By Sharon Robb
ASPEN, Colo., December 18, 2018--The atmosphere at the St. Regis Aspen Resort was fun and festive Monday night for the St. Regis Snow Polo World Championship draw party.
Six teams including defending champion U.S. Polo Assn. were introduced during the cocktail party for players, sponsors, family, friends and media.
The draw determined bracket pairings for Tuesday's round robin qualification games at Aspen Valley Polo Club's indoor arena in Carbondale. Players also received their team jerseys.
The six team sponsors: Richard Mille, St. Regis, Flexjet, U.S. Polo Assn., Aspen Valley Polo Club and Blade & Bow and players were introduced during a 45-minute presentation live streamed worldwide by ChukkerTV.
The draw party was kicked off by the St. Regis tradition of champagne sabering, a historic ritual that dates back to John Jacob Astor's 1904 founding of the St. Regis New York.
Marc Ganzi served as Master of Ceremonies. For the sixth consecutive year, Aspen Valley Polo Club owners Melissa and Marc Ganzi, named to The Salonniere 100 annual list of the nation's best party hosts in Aspen for 2017 and 2018, are hosting the star-studded event along with polo ambassador and St. Regis Connoisseur Nacho Figueras and his wife Delfina.
"Welcome to the 2018 St. Regis Snow Polo World Championship," Ganzi said. "There will be a lot of polo, enjoy it and please come down to the Aspen Valley Polo Club (Tuesday) because that is where some serious polo will be happening...may the games begin."
Aspen Valley Polo Club's Sarah Magness drew the No. 1 for bracket seeding followed by (2) Blade & Bow, (3) Flexjet, (4) Richard Mille, (5) St. Regis and (6) U.S. Polo Assn.
Polo action begins Tuesday with qualifying round robin games 11:40 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. to determine who advances into Thursday's championship.
Action moves to Rio Grande Park in Aspen on Wednesday for Media Day and game for fifth and sixth place at 1:15 p.m. followed by a Celebrity Polo Chukker featuring St. Regis (Saye Yabandeh, Erica Posalini, Nacho Figueras) and Richard Mille (Alexa Dell, Sterling Jones, Pablo MacDonough) at 2:30 p.m. The final and subsidiary games are Thursday at 1 and 3 p.m. followed by a VIP tent party. Each night a dinner for players and sponsors will be held. Activities conclude Saturday with the inaugural Snow Ball.
World reknown polo announcer Jan-Erik Franck, coming off announcing last week's Beach Polo Cup Dubai 2018 won by Team Torino Lamborghini, will call the action at the prestigious snow polo tournament.
"The energy is just incredible and I think that is going to be projected onto the field," Franck said.
The tournament is the final stop on the 2018 World Polo Tour and only snow polo event in North America.
The five-day tournament is a major attraction for the local community and attracts fans from all over the world. One of the social events of the season is a major allure for the Aspen community and surrounding areas.
One of Aspen's biggest international sporting events has attracted some of the world's top players.
Argentine 10-goalers Pablo MacDonough and Gonzalito Pieres and 8-goalers Alejandro Novillo Astrada and Nic Roldan head a star-studded field for three days of exciting polo action.
MacDonough is coming off Sunday's Argentine Open win with La Dolfina. He is making his Aspen snow polo debut with the Richard Mille Polo Team. Mille is the official timekeeper for the St. Regis World Snow Polo Championship. Mille created the RM 53-01 Tourbillon Pablo MacDonough for his Brand Ambassador. MacDonough was scheduled to arrive in Aspen late Monday night after winning the rain-delayed Argentine Open on Sunday.
"The odds of him making a plane 60 minutes after winning the Argentine Open were quite small so he got on a plane today," Ganzi said. "He will be arriving Tuesday morning. Richard Mille, wherever they are seeded, will be playing the last two games because Pablo is going to be flying 14 hours to get here."
Pieres, also coming off the Argentine Open with Ellerstina that lost in the semifinals to Las Monjitas, has played every major tournament in the world several times including the Argentine Open, British Open and U.S. Open. He was a member of the 2009 U.S. Open team with Marc Ganzi and his brothers.
Alejandro Novillo Astrada is a fourth generation player. He teamed with Melissa Ganzi and Juan Bollini to win back-to-back United States Arena Handicap tournament titles in 2018 and 2017 and was tournament MVP in 2017. He was MVP at the 2018 Bendura Bank Snow Polo World Cup Kitzbuhel which his team won.
Roldan is coming off the fall season in Argentina where he played for La Albertina Abu Dhabi. The third generation polo player is one of America’s top players and has competed in most of the sport's U.S. and international polo tournaments.
Last year's champion, U.S. Polo Assn., features a new player, Brit Henry Porter, who will replace Juancito Bollini, still recovering from surgery after getting hit in the face with a mallet during a game. Porter is making both his snow polo and Aspen debut. He will team with Grant Ganzi of Team USPA and Roldan, who he has played with at Grand Champions Polo Club, Aspen Valley's sister club in Wellington, Fla.
"I am very excited," Porter said. "It is my first time playing snow polo and first time playing polo in general in Aspen. I played arena polo in England and America and had a practice this morning. It should be okay. There is a bit of pressure on me because they won it last year without me. I want to try to come in here and win it again. We have a good team and play well together."
Added Grant Ganzi, "I feel good about the team. Obviously, we are missing Juancito and wishing him a speedy recovery back home. I played with Henry a lot, mostly in the arena. We have good chemistry. Hopefully, we will be in the final again."
Said Nic Roldan, "To be honest, this is one of the strongest years I have seen. You have Pablo, Gonzalito and Alejandro, a lot of good talent and top players. It's going to be interesting and will be tough. Hopefully, we can do it again this year."
Julio Gracida, who played snow polo in the 2014 Fortune Heights Snow Polo World Cup in Tianjin, China, is also making his Aspen snow polo debut.
"I'm excited to play with Nacho and Hilario," said Gracida, son of Hall of Famer and former 10-goaler Memo Gracida. "We have been friends for years and this is the first time we have played together. We are a three-man team and will depend on teamwork."
In addition to being the title sponsor, St. Regis will return as a team sponsor with team captain Nacho Figueras, the sport's ambassador and face of Ralph Lauren playing with his oldest son Hilario and Julio Gracida.
"It will be fun, it's great to play with Hilario and it's great to be back here in Aspen," Figueras said. "This event is growing more and more every day. I think people can see that. I'm excited. We are very lucky to have Richard Mille for the first time and St. Regis as anchor sponsor. It's going to be an amazing week and tough tournament. We have amazing players this year."
Team rosters and sponsors are:
Richard Mille: Marc Ganzi, Martin Pepa, Pablo MacDonough.
Flexjet: Melissa Ganzi, Juan Bollini, Alejandro Novillo Astrada.
St. Regis: Hilario Figueras, Julio Gracida, Nacho Figueras.
U.S. Polo Assn.: Grant Ganzi, Henry Porter, Nic Roldan.
Aspen Valley Polo Club: Sarah Magness, Jason Crowder, Jesse Bray.
Blade & Bow: Brian Boyd, Carlitos Gracida, Gonzalito Pieres.
The players echoed each other's sentiments about competing in this year's tournament, considered the most competitive in event history.
"I am so happy to be in Aspen playing snow polo this year," said Brian Boyd, Aspen Valley Polo Club President. "It's going to be a lot of fun. We have a great team. Carlitos is just a machine. Gonza is ready and coming in hot off the Argentine Open. We are proud to wear Blade & Bow's jersey, they are a great sponsor."
Added Gonzalito Pieres, who last played in the snow polo tournament four years ago: "Hopefully, we can do the best that we can. We have a good team. I think we have a chance to get to the final. There are many good players here."
For the first time in event history the week-long activities will feature the inaugural Snow Ball to benefit the Aspen Valley Hospital Foundation at St. Regis Hotel.
Flexjet, the 2016 champion, returns with Melissa Ganzi, Juan Bollini and Alejandro Novillo Astrada, two-time United States Arena Handicap Tournament champions.
Ganzi is the first woman to win the St. Regis World Snow Polo Championship in 2016 with Flexjet and teammates Jason Crowder and Jesse Bray. In January 2016, Ganzi made history as the first woman to compete in the St. Moritz Snow Polo World Cup Tournament in Switzerland since its inception in 1985. In January, 2018, Ganzi with Bendura Bank teammates Alejandro Novillo Astrada and Tito Gaudenzi, won the 16th Bendura Bank Snow Polo World Cup Kitzbuhel.
In addition to U.S. Polo Assn. (2017) and Flexjet (2016), past St. Regis World Snow Polo Championship winners include: 2013, St. Regis (Nacho Figueras, Nic Roldan, Brandon Phillips); 2014, Piaget (Marc Ganzi, Jeff Hall, Nic Roldan); and 2015, U.S. Polo Assn. (Grant Ganzi, Nic Roldan, Juancito Bollini).
For the first time in event history, the Snow Ball will be held Saturday as a benefit for the Aspen Valley Hospital Foundation, now in its sixth year as a non-profit solely focused on encouraging philanthropic support for the current and future needs of Aspen Valley Hospital. The Snow Polo Ball is expected to be the social event of the holiday season.
Rio Grande Park is Aspen's largest multi-functional park within the city's limits and just minutes away from the St. Regis Aspen Resort.
The sport was first played on a frozen lake in St. Moritz, Switzerland, created by Swiss hotelier and polo visionary Reto Gaudenzi in 1985 and has been growing in popularity ever since, attracting thousands of spectators and top players from around the world. In addition to St. Moritz, it's played in winter sports communities Aspen, Cortina, Italy, Kitzbuhel, Austria, Courchevel, France and Tianjin, China.
In the U.S., snow polo is held exclusively in Aspen. Snow polo is a modified version of regulation polo. Games are played on a snow-packed field surrounded by fencing to keep the ball in play. Teams have three players instead of four as in typical polo. Play consists of four chukkers. The horses have special cleated shoes to provide better traction. The ball is larger and lighter and a specific color for visibility on the snowy surface.
With the breathtaking 12,965-foot summit of Mount Sopris as a backdrop, Aspen Valley Polo Club is one of the busiest and fastest growing USPA-sanctioned clubs in the nation with a membership increase of 75 percent over five seasons.
Since Marc and Melissa Ganzi founded the club in 2014, polo has increased in popularity in Aspen and surrounding cities with the club’s offerings of various weekly grass and arena tournaments, Gladiator Tuesdays and Asado, Kids Polo, The Polo School and Polo On Demand.
All ages are welcome to enjoy polo at Aspen Valley Polo Club. Admission, food and refreshments are free for fans in a relaxed, laidback atmosphere.