The hills are aalive with the sound of private jets. The aircraft glisten in the sun as they thread their flight path into the Engadin valley toward St. Moritz, flanked by snow-coated slopes. Photographers hoping to score a celebrity shot mill around on the edge of the runway, where a vintage Rolls-Royce and a racing-green Porsche Macan await their masters. Passengers in cashmere shawls and cascading furs are swiftly reunited with their Gucci weekend bags, then whisked down the hill for one of the glitziest gatherings on Switzerland’s social calendar: the Snow Polo World Cup St. Moritz.
On the last weekend in January, the ski resort becomes the icy diadem of the elite polo circuit. The three-day tournament features four teams of globe-trotting players in white jeans and knee-high leather boots atop artfully groomed horses, chasing a cantaloupe-size red plastic ball across a frozen, snow-covered lake as they swing willowy mallets. Equally impressive is the display on the VIP grandstand: Spectators, who’ve paid 680 Swiss francs ($684) each for a day pass, are stacked eight rows deep, holding glasses of Champagne and puffing on cigars. Not to be outdone, their canine companions also arrive in style: Pugs are pimped out in lacquer-shiny Moncler puffers, papillons peep from Hermès handbags, and dachshunds don cashmere cozies.
The tournament is the brainchild of Reto Gaudenzi, who hatched the outlandish idea in 1983 and has watched the event become so big that it requires military-style planning coupled with renowned Swiss technical know-how. An army of workers spends three weeks setting up the infrastructure on the lake. The horses wear protective braces and special hoof studs for extra grip. The outlay to pull off the extravaganza is about 2.5 million francs for the organisers, and the tournament rakes in more than 12 million francs in additional revenue for the Engadin. “It’s a unique blend of nature, sport, the mountains, parties—you just can’t find this cocktail anywhere else,” Gaudenzi says. “And the moment the bell tolls for the last match, we start working on next year’s event. It’s a huge undertaking.”
This is the only polo competition anywhere in the world played on ice, which in January is about 60 centimetres (24 inches) thick. That’s strong enough to carry almost 3,000 tons of tents, stands, and fences, plus thousands of spectators, who follow the four teams and their bursts of 7½-minute matches, called chukkas. The 100 horses involved are brought in from Spain, France, and the U.K. several days before the matches; they’re cared for in state-of-the-art stables on the banks of the lake.
The field for the tournament is smaller than the grass equivalent, giving spectators more immediate access to the action. Each player has four horses to substitute between chukkas, and the play is fast and furious: The red ball flies, sticks whir, and riders shout. The occasional player dismounts or is forced out of the game only because of an injury, almost always minor. (Major ones, like a hit from a mallet, are uncommon—and the horses rarely slip.) After each goal, The Final Countdown blares from the speakers. The crowd roars, the commentator unloads a verbal salvo, and the teams realign their steaming horses for the next attack.
Gaudenzi is quick to point out that the matches don’t cater only to the well-heeled. Rather, everyone’s welcome, and like the denizens of first, business, and economy class on a plane, they all mingle on the ice in between the chukkas. Access to the lake and a big section of the grandstands is free of charge, and whether you wait in line for bratwurst or a blob of caviar spooned directly onto your clenched fist is a matter of personal preference.
“We want to bring the game into a much wider audience,” says Malcolm Borwick, a professional polo player from England whose grandmother was on the first U.K. women’s polo team in the 1920s. “We’re trying to get to the beer and Coca-Cola audience, to show them that it’s the sum of all sports: It’s adrenaline, teammates, horses, physicality—the most technical sport you’ll ever play.”
For the weekend, a glass of Perrier-Jouët served in a lime-green flute (the color is more Instagrammable, owner Pernod Ricard SA says) costs 18 francs; a bottle of its Belle Epoque 2011 vintage runs a cool 360 francs. Soda and water are a manageable fiver.
Bratwursts notwithstanding, polo has always attracted a crowd with more financial firepower than, say, soccer or baseball. Britain’s Prince Charles and his offspring are keen patrons. Brands from La Martina to Hackett to Polo Ralph Lauren have built their pedigree on it; and major sponsors such as Deutsche Bank, Cartier, Maserati, and NetJets eagerly line up each year to host lavish dinners for loyal or prospective customers in St. Moritz.
Maserati, which organizes driving-skill experiences and test runs on the snow, closes about a dozen deals during the event, estimates Piergiorgio Cecco, general manager for Central Europe and Germany. Calling the tournament the perfect blend of “opulence and discretion,” he says it complements the brand. For NetJets Inc., the event is a welcome extension of the business ferrying clients to the World Economic Forum, which takes place in nearby Davos earlier in the week. About 20 flights come into St. Moritz for the polo, the company says, a tenth of its annual traffic to the airport. “It’s an important event for us, and it helps bring in a younger crowd,” said Mario Pacifico, who at the time was chief executive officer of NetJets in Europe.
For last January’s event, NetJets flew in celebrity chef Jason Atherton from London to cook for about 50 guests atBadrutt’s Palace Hotel. He served lobster tea alongside oscietra caviar, langoustines buried under Périgord truffle shavings, and poached pear wrapped in gold leaf. Downstairs at King’s Social House, he fed VIPs at a Cartier event spiced confit duck leg and flaming baked Alaska. Up at the Kulm Hotel, Pernod Ricard hosted an “olfactory studio dinner,” where drinks were paired with fragrances.