not been touched by the recession.
Certain tournaments, such as Klosters – HRH Prince Charles’ ski resort of choice – reinforce the aristocratic lineage of polo, ‘the game of kings’. Princes Charles, William and Harry are avid participators and renowned for their love of the game. The most glamorous of venues will not likely want to part with their regal reputation, as it is widely believed that the high-class exclusivity surrounding the game is tantamount to its popularity, as are the social events accompanying them.
This year (2012), Klosters was sponsored by British clothing label Hackett Ltd. The company believes that polo helps give the firm “authenticity”, stating that “it’s a way of adding credibility to the brand”. The prestigious tournament is also sponsored by Swiss watchmaker Parmigiani Fleurier SA, who claim that the special atmosphere of night-time polo attracted them because of its exclusivity.
Before its cancellation, St. Moritz was sponsored by the luxury hotel Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains, with team sponsors including luxurious French jeweller and watchmaker Cartier and luxury clothing company Ralph Lauren. Like the high-calibre brands sponsoring Klosters, those at St. Moritz also saw an opportunity to associate themselves with the regal image that these venues are connected to. Despite claims that Snow Polo is out of touch with reality, the two aforementioned tournaments will not allow the sport to divest from its lineage; the sponsors of polo events reflect the luxury and exclusivity of the sport and its elite.
However, attempts are being made to render polo more accessible. Polo clubs are popping up like mushrooms and they’re not only for the super-rich. Branching out from where it was first played in St. Moritz in 1899, Snow Polo is expanding globally, with many insisting that its elitist reputation is being left behind in Western Europe. A sport that is traditionally seen as a bit ‘stuffy’ is becoming increasingly accessible to the ordinary person via free admission and an increase in less ‘glamorous’ – but nevertheless stunning – venues.
Furthermore, with the expansion into China, it is widely believed that the original ‘sport of kings’ has never been closer to hand: ticket prices demonstrate that the cup is not just for China’s nouveau riche and the country is working to encourage the riders and audience of tomorrow, and the Tianjin Metropolitan Goldin Polo Club recently started teaching kids polo classes in both English and Mandarin.
Snow polo is undeniably the pinnacle of the sport, favoured for its spectacle and breathtaking scenic locations. These scenic locations, inevitably, add to the expense of following the sport. Commonly misconstrued as expensive, a day at the polo can be a fairly modest affair, with free spectator tickets now available at most tournaments; but when you factor in the location of the snow polo tournaments – amongst the most luxurious ski resorts in the world – things start getting chukking expensive. A weekend in any of the main resorts would set you back at least a few hundred pounds, even flying with easyJet.
Sadly easyJet don’t do snow polo packages and so it remains the province of the wealthy. On the bright side, for those who can afford the flight and the fur, an enchanting experience awaits, and one thing’s for sure, at an altitude of over 2000m, the champers will always be chilled. Cheers!