Hooves on Snow: Cartier Polo World Cup in St. Moritz

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 Cartier, as the lead sponsor, is keen to win, but this year, Brioni has raised a strong challenge, and in this final game, the lead keeps changing.

The Argentines at our lunch table know a friend of ours from New York who plays polo, but that shouldn’t surprise us because the Argentines at our table from the day before also knew him. One of the key organizers of today’s event knows friends of ours who live near Zurich. The world of polo is large in that it is truly international, and it is small in that, sooner or later, you will meet just about everyone worth knowing.

Polo the game is field hockey on horseback, played in the main by men from Argentina, Britain, and former British colonies (such as the USA). Polo the institution is a moveable feast centered not on the playing field but the VIP tent that nearly always adjoins it. You can tailgate at a polo game, and you can sit in the grandstand at a polo game, but if you do, it isn’t polo-it’s just field hockey on horseback.

The lunch in question is therefore in the VIP tent-a multi-winged white castle in cloth set up on the frozen lake of St. Moritz, Switzerland, and containing every amenity from a warm lounge stuffed with sofas and throw pillows, to a central bar over which a huge statue of Pegasus takes wing, to stations where Nespresso machines hiss out hot coffee, a cigar nook, a DJ playing Johnny Cash and disco, and a small army of waiters in faux-military uniforms pouring Perrier Jouët.

The Argentines leave our table and are replaced by a set of Russians-the women lovely and bejeweled, the men variously cherubic, philosophical, and suspicious; it’s as if an entire Tolstoy novel has just decided to dine with us, and my wife and I enjoy their company until everyone clears out for the second game of the day.

At the annual Cartier Polo World Cup on Snow in St. Moritz, events play out according to ritual. Four teams of four men each compete, and this year, the teams are appropriately named, in honor of their sponsors, Cartier, Brioni, Maybach, and Julius Bär (for the private Swiss bank). The event runs from Thursday through Sunday, the audience seeming to build daily. There is a gala party on Saturday night, held, by tradition, at Badrutt’s Palace Hotel, which is where the teams also lodge. At a press conference on Friday afternoon, the polo players bring their wives and girlfriends, which provides the world’s sports and social media with living proof that, if you are a man who loves beautiful women but are not gifted enough to be an Argentinean polo player, you have missed out on a major dating opportunity.

St. Moritz village is 5,800 feet above sea level, with ski slopes reaching up to twice as high, which means that, good year or bad, global warming or not, there is always enough snow. And as long as there are at least about 40 centimeters (sixteen inches) of ice (this year, we have 50), the lake can support the horses, riders, grandstands, tents, and scores of parked cars. The lake is covered with a carpet of packed snow that makes it easier for man and beast to navigate than a cross-country ski trail. The horses wear special shoes invented locally to keep that snow from lodging under their hooves.

The altitude and cold do restrict play a bit: instead of six chukkas (periods) of seven and a half minutes each (the final being shorter, at seven minutes), there are only four chukkas, each one minute less in duration. That means games run about 45 minutes, but as anyone who has ever watched players in Bridgehampton struggle for attention from the Ralph Lauren set in the open-walled VIP tent can attest, 45 minutes are about enough for most polo fans, especially when seated under the bright but often chilly sun of St. Moritz. Fortunately, the VIP tent here opens at 11 a.m. daily, allowing for a bit of gossip and Champagne, followed by a game, followed by lunch, followed by a game, followed by more gossip and Champagne.

Today is Sunday, the last day of the tournament. By the finals today, relaxed good cheer has become universal. When we all return to the VIP grandstand one last time, people bring along cigars and Champagne bottles and glasses. My wife and I sit under a red and white Cartier sports blanket in the Cartier fan section. The play-by-play announcers rotate, so at any given time, loudspeakers deliver the story in either English, German, or Italian.

Cartier, as the lead sponsor, is keen to win, but this year, Brioni has raised a strong challenge, and in this final game, the lead keeps changing. The crowd-showing a rare enthusiasm at polo-really gets into it. Around us, women in fur coats strike up a rousing fight song: Hey, hey hey, Cartier, Cartier, Cartier!

Every now and then, a private jet comes in low overhead, heading toward a landing at the small airport nearby, and everyone looks up to see if it belongs to a friend. Glasses of Perrier Jouët clink; Champagne pours. Brioni charges ahead, then Cartier, then the lead changes again. A Brioni player is injured by a mallet; he keeps going.

The ball for polo on snow looks and travels like a two-thirds sized basketball, and today is particularly windy, so much so that ski lifts in nearby Pontresina were unable to open. If the ball gets airborne, it tends to sail, which sets the stage for what may be one of the most remarkable events in St. Moritz sports history since it hosted the 1948 Olympic Games.

It is the last play of the last chukka of the championship game and Brioni has a slim lead. From near its own goal, Brioni gets the ball. John Paul Clarkin, from New Zealand, whacks it airborne, and then hits it again, keeping it above the horses’ heads as he moves it downfield, jamming it upward and forward in a piston motion. Clarkin runs it down and sends it skimming over the ground to just the right of the goal, where he overruns it one more time and, making a difficult under-the-neck shot look easy, hits it between the goalposts, ending the game with a Brioni win.

The ending is so completely Hollywood that no one can quite believe it has happened, and more than a few people start to question what is in the Champagne. But it is all true-and proof again that, if you actually pay attention to the sport of polo, what you get isn’t just a momentary thrill of watching men charging on horseback, but one quite enjoyable spectator sport.

Which in no way stops any of us from dodging the award ceremony by hurrying back into the VIP tent for dessert and more Champagne. We may now be newly converted sports fans, but our collective priorities remain inviolate.

For those staying on (and it is not uncommon at five-star hotels for guests to move in for weeks or an entire month), the next week brings the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival and after that, White Turf-the horse races on the lake. In St. Moritz during the winter, the Champagne always stands chilled and at the ready.

INFORMATION BOX

The year 2009 will see the 25th season of polo on snow in St. Moritz, starting January 29, and it promises to be an especially festive event. Information: www.polostmoritz.com. To gain VIP access, you need to be invited by one of the sponsors, come as a guest of the St. Moritz Polo Club, or simply join the club.

Hospitality: There are five 5-star hotels in St. Moritz, and a newly renovated one, the Grand Hotel Kronenhof, has just reopened in nearby Pontresina. www.kronenhof.com. Each hotel has its loyalists, but our favorite is Suvretta House, located on a hilltop over St. Moritz-an old-style grand hotel that is run almost like a club for its many returning guests. www.suvrettahouse.com.

Dining: The best restaurant in the region is Jöhri’s Talvo, in nearby Champfèr, where Roland Jöhri continues a long tradition of cooking up magic while his wife, Brigitte, watches over the dining room. Our favorite table: atop the inward-facing Juliet balcony. www.talvo.ch. A new star in town is the Post Haus, with an interior designed by Norman Foster. www.post-haus.ch.

Travel: Having a private jet always works. If you don’t keep one in the garage, fly a Swiss International all-business-class 737 out of Newark to Zurich, then rent a car or just relax for a ride through the mountains on the Rhaetian Railway, one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. www.myswitzerland.raileurope.com

In town: Shop or take in one of the spas (each of the grand hotels has one); the spa at the Kulm is handy to the lake and gave my wife the kind of full body massage that makes a lady think she’s played a rewarding chukka or two of polo herself. www.kulmhotelstmoritz.ch.

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