Aspen's World Snow Polo Championships
The champagne powder for which Aspen is famous fills the sky at Christmas time. Nothing unusual for this old silver mining now iconic ski town in the Rockies. Flakes big as goose down feathers dot the air gently and the bells from a far away horse-drawn sleigh jingle to the rhythm of the equines’ clip-clop. But it is the snow on the ground that draws the spotlight. It is the snow under the hooves of some of the most elegant horses on the planet, thundering like a cavalry regiment in this polo arena erected in Aspen’s Rio Grande Park, named for the river that originates in Colorado and flows almost 2000 miles to the gulf of Mexico.
The polo ponies (Argentinean horses bred for their agility, intelligence, and speed) have been brought in three weeks earlier to acclimate to the 8000 ft. altitude. Special horses that soon will sport special horseshoes for the World Snow Polo Championships. First introduced by a blacksmith in St. Moritz, the ponies are fitted with unique snow shoes: a rubber hoof grip lined with hollow tubes that push the snow away from their hooves, topped with a distinctive horseshoe equipped with metal studs for gripping.
Adding to Aspen’s winning combination of the World Cup Ski Races, the X-Games and the USA Pro Challenge Bike Race, this high goal World Snow Polo tournament signals the final stop of the World Polo Tour. In this European-inspired location, which echoes the sport’s origins in St. Moritz, Switzerland where it first began on a frozen lake high in the Alps, Nacho Figueras, St. Regis world polo ambassador, and the Ganzis, an iconic polo family, have spawned a sterling event for this year-end spectacle. It is Marc and Melissa Ganzi’s mammoth polo masterpiece that combines our love of fairy tales where horses play a pivotal role with a 2000-year-old rarified sport that has been thrust into the modern age to enchant us. Played in a snowy arena slightly smaller than a football field using a big red ball the size of a bowling ball but ten times lighter, and flexible lightweight bamboo mallets, snow polo scales down the usual team to just three members. In addition, the chukkers (or periods) shrink from seven to four. The exertion required for the horses to sprint and stop on a dime and turn quickly in the snow is elevated so the chukkers are shorter than on grass polo, at only 6.5 minutes. At the end of each chukker the horses are so physically maxed out that a new fresh mount is needed. Fifty different horses will be needed for each day of the tournament.
Just as surfers took to snow and morphed into snowboarders, so too polo enthusiasts weren’t done with their sport when summer ended. And this joy of the game, played across the globe for which Nacho’s, top polo player in the world, face of Ralph Lauren Polo, St. Regis Polo Connoisseur, and Prince Harry’s pick for his Sentebale Charity Ambassador, only hope is that more people will love polo as much as he does, is the driving ambition that led to this, the only snow polo event held in North America. This is no ordinary game, this is rock and roll. As Nic Roldan, face of American Polo, youngest rider ever to win the US Open at age 15, and four time champ here, says, “It is fast and ultra exciting due to the smaller size of the arena.” There is nothing more gallant and graceful as polo ponies kicking up plumes of snow as they race across the field.
Don’t let the white tent, the champagne and spectators’ furs fool you: this is a very serious sport where adrenaline meets danger at every turn. “You’re traveling 30 miles an hour chasing a ball that two others are chasing. One bad decision could cost you dearly,” says Nic. And if you doubt it, the two EMS trucks outside the venue give you the idea. Roldan had an opportunity during the consolation final to really show his skill as he made a goal by bouncing the ball on his mallet several times and then scooting it through air into the goal, the ball never touching the ground.
Because of the smaller enclosed arena, spectators are rewarded with close-up rip-roaring action that is not possible at summer polo. Fans have come from all over the world to see this marquee event framed by Aspen’s breathtaking scenery.
The player roster reads like a Who’s Who of World Polo. The St. Regis team, captained by Nacho Figueras, top world polo player and ambassador for the sport, includes Nacho’s son, Hilario, the youngest player at age 18 who is already a professional. Melissa Ganzi, one of the top women US polo players, an elite athlete with many titles to her name, has played with both Prince Harry, Prince William and Prince Charles, will captain the Flexjet team. Her son, Grant will also compete as captain for the US Polo ASSN. team. And of course, her husband Marc Ganzi, whose Aspen Valley Polo Club is the fastest growing polo organization in the US, is ranked the #2 amateur polo player in the world. Marc won the Sentebale Tournament with Prince Harry this year. In addition to winning the US Open Polo Championship, he’s also won every major 20 and 26 goal tournament including the Piaget Cup. But it is Marc and Melissa’s vision to “build a community polo club. To make polo accessible to everyone.” There is no admission fee to attend their tournaments. Everyone is welcome and the World Snow Polo Championship is no different.
In the VIP tent decorated by the St Regis, a winter wonderland awaits, complete with reindeer fur blankets and elk antler chandeliers, one dangling with a life-sized peacock watching over the festivities. The cuisine rises to the occasion with Alaskan King Crab Legs and ice sculptures almost as big as the igloo the St Regis built at the tent’s entrance and filled with stuffed St. Bernards. From a vintage kiosk, Blade and Bow, a new team sponsor, is serving their special bourbon. This year there were bleachers at the arena for all the on-lookers from town who sat inches from the full-throttle polo action. Often the ball is hit out of the barriers into the crowd and the horses line up with an air of innocence facing the crowd, and wait for it to be tossed back into the ring. An experienced ski racer, Marc Ganzi, who grew up in Aspen, explains what it means to bring this top-notch equestrian event to the village center. “As a silver mining town, Aspen’s very history is based on horses and that remains part of its very fabric even today. It is all about the connection to nature. To bring this athletic and distinguished sport here in middle of Aspen’s high season, with the holidays and skiing, is a wonderful synergy with this celebrated town.”
Though mid-winter, it is a sunny, warm day in Aspen for the finals, which adds to the difficulty of this already high-skill sport as the soft snow grabs and holds the ball, often catching it in divots. The horses, used to chasing a fast rolling ball on turf often overrun it, leaving the players to accomplish a speedy about face. Many times the horses clash, which is allowed only side-by-side, never in a t-bone fashion. The players wear heavy leather kneepads to protect themselves, reminiscent of steel armor from the 17th century. Nic Roldan said on opening night, “This is a festive way to end our playing year.” But now it has come down to the two top teams, Richard Mille, captained by Marc Ganzi and FlexJet captained by Melissa Ganzi. Considering all it took to get here: winning is in the forefront of their minds.
When asked what it sounds like to be in the arena in the middle of it all, Melissa says, “I hear the horses’ heavy breathing, their hooves pounding and I hear the crowd cheering.” When I ask Melissa about the sheer athleticism required to be a top polo player, as a true Sagittarius, she defers to the horses. “The horses are the real stars,” she says. “They’re competitive and want to get ahead and be faster than the others.” Watching Melissa play, her finesse with the ball is immediately evident. She’s not a hard charger shooting a high impact ball down the field; instead she coddles and taps it into perfect position for making her shot. During the final, she scores two goals.
By the middle of the fourth chukker the exciting game is tied at five all. There are only minutes left to play. The action picks up and the horses zip past the tent on each other’s heels. In the last two minutes of the game, Richard Mille makes a hard fought goal and 6-5 is the final score.At the trophy table, the three members of the Richard Mille team celebrate with the colossal silver cup framed with elk antlers. Pablo MacDonough, who has just flown in after winning the Argentinean Open is voted MVP. All the teams are awarded for their place positions by their sponsors. The championships end just as the Western sun sneaks behind Aspen Mountain, shedding a cool shadow on the cheers rising from the white tent. So the fairy tale continues as Marc, Melissa and Grant Ganzi next head to St. Moritz where it all started for the January snow polo tournament on a frozen lake high in the Swiss Alps.