The horse is shifting nervously from side to side on the frozen lake — almost as if he knows how preposterous the situation is. Hot breath curling out of his nostrils, a taped-up tail making an attempt to swish through the Alpine air and his ears twitching at the cold blue sky, he is one of eight polo ponies about to go hoof-to-hoof in the greatest show on ice.
This is the Snow Polo World Cup, and the final game of the day is about to get underway. A golden sun is dipping slowly down over the mountain crown of St Moritz, the spectators are vying for the best vantage points and one of the two umpires is lifting the whistle to his (doubtlessly chapped) lips.
And the ponies, the thoroughbred stars of this wintry spectacle, are taking their final places on the frozen surface of the resort town’s lake.
Four have red bandages tied tightly around their legs and padded saddle blankets quilted in the same colour — each lavishly embroidered with ‘Cartier’ in snow white script.
Across the field — kitted out in black — the dark knights of the Maserati team are sitting atop their steeds, sticks up high like lances. Their horses have long game faces on, and have been fitted with specially adapted studded Alpine shoes.
This is a tournament driven by money. The two teams on the ice may be playing under brand banners, but the Azerbaijan national team are also winding down in the paddocks. They crashed out this morning to a side from local hotel Badrutt’s Palace, whose triumphant team have unbuckled their helmets and are now mingling with the glacially wealthy crowd.
And what a crowd it is. In the shadow of hotels including Badrutt’s Palace, the Kulm and the Carlton — themselves perched like spectators on the side of the snowy Engadin Valley — onlookers, some of whom have paid £500 for a VIP ticket, are eagerly waiting for the match to start.
Some are clutching cigars and glasses of Perrier-Jouët champagne, others are swathed in fur, but all are genuinely excited for the sport to come.
As the match begins, flurries of snow are kicked high into the air by the galloping horses. The game is fiercely fought, and players crash into one another on horseback without fear or second thought that they’re thundering across a playing surface that’s a mere 12 inches thick.
The bamboo sticks swing like pendulums, smacking the red plastic ball which skitters and soars from one end of the field to the other. The two mounted umpires control each seven-minute chukka from the backs of their own horses. Like weathered gauchos in striped referee jerseys, they pivot and gallop with the best of the players, tooting their whistles at the first signs of trouble.
Cup is surely one of the frostiest, most outlandish sporting events in the world — and had its icy beginnings when the old tourism director of St Moritz decided a new annual event should take place to celebrate the centenary of the nearby Cresta Club.
The goals mount with the tension and the crowd jostles for the best views. Padded silver jumpsuits, Moncler jackets and towering hats vie for views of clashes, crashes and falls onto the ice.
For the record, Badrutt’s Palace Hotel emerge winners, beating Maserati 7-3, but the real champions are the horses, who’ve spent the game charging like wild animals through driven snow.
This feature first appeared in our March issue, click here to subscribe and get your copy sent to your door today…