SNOW TOUR: Alpine polo comes alive in dead of winter

There was a flurry of activity in the international snow polo circuit as action got underway with events every few weeks in several of the world’s most luxurious destinations.

Aspen, Colorado

The St. Regis World Snow Polo Championship in Aspen, Colorado, the only snow polo event in North America, kicked off the snow polo season Dec. 15- 17. Six teams, comprised of some of the best players in the world, played off for a chance at the coveted St. Regis World Snow Polo Championship trophy.

The event was co-hosted by Melissa and Marc Ganzi, co-founders of Aspen Valley Polo Club, and polo ambassador and St. Regis Connoisseur Nacho Figueras and his wife, Delfina. Players and teams were introduced at St. Regis Aspen Resort on Thursday, Dec. 14. A draw determined the match-ups for the qualifying rounds while guests enjoyed St. Regis Aspen Resort fare and champagne.

With little natural snow on the ground, the qualifying round were played at Aspen Valley Polo Club’s indoor arena in nearby Carbondale.

Flexjet advanced with a thrilling comefrom- behind 6-5 victory over Aspen Valley Polo Club and tied Audi, 5-5 in the opening six-chukker round robin. In the other round, Aspen Valley Polo Club defeated Audi, 7-5.

In a second hard-fought round robin, U.S. Polo Assn. edged Moet, 5-4, and defeated one of the pre-tournament favorites St. Regis, 9-5. In the other round, St. Regis topped Moet, 6-3.

On Saturday, which served as media day for international and local press, action moved to Rio Grande Park, Aspen’s largest multi-functional park within the city’s limits and just minutes away from the St. Regis Aspen Resort. Snow was brought in to add to what was on the ground, ensuring a superb playing surface.

Guests in the sold-out heated VIP tent that featured Alpine Luxe furnishings, were treated to signature St. Regis Aspen Resort rituals including afternoon tea, a fine array of light fare and its iconic St. Regis Bloody Mary cocktail. Actress and singer songwriter Kelley Alice Jakle, who starred in the “Pitch Perfect” movies, sang a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem on both days.

First, Audi took on Moet for fifth place honors and the Aspen Valley Snow Cup title. After two shootouts, Audi defeated Moet, 6-5.

Later, celebrities took to the field for a Celebrity Chukker with Saye Yabandeh, Tucan Pereyra Iraola and Nacho Figueras against U.S. Polo Assn.’s Sterling Jones, Sarah Magness and Nacho Novillo Astrada. Actor Sterling Jones led U.S. Polo Assn. with two goals, including the game-winner.

The action continued on Sunday with the final, but first, St. Regis captured the subsidiary St. Regis Snow Cup with an 8- 7 win over Aspen Valley. Nico Pieres, making his snow polo debut, scored an incredible backshot off the post for the game-winner as time ran out. Figueras was named MVP and Fendi, an 11-yearold black mare ridden by Figueras, was Best Playing Pony.

The record crowd in the sold-out VIP tent settled in for the championship pitting defending champion Flexjet against 2015 winner U.S. Polo Assn.

U.S. Polo Assn., making it fourth finals appearance in five years, relied on its team chemistry to jump out to a 4-1 halftime lead. Flexjet found its offensive punch in the second half, outscoring U.S. Polo Assn., 3-1, but ran out of time. U.S. Polo Assn. took the thrilling 5-4 victory.

Nic Roldan, the team’s field general, was named MVP for the fourth time in five years after scoring three goals. Roldan finished with 11 goals for the tournament. Javi, a 7-year-old stallion ridden by Alejandro Novillo Astrada and owned by Santa Rita Polo Farm, was Best Playing Pony.

"It’s good to get the trophy back on our squad,” Roldan said. “This event was really successful. This was probably one of the most successful and competitive ones and we just had a great time.”

I got lucky playing with Nic and Juan,” said Grant Ganzi, playing his third straight tournament with the dynamic duo, including 2016 with Audi. “I have played with them the last three years. They are two guys I know so well. Chemistry is a huge thing in the snow.”

The glitz, glamour and excitement of one of the world’s top snow polo tournaments is a major attraction for both the local community and fans from all over the world that fly in for the breathtaking scenery and world-class polo action.

Kitzbühel, Austria

A month later, Jan. 11-14, six teams from around the world gathered in the small medieval town of Kitzbühel, in western Austria, for the 16th Bendura Bank Snow Polo World Cup.

The event kicked off with the team presentations in front of the Hotel Zür Tenne in the heart of the picturesque Alpine Village. The players arrived in style in a fleet of Maseratis. Among the players was Melissa Ganzi and Alejandro Novillo Astrada, both whom had competed in Aspen.

The following day, plenty of pristine snow provided a terrific surface for the games under a bright sun. The first match was between the local rivals, Polo Club Kitzbühel and defending champion Corum, which began with a 2½-goal handicap. Corum carried a 6½-2 lead into the half. The teams matched goals in the second half, keeping Corum ahead 8½-4.

In the next match, Ganzi and Novillo Astrada joined event organizer Tito Gaudenzi on the Bendura Bank team, taking on Engel & Völkers after affording it a half-goal handicap. Engel & Völkers initially jumped out front, but Novillo Astrada fired back to put his team narrowly ahead 3-2½ at the halftime break. Engel & Völkers rallied in the second half, capitalizing on numerous penalties to close ahead 6½-5.

“We’ll come into tomorrow’s match fighting, following a difficult day today,” said Bendura Bank team captain Ganzi. “Today was our first day on these horses and we hope to know them better by tomorrow’s match.”

Rounding out the day’s matches was Maserati against Bernd Gruber, that began the match with a half-goal handicap, in the best match of the day. From the word go, Maserati roared past Bernd Gruber to take a 7-2½ lead into the half. Bernd Gruber rallied in the third, scoring three unanswered goals. Maserati doubled down in the last chukker, outscoring Bernd Gruber 4-2 to take the 11-7½ victory.

The next day, on a freshly prepared ground, Bernd Gruber and Polo Club Kitzbühel started off the action. Bernd Gruber began with a 2½-goal handicap, but Polo Club Kitzbühel was undeterred. Kitzbühel took the lead at the end of the half and, led by Valentin Novillo Astrada, controlled the second half, leading to a 9- 7½ victory.

The next game saw another Novillo Astrada—Alejandro—lead Bendura Bank as it plowed through its opponent, Maserati, en route to a 10-4½ win. The victory earned Bendura Bank a spot in the final the next day.

The final match of the day pitted Engel & Völkers against Corum, which stared with a 1½-goal handicap, as snow started to fall. Penalties slowed the play in the first half, leaving Corum ahead 4½-2. Engel & Völkers regrouped at the half, coming out swinging in the last two chukkers. It successfully took control, outplaying Corum 6-2 for a 8-6½ final score. The win put Engel & Völkers in the final opposite Bendura Bank.

The final day began with the subsidiary matches. First, Polo Club Kitzbühel took on longtime rival Bernd Gruber for the Engel & Völkers Cup. Valentin Novillo Astrada again shone as he and his teammates racked up a 9-3½ halftime score. Bernd Gruber fought back in the second half, but came up short, falling 11-8½.

Next up, Corum met Maserati for the Kitzbühel Country Club Cup. In one of the closest contests, Corum held on to its half-goal handicap to narrowly lead 5½-5 at the half. Maserati’s Thomas Winter and Caspar Crasemann suffered injuries in the second half but continued to battle. Corum took advantage to increase its lead and finish on top 10½-9.

The much anticipated final was next as Bendura Bank faced Engel & Völkers in a rematch of Round 1 play when Engel & Völkers took the win. Bendura Bank gave its opponent a half-goal head start, then quickly got to work. Ganzi capitalized on a pair of penalty conversion and Alejandro Novillo Astrada added two goals to take a 4-3½ lead at the half.

Engel & Völkers outscored Bendura 3- 2 in the next chukker to regain the lead. Novillo Astrada came alive in the last chukker, scoring three goals in as many minutes. With time ticking down, Ganzi passed to a waiting Novillo Astrada, who stroked the ball through the goal, putting the final nail in the coffin.

Bendura Bank finished on top 10-6½. Novillo Astrada was named MVP for his efforts.

“What a weekend we’ve had, and this win really tops it off,” said Ganzi. “Following our defeat to Engel & Völkers two days ago, we’ve been honing our team skills and the work really paid off today. We can’t wait to take this perfect trio to St. Moritz next!”

St. Moritz, Switzerland

The Snow Polo World Cup St. Moritz is a unique event in that games are played on the frozen Lake St. Moritz, located in the Engadin Valley, known as the birthplace of snow polo. It is also known for several other winter sports and hosted the 1928 winter Olympics. St. Moritz Snow Polo is the world’s highest-rated snow polo event and features four players per team rather than three used in other events.

The field measures roughly 200 x 100 yards and shares the lake with 2,600 tons of tents, fences, grandstands and other infrastructure, which took 40 men three weeks to erect. The weight is no problem for the ice, which measured 21 inches at the start of the 34th edition of the Snow Polo World Cup St. Moritz. About 6,500 cubic yards of manmade snow is used to prepare the field’s surface.

By game time, field conditions were pristine and bathed in bright sunshine. The first match saw defending champion Cartier up against Badrutt’s Palace, whose team members were fresh off their Kitzbühel snow polo victory just weeks earlier. They added Juan Bollini to their line-up.

In the match, Chris Hyde scored two quick goals to put Cartier ahead. Like in the previous snow polo tournament, the Badrutt team members took time to find their legs. Cartier, however, steamrolled ahead to a 5-2 victory.

Guests and players were treated to a delicious lunch with local specialties anddelectable delights in the lavish VIP tent. In the second match, Maserati challenged the new Azerbaijan team. After a somewhat patchy start, both teams found their stride, fighting tooth and nail for possession. Despite the 2-1½ halftime score, favoring Maserati, Azerbaijan seemed to be gaining traction. Despite a valiant effort, stopping Maserati from scoring, it wasn’t to be. Azerbaijan failed to find the goal and Maserati drove away the 2-1½ winner.

Guests gathered at the field, snuggled under Cartier blankets and sipping hot cocoa for Day 2 action. In the first match, Cartier faced Maserati, both with firstround wins under their belts. Cartier jumped out with a quick goal by Dario Musso added to a half-goal handicap, but goals by Robert Strom and Gerardo Mazzini ended the half 2-1½ for Maserati. Cartier shot back in the second half to take the narrow win.

The second match pitted Badrutt’s Palace against Azerbaijan. Andrés “Lala” Laplacette got the scoring started with two quick goals before Alejandro Novillo Astrada put Badrutt on the board. A penalty conversion ended the half with Azerbaijan on top 3-1. Azerbaijan turned up the heat in the third, putting in four goals while holding Badrutt to a single tally. Elchin Jamalli sealed the deal with two unanswered goals in the fourth for the 9-4 win.

That night, players and guests enjoyed a Snow Polo Night Gala Dinner Baku Moritz Night at Badrutt’s Palace Hotel, located in the center of St. Moritz. The birthplace of Alpine winter sports and a favorite European destination, the fivestar hotel celebrated 120 years since opening its doors.

Excellent weather and playing conditions continued as 7,000 fans gathered for the final action, beginning with the subsidiary La Martina Cup, a rematch between Badrutt’s Palace and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan again got out front, carrying a 3-2 lead into the half. The teams continued to battle, keeping it close, but Azerbaijan got the edge for the 5-4 win.

Melissa Ganzi, who was high-scorer with three goals, said, “Three years ago, I was the first woman to come to St. Moritz to play snow polo and it’s so amazing to see so many lady players now showing an interest and taking part. I feel like I had a little part to play in that. It’s a great feeling.”

Ganzi, the USPA Florida Circuit Governor and Grand Champions Polo Club president, was making her third St. Moritz appearance. “Although I was not in the final, I accomplished a personal goal,” Ganzi said. “Clearly my participation in polo and events like St. Moritz inspire individuals to achieve their dreams.”

The final was an epic battle, reflecting the three days of fierce challenges. Cartier, which began with a half-goal handicap, struck three times to get the jump on Maserati, while shutting it out to end the half 3½-0. Maserati answered back with three in a row in the third to enter the final chukker separated by just the half-goal handicap.

Chris Hyde’s Penalty 4 conversion increased Cartier’s lead. With less than two minutes on the clock Maserati found the mark to come back within a half goal but time was not on its side and Cartier hung on for the win.

MVP honors went to Dario Musso, while Zedan, a pony Musso played, was Best Playing Pony. Best Playing Patron went to Cartier’s Rommy Gianni, who counted his third victory.

-- Sharon Robb contributed to this report



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