About 500 people gathered Friday to watch some of the world’s best polo players compete under a snow-flurried sky in Wagner Park.
A few of the spectators were carrying ski gear as they stopped for a curious look at the Piaget World Snow Polo Championship. Others, like Bash Kazi, a polo enthusiast who was inside the VIP tent, stayed for the entire three-game match.
“This brings out the most amazing crowd, and it’s so good for the sport of polo as well as Aspen,” said Kazi, chief executive of the defense-technology firm KIG. “I think they need to continue supporting snow polo being played here. ... If there is a way for the city of Aspen to continue to support this, there are going to be a lot of affiliated benefits.”
Not everyone in the community has been on board with the event, but after meeting city requirements and compacting an 8-inch snow base with the help of Aspen Skiing Co., the stage was set for snow polo in Aspen.
Don Sheeley, president of Aspen’s Sister Cities program, said one benefit from the event is the $15,000 that organizers donated to the program’s scholarship fund. Watching from the VIP tent, he said the event in Wagner Park is “night and day” compared with when it was held at the Marolt Open Space or Rio Grande Park.
“I think it’s great that the city is letting them do it,” Sheeley said. “There’s only two or three other places in the world that they do this, so it’s fabulous.”
Snow polo was first played in the resort town of St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 1985, and Aspen is the only American city to host an event for the sport.
Fritz Cauner, of Austria, spends his winters in Aspen. He was standing on the east end of the park, which was free and open to the public, for his first-ever snow-polo event.
“They built the whole thing up in 10 days, and they only run it for three hours,” he said. “This is a fascination for me.”
On the west end of the park was the VIP tent, which saw a sold-out crowd of 250. Beside the tent was horseshoer Tim Tordoff, a South African who was on hand in case any of the horses needed a shoe replacement during the match. Without snow-polo shoes, which have 2-inch metal spikes, the horses have no traction on the snow-covered field. Tordoff said he was hoping he wouldn’t have to replace any shoes, but all it takes is one awkward step from a horse. He welds the shoes out of the back of his truck with a forger that heats up to more than 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Spectators unfamiliar with the sport learned that polo players are only allowed to use their right hands to swing. Snow polo, an abbreviated version of regular polo, is played on a much smaller field, with the latter played on a surface the size of nine football fields. A woman from La Jolla, Calif., who referred to herself as Susanah, was watching the match from the east end. As a former player, she said it’s a completely different game on grass, where the horses and players sometimes play around spectators. In snow polo, there are barriers, like in arena football, that separate competitors from spectators.
Luke Stephenson, who works at the Little Nell Residences as a valet, said he’s been telling his residents about snow polo all week. He stuck around for the event as long as he could before heading to work.
“It’s just a great event for everybody in town to see,” he said, adding that guests he has spoken to have been receptive to the sport. “Every time they would pass, and (organizers) were setting up more and more of the field, you could tell the guests grew more and more excited.”
Larry Boland, president of Piaget North America, one of the title sponsors, said Aspen Mountain is the perfect backdrop for a snow-polo event.
“What other city in North America could compare to Aspen as far as snow polo is concerned?” he asked.