Winter Gladiators

By Andrew Dembina - LE PAN | Winter 2016-2017

Pitting equine athletes against each other, as well as the elements, the Fortune Heights Snow Polo World Cup presents a fascinating variation on the traditional field sport. Andrew Dembina finds there’s enough excitement at this premier tournament to warm the coldest of days.

Photography by Ming Tang-Evans

Spectators bellow encouragement or dismay at the men and horses on a field of white, their words hanging, as though frozen, in the icy air. Huddling around heaters on the grandstand terrace, they roar as riders swing towards the goal, their mounts charging across the packed snow. Indoors, others enjoy the sport in a warmer, more genteel manner, watching through glass as they tuck into high tea being served on white-clothed tables.

Endorsed by the Federation of International Polo, this is the FIP Fortune Heights Snow Polo World Cup – and as fans know, it can be counted on to deliver equal parts equestrian excitement and social occasion. Meeting at the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club, national teams combat not only the opposition but also temperatures, which with wind chill can plummet to minus 25 degrees Celsius. Yet in January 2016, play was far from stiff. A week of hard-fought, often nail-bitingly close matches came to a crescendo with a 5-4 victory for Hong Kong China over England in the final.

Argentina and England (above), and Chile and Hong Kong China (below and header image) face off in the semi-finals of the 2016 FIP Fortune Heights Snow Polo World Cup, held at the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club. Hong Kong China beat England in the final

Snow polo originated in St Moritz, Switzerland, in 1985, and for three days at the end of January, teams sponsored by luxury brands do battle on the town’s frozen lake, at an altitude of 1,800 metres. Since then, the sport has spread to a dozen countries across four continents. It landed in Asia in 2011, the year of the inaugural international snow polo competition in Tianjin, which became the FIP World Cup the following year. In view of the demanding, sub-zero conditions, the field is 170 yards by 80 yards, smaller than for polo played on grass, while an orange arena polo ball is used, which is larger and softer than a regular one. The Tianjin pitch is covered with a 30-centimetre layer of man-made, compacted snow – ice with two to three centimetres of soft snow on top – and the horses are kitted out with anti-slip pads and two studs at the heels in each of their horseshoes.

On the specific challenges of snow polo, Nicolas Scortichini – a former high-ranking player for Argentina, and an umpire at the 2016 Tianjin tournament – says, “Players have to think ahead. You can’t play at 100 percent of the speed that you would on grass, and balance is something players are thinking about more than usual.” According to Toby Copson, a British professional player and trainer based in China, and the 2016 tournament’s English-language commentator, “The most important thing in snow polo is player and pony safety, and everyone [in Tianjin] takes that very seriously.”

Horses warming up on the polo club’s training ground

The World Cup itself has some serious credentials. “This is the only snow polo event in the world that fields national teams selected and approved by their country’s official governing bodies,” notes Nicholas Colquhoun-Denvers, president of the FIP. “This makes it a unique tournament that the world’s top players vie to participate in.”

Colquhoun-Denvers has been involved with the competition since its inception. “It’s always been a great event, and the camaraderie generated by the participants from competing nations is a bonus. Goldin Metropolitan manages to be the perfect host, and the club’s setting is simply stunning.”

Complementing the club’s polo facilities are a five-star hotel and three fine-dining restaurants, serving Chinese, Japanese and French cuisine. The club’s expansive wine cellar is available to diners, and houses a collection of 10,000 of the world’s finest bottles. Guests can also look forward to a gala evening, showcasing the avant-garde French cuisine of Singaporean star chef Edward Voon.

Below: Ponies’ manes are shaved to avoid them tangling with the mallet. Four of the six teams competing in 2016, including finalists England (bottom right) and
Hong Kong China, had a combined handicap of 16, the highest allowed in the tournament. Also below right: Hong Kong China’s Henry Fisher

“Each year we have seen the event grow, and the facilities and infrastructure improve,” says Colquhoun-Denvers. “It’s wonderful to see this dream of Mr Pan [Pan Sutong, chairman of Goldin Group, and founder of the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club and the Fortune Heights Snow Polo World Cup] become reality.”

Ahead of the next Snow Polo World Cup, Colquhoun-Denvers is reluctant to be drawn on who he believes will win. “The Argentine, English, Brazilian and American teams will always be strong contenders,” he says. “However, history has shown that it is not always the major nations that reach the final. Every team that participates has the opportunity to succeed.” It can also be the luck of the draw, he adds, depending on which teams face each other in the early rounds. “That is what makes this particular tournament so hard fought and so exciting to watch.”

The Snow Polo World Cup, Tianjin, China; held every January/February (

This image: Teams Chile and Hong Kong China, moments before their 2016 semi-final. Above: Hong Kong China triumph in the 2016 tournament final, beating England by a single goal. It was the same margin of victory as when the teams met in the decider two years earlier, but on that occasion the Lions pipped the Dragons, 6-5.

This post is also available in: Chinese (Simplified)


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