Chukkers, Champagne & Caviar
At the base of Mt Sopris, one of Colorado’s most majestic peaks, rising almost thirteen thousand feet, and often snow-covered, lives a majesty of a different kind: a world-class polo club created by Melissa and Marc Ganzi. A relative fledgling in this historic sport where adrenaline meets luxury, Aspen Valley Polo Club is the dream-child of the Ganzis, called by many the first family of U.S. polo.
In four short years they have built AVPC into the fastest growing U.S. Polo Association sanctioned club in America. They now run fourteen tournaments per summer, and draw top world polo players such as Nacho Figueras, considered the ambassador of the sport.
Today, under sapphire skies and a dazzling western sun there is something different and exceptional afoot: a large white VIP tent, women sporting Kentucky Derby hats and Piper Heidsieck champagne flowing freely for the Annual Aspen Valley Hospital Benefit called Chukkers, Champagne and Caviar. The polo match, which combines pros and amateurs, is the Rocky Mountain Open Final, named after the major North American mountain range stretching more than 3,000 miles from Canada to the Rio Grande. Now, those mountains are dwarfed by the thunder of eight polo ponies (ponies in name only, an Argentinean horse bred for its tremendous agility, speed and intelligence) charging just inches away from us on a field so green and lush it looks as if you should be wielding your Titleist #3 putter on it. The riders are engrossing us with amazing athleticism as they gracefully swirl the four-foot mallets and accurately strike a white sphere the size of a baseball. This is a heart-stopping full contact sport that is as exhilarating to watch as it must be to play. The level of difficulty is apparent and at times, it seems downright impossible to hit that little ball through the goal posts on a horse galloping 35 mph.
Something else is unique and distinctive here today in the world of polo. In front of a sold-out crowd of 600 dining on a lavish menu and Beverly Hills Caviar at $25K+ tables, the founders of AVPC, Marc and Melissa Ganzi are playing for opposing teams, he for La Karina, she for AVPC. Along with Marc (who has won every major 20 and 26 goal tournament including the 2009 US Open) is Nic Roldan, the highest rated American polo player and one of the most popular players in the world, fresh off the British circuit.
On the sidelines, Chukker TV, another brainchild of the Ganzis, is live-streaming and announcing the tournament. Named after the six periods or chukkers, each seven minutes and a half minutes long, which make up a game, it is yet another instrument the Ganzis are hoping will help bring polo to a wider audience. Frequently, their tournaments at this spectacular club, complete with a 75-stall barn, which is so organized and clean you could practically eat off the floor, are free for the public to enjoy. Every stall is needed for the four teams that will play here today, because each game uses a minimum of 50 horses. The sport is so demanding for the equines that players need a new horse every seven minutes or so. The ritual of the players changing horses between chukkers is captivating. They line up side by side and hop onto the fresh horse’s back without dismounting. And at AVPC, there is a groom’s charming canine, which participates in the ritual by lying down between the horses and wiggling on his back until each player has trotted off on a new mount.
Originating in Persia over 2,000 years ago, polo was initially a game for cavalry units to keep in shape, sometimes played with as many as 100 players per side. What a sound that must have been as they all charged the goal! Today, the sport, which has been in America since the 1800s, is played with four players per side.
The Ganzis, polo enthusiasts extraordinaire, spend their winters at their sister club, Grand Champions Polo Club in Wellington Florida, which has ten fields. There Melissa plays for Piaget and Flexjet and Marc for Audi. Their focus has been to make polo accessible to everyone and that includes their polo school and non-profit that introduces children to the sport. Melissa and Marc are the parents of tournament-winning players, Grant and Riley Ganzi.
It all began for Melissa when her father-in-law (also a successful polo player) gave her a polo pony for her birthday in 2000. While an accomplished equestrian since childhood, she had never played polo, but took to the sport quickly and has many titles and trophies to her name. She was the first female to win the USPA Monty Waterbury Cup. She set a world record by playing 32 consecutive chukkers in a benefit for Wounded Warriors. She has played with Prince Harry and Prince William. She is one of few women to compete in the US Open of Polo. She has played snow polo in Aspen and Austria. And today, she is one of the top women in US polo, and as often as not, one of the only women on the field. Melissa is having a good day at today’s match and the score is close.
But soon, at the beginning of the third chukker, La Karina makes a goal in just ten seconds. Unheard of! In the end, her husband Marc along with Nic Roldan (named MVP), Brian Boyd and Stewart Armstrong prevail with a thrilling 8-5 victory. Though Melissa has hoisted many trophies in her career, this Sunday it is her husband’s team standing in front of the glistening trophy table. La Karina becomes the club’s most winning team and Marc Ganzi graces the cover of the latest issue of Polo Magazine.
Not to worry, there will be many other chances and more teams as the Ganzis put the finishing touches nearby on two new full size polo fields. Their hearts are as big as the obvious strength of their physique for they will continue to offer this marquis benefit event each year, one that raised over half a million dollars today.
When asked “What is the number-one thing horses have taught you?” Melissa answers, “To believe in myself.” And surely she must with the achievements she has logged in a decade and a half. At their Florida club, they have resurrected many prominent cups that had been forsaken. Between their son, Grant, and themselves, they have played on and sponsored three teams at once in the US Open tournament. They breed and raise polo ponies. They have sponsored tournaments for youth, women, and gay polo players…changing the face of polo at one of the nation’s fastest growing polo clubs. “We want to make polo part of the community,” says Melissa. And with that, she removes her riding boots, the exertion from this exhilarating sport obvious on her face, and she slips into stylish espadrilles to go stand by her team for the trophy presentation.
— Jan Hadwen Hubbell is an award winning writer, journalist and poet. Her screenplay, A Perfect Gentleman, has won five major awards including 'best comedy' at the L.A. Film Festival. Previously, she was a business writer on Wall Street.