Snow Polo World Cup St. Moritz 2024: A glamorous winter event on frozen lake St. Moritz
TEXT: NANE STEINHOFF
Looking for a somewhat different sports event in the snow? The Snow Polo World Cup St. Moritz has become an established spectacle that attracts locals and visitors alike. This year, the world’s only polo tournament played on a frozen lake will take place from 26 until 28 January. What can visitors look forward to? We found out for you.
It is an event in a class of its own: On every last weekend of January, the Snow Polo World Cup on the frozen Lake St. Moritz draws a crowd of 20,000 spectators from all four corners of the globe. For three days, the snow-covered, icy surface at the foot of St. Moritz becomes the epicentre of polo sports. Locals, visitors, and the international polo community watch the spectacle as the world’s best polo players challenge each other in the crisp air. The elegant evening dos and glittering parties are the perfect locales to meet familiar faces. No one would have guessed it would ever come to that when, in 1983, Swiss hotelier Reto Gaudenzi took part in a polo match in Munich on a hot summer’s day.
From a visionary idea to the first tournament on snow
The St. Moritz polo team had just won the tournament in the capital of Bavaria when its founder Reto Gaudenzi stepped in front of the media at the packed press conference. Engadine-born Gaudenzi had been asked to enlighten the German journalists about St. Moritz’s polo history, no more, no less. However, his friend Hans Peter Danuser, who also happened to be St. Moritz’s tourism director, had travelled with him to Munich. Danuser had been toying with ideas to stage a British-themed event for the centenary of the St. Moritz Cresta Club. So, on the spur of the moment, he suggested to Gaudenzi to announce a novel idea: a polo tournament on snow to be held in St. Moritz. The plan had already come up in the 1960s but never saw the light of day as the ball was impossible to play on the cold and slippery surface. Gaudenzi immediately took to Danuser’s idea and declared to the journalists grandly: “St. Moritz will host the world’s first polo on snow games.” Without knowing whether they could carry out their plan, he put all his eggs in one basket. The two Swiss surprised the media with their announcement of a world premiere, grabbing the headlines the following morning. Neither of them realised what was in store for them. “The magnitude of what I had let myself in for only dawned upon me in the following weeks,” he later admitted. But there was no way out – he had to deliver.
The history of horse racing and polo in St. Moritz
A long history of winter equestrian sports preceded the soon-to-be debut of polo on snow: The first horse races on the snow-covered frozen Lake St. Moritz go back to 27 January 1907. The local racing society ‘Rennverein St. Moritz’ was founded just four days later, and show jumping events were held nearby even back then. Equestrian sports on snow were commonplace and extensive expertise in grooming the icy ground was at hand. Still, no one had yet combined ice, snow and polo. Polo dates back to somewhere between 600 BC and 100 AD. It had, however, only ever been played in the summertime. The English soldiers stationed in St. Moritz in 1899 played polo as a pastime and hence built a polo field – the ‘Polowiese’, as it is called, were the first polo grounds on the Continent.
With the departure of the British cavalry, reassigned to South Africa, polo was all but forgotten until 1959, when Dr Peter Robert Bray founded the St. Moritz Polo Club and reawakened polo from its 60-year slumber. International summer polo tournaments took place in St. Moritz from 1960 to 1964. In 1978, Reto Gaudenzi formed the St. Moritz polo team, the first team to play on the international stage. He went on to found the Swiss Polo Association (SPA) and the Swiss national polo team – laying the ground for the first one-hundred per cent Helvetian team.
Creativity and courage
Gaudenzi planned to trial the matches on the frozen lake in early 1984, just six months after the memorable press conference, and hold the full-fledged tournament one year later, in early 1985. He set off to make possible all that was needed to make his plan work: the novel “hoof grips” for one, a genius invention by local farrier Peppino Cattaneo. These special horseshoes are still used today; a special rubber tube on the inside prevents the snow from clogging up under the hoof. The second instrumental component in helping the breakthrough was the switch to inflatable polo balls, so far used for indoor games only. The road was clear for the dry run – so Reto Gaudenzi and his friends Gianni Berry and Hanspeter Hörler played the first match with the new gear on the frozen lake. It went without a hitch. “Aside from the fact that the three horses had never seen a polo mallet and turned the game into something of a rodeo, everything went smoothly,” commented Reto Gaudenzi with a grin. The date for the world premiere of “polo on snow” was announced: 25 and 26 January 1985.
The big hunt
Now began the search for the protagonists that would make this event happen: Which polo players would take part? Who would provide the ponies? And who would foot the bill for all that? Hotelier Gaudenzi fell back on his well-honed networking skills and contacted all his friends and acquaintances, among them many polo players, succeeding in putting together two teams. Finding the financial backers proved to be trickier. The project appealed to many sponsors, but they were reluctant to invest unless they were given a guarantee that the world premiere would turn out to be a success.
Hanspeter Danuser arranged contact with Cartier Switzerland. Their director Horst Edenhofer took to the idea from the start. His negotiations with the group’s president, Dominique Alain Perrin, didn’t achieve the desired go-ahead. Gaudenzi took matters into his hands and reached out to the devoted polo player he had met at a polo tournament in San Antonio, Texas, some years back. Perrin, finally, asked in a nutshell: “ça marche, ou ça ne marche pas?” (will this work or not?) To which Gaudenzi replied nonchalantly, “ça marche!”. That sealed the first sponsoring agreement, securing the seed capital for the world premiere. An ingenious idea generated the remainder of the funds needed: With the help of two friends, Gaudenzi produced shares with a face value of 100 Swiss Francs each for one square metre of frozen lake, which they sold to fans. The shares were valid for one year and would become worthless once the snow melted but would keep their sentimental value. “We took the risk – and the gamble paid off,” says Gaudenzi. It seemed, now, nothing else stood in the way of the world premiere.
A weekend for the history records
Everything was ready: the ice was thick enough, and the polo players had arrived from Munich, Paris, and Geneva, along with their entourages. On the eve of the first match on Saturday, 26 January 1985, it started snowing and snowed incessantly throughout the night. So much so that the perfectly groomed playing field had disappeared in the morning beneath one meter of fresh powder. The crisis meeting at 6 AM on Saturday did not bode well. The municipality could not help out with machines to clear the snow; it quickly became apparent that the authorities would rather cancel the event. They hadn’t reckoned with Reto Gaudenzi, though! Within two hours, he managed to organise 18 snowblowers and five Willy’s Jeeps with snow removal equipment; by 1 PM, they had cleared a field of 80 by 40 metres.
The tents were also ready: a tent that served as a stable for the ponies and a VIP tent with first-class catering by St. Moritz’s star chef Reto Mathis. One hundred thirty journalists and a thousand spectators came to watch the game. Not even the miserable visibility, the gloomy weather, or the challenging conditions of the playing field were able to spoil the general excitement on this historic Saturday. After the games, Gaudenzi climbed on a table in the VIP tent and declared, “St. Moritz always delivers!”. “We had promised polo on snow,” he later added, “and they got polo on snow.”
And so it came that the event made the front pages of all the Sunday newspapers. And, to boot: Sunday morning woke to clear skies and bright sunshine, and the grandstands were packed. A new sports discipline saw the light of day – once more, one that was invented in St. Moritz. The world debut of snow polo with team Cartier St. Moritz taking home the trophy was a big success. After two years of preparation, Reto Gaudenzi fulfilled his promise of enacting the first polo games on snow – cementing his reputation as a polo pioneer.
This unforgettable January weekend in 1985 sparked the spread of snow polo around the world and helped revive the fascination with the 2,600-year-old sport. The St. Moritz tournament remains in a league of its own, though: as the only high-goal tournament on snow, it still is, today, the most important reunion of the global snow polo family. Having staged the annual snow polo tournament for 38 years is no small feat, and thanks go to many parties: sponsors, patrons, the city of St. Moritz and its tourism board, and not least, countless volunteers, many of them local, have all pitched in in their way to make the polo tournament happen. What goes for polo playing applies even more to organising the games: it takes a strong team’s concerted effort!
The spirit of Allegra
Since the event’s very beginnings, high society and top-class sport have come together in St. Moritz at the world’s most important polo tournament on snow. At 1,800 meters above sea level, visitors, locals and polo friends from around the globe celebrate the ‘Spirit of Allegra’ – the unique combination of joie de vivre, luxury, and authentic Alpine lifestyle. The people of St. Moritz have good reason to be happy. They live in one of the most beautiful valleys on earth. ‘Allegra’ is an age-old greeting in the Romansh language that the locals use to hail each other. It does not literally translate into ‘hello’ or ‘good day’; rather, Allegra means ‘be joyful’.
Sport is intrinsic to St. Moritz, more so than in any other top destination. But what stands out in St. Moritz is the unique combination of competition and lifestyle. Whether on the frozen lake, at the bob-run, or on the famous Corviglia mountain, food and drinks will be exquisite and lounging in the sun de rigeur. The Snow Polo World Cup, too, is a pleasing blend of sports and savoir vivre. Ever since its beginnings, world-class polo players have been flocking together annually from all corners of the earth to compete for snow polo’s most coveted prize, the legendary Cartier Trophy. Here, too, the ‘Spirit of Allegra’ is omnipresent: the Snow Polo World Cup St. Moritz offers top-class polo, haute cuisine, and superb entertainment in the five-star hotels, bars and clubs of this sophisticated spot in the Swiss Alps.
While over 20,000 visitors are expected this year, a highlight will be the special appearance of ‘Pelon’ Stirling, who has made a significant mark on the last decade of polo and will undoubtedly provide spectacular action on the ice of Lake St. Moritz. The gastronomy in the popular Polo Village will even more extraordinary and the VIP tent is set for a superluxury upgrade, not only structurally, but also with the food and drink offering. Interest in the glamorous sporting event on the sparkling snow has surged among sponsors and VIP guests alike, with the traditional gala event at Badrutt’s Palace already fully booked. As always, admission is free.
This truly is an event of superlatives: with the world’s elite players displaying top-class polo, set against a uniquely stunning mountain backdrop, teamed with an unparalleled supporting programme. Other players in the spotlight in addition to ‘Pelon’ Stirling are Fred Mannix from Canada – without a doubt, one of the best, if not the best, amateur players in the world – and the Englishman Max Charlton, who for many is the best player on snow. Meanwhile, the reigning FIP Polo World Champion Pelayo Berazadi (Spain) will certainly have a lot of say in the final result.
This year, local restaurateurs and partners will take care of the visitors’ physical wellbeing for the whole weekend with an even richer menu than in past years. Guests can enjoy the traditional Snow Polo bratwurst from the Crystal Hotel kitchen, dim sum creations by Madame Sum, Argentinian asado specialties from AZADO, local delicacies from Alpen Food, a selection of dishes from Giardino Mountain, and the ‘Food Pop-up on the Ice’ from up-and coming restaurateurs R.C. Concepts.
While the Engadin is slowly getting ready for the winter season, preparations are in full swing for the region’s top winter event: from 26 to 28 January 2024, over 20,000 lovers of action-packed polo will once again gather for a one-of-a kind get together on the breathtakingly beautiful frozen Lake of St. Moritz.
HOW TO GET TICKETS
Admission to the tournament site is free for all visitors
VIP and Chukker Club tickets are available at www.snowpolo-stmoritz.com/tickets
Further information is available on www.snowpolo-stmoritz.com
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