It was -22°C the morning I arrived at St Moritz, in the Engadin valley of the Swiss Alps. It was unusually cold even for the posh winter resort destination, which is a nightmare for someone accustomed to the Singapore heat. I pulled my heavy wool coat closer around me, but it didn’t help much in temperatures capable of turning a watery lake solid enough for a tank to get across.
Or course there was no need for an armoured car for what I travelled 10,200 kilometres to see. The frozen lake is what brings high society to St Moritz every year for the Snow Polo World Cup tournaments. From the Carlton Hotel where I was staying, the pitch and village set up for the Snow Polo World Cup 2019 were in plain sight. In the distance though, they resembled an icing cake decorated with tents and pennants.
When it was warm enough to venture out, I joined the media group on the pitch for a tour of the grounds and a quick lesson on the game of snow polo. Royal Salute, one of the trophy sponsors for this year’s tournament, got its global polo ambassador, the legendary Malcolm Borwick, to sort us out. He gave excellent pointers to help us understand the sport properly. (More on this later.)
Forming two lines on the pitch for the polo workshop, we learnt the correct way to hold the polo stick as well as how to wield it. We then practised hitting balls across to one another. For a good 10 minutes, there were red balls flying in all directions on the pitch. It was utter chaos. But in due course we all got better at controlling our hits.
Borwick decided we were ready to play a horseless version of the game, so he could go on to explain the rules. But not before we warmed ourselves with drams of Royal Salute whisky. Just as well, it made us jolly enough not to care about making fools of ourselves.
Before the day’s tournaments began, the horses were led out to warm up their muscles to be ready to play. They were absolutely beautiful creatures. Borwick told us they had been brought in a couple of weeks prior so they could acclimatise and to get used to running in the special snow studs they had to be fitted with.
The Sport Of Kings
Polo was first played in St Moritz circa 1899, but only as a summer activity. It took nine decades before snow polo was established as a sport, in 1985, after carefully determining that the frozen lake was solid enough to support the rigours of the sport.
What began 35 years ago has since become a major international sport. Snow polo tournaments have cropped up across the world, from China to the USA. It became the epitome of a luxury sport. The original event, however, remains the most prestigious of them all. Hordes of spectators come annually to the Snow Polo World Cup in St Moritz, filling hotel rooms and lodges to capacity, so as to experience the thrill and exhilaration of the competition, as well as the glitz and glamour of the events that surround it.
Culture And Colour
Enjoying yet another glass of Royal Salute, I watched the Karabakh riders and Sarhadchi dancers accompanying team Azerbaijan perform the day’s opening show. The Land of Fire’s display was spectacular, demonstrating not just the agility of the country’s native horses but also its music, costumes and culture.
There was fashion and glamour to observe as well off the pitch, as spectators paraded around in luxurious coats, capping the winter chic look with designer eyewear. I felt a little dull in my functional ensemble, but I didn’t really care, what with the sumptuous food spread, champagne, caviar and more whisky cocktails made with Royal Salute to enjoy in the VIP tent.
The whisky of royalty
The animation didn’t end after the day’s matches had been played and the trophies awarded to the winning teams. That’s only half the fun. After the sun had set, which is early in winter, everyone went back to their hotel rooms for steaming hot baths and got properly spruced up for the evening.
Royal Salute, along with master blender Sandy Hyslop and polo ambassador Malcolm Borwick, hosted its corporate and media guests to elegant dinner events in the hottest spots in St Moritz. It even arranged for us to be transported through the resort town on traditional horse drawn carriages, replete with warm blankets and more glasses of whisky that is fit for the British Royalty.
The Royal Salute Snow Polo Edition
Royal Salute also took the opportunity to introduce the latest expression of its Polo Collection — the Royal Salute Snow Polo Edition. The design of the bottle was yet to be finalised at the time. And the details of its flavour profile have been kept embargoed till now, November 2019.
For whisky lovers, the new expression has a mellow nose of toffee, peaches and raspberries intermingled with vanilla. In terms of taste, it veers towards the sweet side, smoothly layered with nuances of honey and orange marmalade, with a hint of smokiness reminiscent of toasted hazelnuts. Which makes it the perfect whisky to drink around Christmastime or on any wintry evening. Released just a few days ago in limited edition via select retailers, the new expression is already sold out on some platforms. So good luck in getting your hands on a bottle.
More about the sport of kings…
Snow polo is played on pitches measuring 80m by 200m, scaled down from the standard 182m by 274m, because the high altitudes make it much more physically demanding for both men and beasts. Here are more fun facts we gleaned from our chat with Malcolm Borwick.
What’s A Chukka?
Chukka comes from the Sanskrit word ‘cakkar’ meaning round. It’s the duration of play in polo. In the Snow Polo World Cup, four chukkas of seven minutes each are played per match.
Players are required by rule to hold the polo stick with the right hand. As such, HM Prince William who is left-handed had to learn to play the game with his right hand.
The Right Of Way
If a player is aligned to the direction the ball is going, he is considered to have right of way. If two players are approaching the ball, the one at the smaller angle to the line of the ball has the right of way.
Rugby On Horseback?
In order to gain right of way from another player, a player has to ride off his opponent by pushing him/her out of the line of the ball. This physical part of polo has led observers to call it rugby on horseback.
Half A Goal?
This is possible because scores are decided by team handicaps. Players are ranked in handicap from -2 to 10. To ensure fairness, limits are set to team handicaps (the aggregate of its players’ handicaps), making it an interesting strategy call.
Polo ponies are the unspoken heroes of the game and are given the utmost unguent care so they can be fast and nimble. Players typically use several ponies per match to avoid straining or injuring them.