Sport of kings: How the Ganzis have led the polo boom in the Roaring Fork Valley
Aspen, a community known for its wealth and grandeur, seems a natural home for the sport of kings. Polo, a game played on horseback, has deep roots in the Roaring Fork Valley, and today those roots anchor the Aspen Valley Polo Club.
Led by the husband and wife duo of Marc and Melissa Ganzi, the club was founded in 2014 and not only has become the epicenter for polo in the valley, but arguably the entire U.S. during the summer.
Funny thing is, Marc Ganzi remembers a time, not that long ago, when he saw the sport through much different eyes. He was an Aspen-raised ski racer, after all, and playing polo was a ridiculous notion, despite coming from a horse-obsessed ranching family.
“My dad started playing around 30 years ago,” Marc Ganzi said. “He started playing polo when I was 18 and he started in California. I would come visit him in California while I was on break during college and watch him play polo and I’d sit by the field and study. And I really had no interest in playing.
“Everyone always has this preconceived notion that polo is like ‘Pretty Woman,’ with Champagne and divot stomping, and I was like, ‘That’s not the sport I play.’ I was still ski racing at the time and kids from Aspen don’t exactly play polo. They tend to play hockey or they ski race. I was ski racing in college at that time so I didn’t have time for polo.”
Of course, this all changed when he married Melissa. She also came from a horse-loving family, and it didn’t take long before Marc’s father baited her into the polo world. Now two against one, Marc Ganzi’s new destiny was all but assured. Little did he know that he would one day become the king of the sport of kings, at least here in this little ski town in the Rockies.
“The two of them ganged up on me when I turned 30 and they said, ‘You’ve got to try it,’ so I tried it. And of course I liked it,” he recalled. “One of the biggest surprises of polo is once you are actually in the game and you are playing, you find how down-to-earth everyone is and how much people just love their horses and love the passion of the game. For people who are new to it, they are expecting something different. They are expecting a Ralph Lauren commercial. They are expecting the ‘Pretty Woman’ scene.”
It was a Sunday in mid-August on the polo fields at McClure River Ranch near Carbondale. The Aspen Valley Polo Club and some of its supporters came together to buy that historic 100-acre parcel of land near Catherine Store on Highway 82 for $7.2 million in 2017.
The pomp and circumstance was there. It was the annual Chukkers, Champagne and Caviar fundraiser for the Aspen Valley Hospital Foundation, one of the club’s biggest events of the summer. While most came to wine and dine, so to speak, some of the greatest athletes on the planet — and their riders — helped break in one of the newest polo fields in the valley, and according to Marc Ganzi one of the finest you’ll find anywhere.
“I can say with a high degree of confidence they are probably the two best polo fields in the United States. Certainly the most expensive ones,” he said. “The community itself has always loved horses. So it’s not really hard to get people to want to come out and watch great horses. One of the things the club has is some beautiful equestrian athletes. The horses are really the movie stars. They are incredible.”
Astride those horses that Sunday were some of the most recognizable names in polo, such as Argentina’s Nacho Figueras and American Nic Roldan, both Aspen frequenters. Superstars in their sport, Figueras and Roldan both played a role in making the Aspen Valley Polo Club what it is today, not to mention the role they played in raising more than $600,000 that day for the AVHF.
“The Ganzis are a big part of the growth of polo in America,” Figueras said. “What they’ve done here, it’s incredible. They made two new fields that have been playing amazing all summer. They’ve been one of the most important things to happen to polo in the last 20 years, for sure.”
Among the players that day was Grant Ganzi, Marc and Melissa’s 21-year-old son who himself has become an accomplished polo player. Much like his father, Grant didn’t take to polo right away, but was helpless as it slowly overtook his being.
“I liked it, but I didn’t love it,” Grant said. “I played and played and played, and eventually the kids my age were getting better than I was and it kind of bothered me a little bit. So when I was around 12 or 13, I decided I wanted to improve. I started to put in the work and I started training every day in the summer and it paid off. I improved a lot and from there I just took off.”
BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME
Marc Ganzi laughed when asked about the Aspen polo scene from his childhood.
“There was no polo scene,” he said. “Polo has a history here. It’s been here for over 30 or 40 years. It’s just sort of come in spurts.”
Ganzi said much of the credit for bringing polo to the Aspen area goes to Tommy Wayman, an Oklahoma cowboy and former 10-goal player who is largely considered one of the greatest in the sport’s history. Wayman, along with many other polo stars of the ’80s, would bring their horses to the Roaring Fork Valley for training ahead of the U.S. Open, which was played at sea level.
The sport held on for another decade or two with some friendly “gentlemen’s polo” during the summer months, but was slowly fizzling out before the Ganzis arrived on scene with this grand idea of creating a local polo club, something akin to the Grand Champions Polo Club they founded a few years earlier in Wellington, Florida, where they live half the year.
“As polo was on the downslope here, we saw there was a window to sort of reignite it,” Marc Ganzi said. “We had a unique window to purchase that property on the corner and renovate it and sort of bring it back to its glory and that was really the main catalyst for starting to move polo back into the valley.”
In 2013, the Ganzis purchased the 15-acre midvalley equestrian facility formerly known as Preshana Farms for $1.85 million, the same piece of land that was host to many polo matches in the ’70s and ’80s. It started with that lone polo field, but as of 2019 there are six playing fields in the Roaring Fork Valley, the two newest being the high-performing fields at McClure River Ranch.
“What Aspen Valley Polo Club is doing for polo and for Aspen, it’s put us on the map,” Roldan said. “The fact we are able to share polo here in Aspen is incredible. Marc and Melissa and a lot of the club members and club owners are all really passionate about the sport. They’ve built these new fields and barns and brought a lot of attention and a lot sponsorship.”
The Aspen Valley Polo Club hosts a long and competitive summer polo season, which this year included the prestigious Silver Cup that was awarded following the final during the Chukkers, Champagne and Caviar fundraiser. Grant Ganzi said the location of Aspen is an easy draw for the world’s finest polo players, and having world-class fields and facilities to match is making this the place to be in the summer.
“Word has gotten out inside the pro community that now there are really good fields here and there is really competitive polo here,” Marc Ganzi said. “The highest polo now played in the United States is in Aspen in the summer. There is not a higher level of polo.”
POLO FOR ALL
The world’s elite may flock to Aspen, including those in the polo world, but never have the Ganzis wanted anything but open doors at the Aspen Valley Polo Club. Marc is fond of his time as a young skier with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club and marvels at its ability to never leave a child behind.
Through scholarships and other programs, every kid has the chance to ski with AVSC. In that same fashion, the Ganzis want everyone to have the chance to learn about and experience polo. In fact, the first polo lesson is always free at the club.
“One of the great things about the Aspen Valley Polo Club is the admission is free,” Marc said of their weekly matches, which includes free food and drink. “Anybody can come. It’s a little bit of myth-busting. It’s the same reason I didn’t want to play polo when I was 18. I thought it was something else, but it isn’t. It’s really a sport about families. Once you are in the sport and you start playing, it surprises you.”
The Ganzis have used polo for a lot of good. On top of the Aspen Valley Hospital Foundation, they have raised money for the Aspen Education Foundation, The Wounded Warrior Project and of course AVSC, among other charities and organizations.
It doesn’t stop in the summer, either, as the Aspen Valley Polo Club puts on the World Snow Polo Championship each December. A smaller, colder version of the real thing, the seventh annual event will return to Aspen’s Rio Grande Park in December with all the ticket sales going to charity.
Aspen has become home to the sport of kings, but the Ganzis don’t want polo to only be for royalty.
“If we continue to keep the architecture really open and we keep inviting people to come and experience it, I think the club will continue to flourish and it will continue to grow,” Marc Ganzi said. “It is a sport that has a lot of tradition and has a lot of history and I think we are sort of writing our own history here in the Aspen valley.”