Original st. 20regis 20polo 20 42.jpg?1487801998?ixlib=rails 0.3

Snow Polo: The Glitziest Sport You’ve Never Heard Of

Every year, Aspen holds the United States’ only championship—and it’s quite the affair.

“Heads up!”

A rush of wind ruffles my hair as a ball soars just above. It’s about the size of a small coconut, but thankfully, bouncy and much lighter—especially if you happen to get whacked in the noggin. Following gleefully in its path, chiseled face beaming, is Argentinian polo player Nacho Figueras, wearing a black St. Regis polo jersey and a baseball cap emblazoned with the name of his own horse breeding farm, Cria Yatay. He looks like he could be a model, and that’s because he is. He’s also one of the world’s top players and an ambassador of the sport. Today at the Aspen Valley Polo Club, he’s teaching a lesson to a bunch of amateurs in town for the World Snow Polo Championships, a glitzy annual affair attended by high-profile, well-dressed lovers of luxury—in 2015, for instance, one of those people was Mariah Carey.

I’m posted up in the corner of the indoor arena, inhaling the aroma of fresh dirt and practicing my assigned polo drill: hit the bouncy ball against the wall, wait for it to come back, repeat. One of the instructors stops to observe. “You should drop your shoulder,” he says.  I follow his advice, the side of my mallet pings the ball’s sweet spot, and it catches air. It’s exhilarating. When it’s time to take our newfound skills to the horseback portion of the class, however, I abstain, and instead hang out on the sidelines with the blonde and feisty club co-owner Melissa Ganzi, who is also competing in the championship. Word has it she’s killer on a pony—one of the nation’s top amateur players. Along with her husband, she’s also a major patron of the sport, earning them the nickname “The First Couple of Polo.” She’s more grounded than her title would indicate as we eat empanadas, and she kindly misreads my abstention as a fear of horses rather than the truth: I’m pretty lazy. Nodding to a dirt patch in the corner, she says, “Why don’t we play a game on foot?” I opt for another delicious empanada instead.

Ganzi will be on the snow-covered rugby field at Rio Grande Park playing for Flexjet. (The four participating teams—Flexjet, Audi, U.S. Polo Association, and St. Regis, Figueras’s team—have sponsors befitting the luxury class.) It’s the fourth year snow polo will happen in Aspen, the only place it’s played in the United States, but this winter version of the “sport of kings” was first played in 1985 in St. Moritz and was described to me as “like polo, but smaller, and in the snow.” And polo was described as “like field hockey, but on horses” (which, yeah, kind of).  It’s a niche sport, not least of all because of the extreme nature of playing in frigid conditions. International polo talent, including two players this year from California who’ve never played on snow before, converge in teams of three to play in four chukkers—seven-minute-long periods—against the breathtaking backdrop of Aspen mountain, stippled with skiers and snowboarders. They swing their mallets at those red vinyl balls, larger and lighter than regulation polo balls and so colored to easily spot against the snow. Winners get a trophy. But losers still get to drink Bloody Marys.

 

Two days later I’m working on one of those Bloodies on the final day of the tournament, in the heated—and crowded—VIP pavilion at the park, which also features two brunch buffets with lox and bagels catered by the St. Regis Aspen Resort, plus two bars serving both cold and hot cocktails. I’m surrounded by spectators in stylish après-ski gear who were perhaps inspired by the brochure given to hotel guests, which features Delfina Blaquier, photographer, model, and wife of Figueras, offering tips on how to dress for winter polo style. “I like to wear leather pants and layer a wool T-shirt and cashmere sweater under a long overcoat,” she says. I’m wearing hiking boots and a large down coat, which some might describe as a sleeping bag with sleeves.

Out in the snow-covered field, the horses are warming up. They are handsome specimens, full-sized but still called “ponies,” not for their stature but for their ability to dodge swinging mallets and change directions at a moment’s notice. Their tails are fancily plaited up and their manes are trimmed off—“hogged” in industry terminology—to avoid getting tangled with the mallets. The horseshoes are unique: They’re attached with rubber tubing to funnel out the snow and have cogs for traction. Ponies are also outfitted with bandages on their legs to soften any blows and tendon boots in the front for protection.

For 28 minutes we watch these bandaged legs galloping back and forth, kicking up a cloud of powder and, of course, the darting red ball.  They thrillingly brush right up against the spectator tent, and we oscillate between bending toward the action and leaning back to avoid getting hit. Two feet of snow had fallen yesterday, the first day of the tournament, which rendered the terrain too treacherous for a full game, so instead there was a shootout, determining today’s championship matchup of Flexjet and last year’s winners, the U.S. Polo Association. Steam leaves the horses’ nostrils and players break a sweat, even though they  are in little more than riding pants, windbreakers, gloves, and a helmet. (Melissa Ganzi’s is pink, making her easy to spot in the action.) The horseshoes do their job of funneling powder as swinging mallets meld disorientingly with trampling hooves. The ball passes quickly among players, and we struggle to pinpoint its location in the scuffle. And in a flash, it’s over.

The top spot goes to Flexjet, establishing Ganzi as the first woman to win a World Snow Polo Championship (she previously made history as the first woman to compete in the St. Moritz Snow Polo World Cup). Her team is also extraordinary in another way: Her teammates, Jason Crowder and Jesse Bray, are those two Californians who had never before played on snow. They take a victory lap, and Ganzi holds her pink helmet in her hand, beaming. The chestnut mare named Tampa Glitter, which she rode in the third chukka, was named Best Playing Pony.

As the DJ pumps up the volume in the VIP tent, we toast them all with our Bloody Marys.

>>Next: A Food-Lover’s Guide to Barcelona