By Sharon Robb
KITZBUHEL, Austria, January 21, 2019---Ciroc Vodka won its debut in the 17th Bendura Bank Snow Polo World Cup.
With the breathtaking Tyrolean Alps as a backdrop, the team of Sebastian Schneberger, 2, Aki Van Andel, 3, and Valentin Novillo Astrada, 7, dominated the six-team tournament in ideal weather and playing conditions.
In front of a packed house, Ciroc Vodka defeated Engel & Volkers (Kutlay Yaprak, 1, Agustin Kronhaus, 4, Adrian Laplacette, 7) in the championship final on Sunday, 9-5.
In the other two games, Corum (Eckhardt Juls, 0/Enno Grans, 0, Patrick Maleitzke, 4, Juan Ruiz-Guinazu, 6) defeated Bernd Gruber (Eduardo Greghi, 0, Grant Ganzi, 3, Pierre Henri Ngoumou, 7), 7-6, to win the Kitzbuhel Country Club Cup subsidiary final. Defending champion Bendura Bank (Melissa Ganzi, 1, Alejandro Novillo Astrada, 8,/Isidro Strada, 7, Tito Gaudenzi, 3) trounced Maserati (Marc Aberle, 1, Thomas Winter, 5, Caspar Crasemann, 4), 13-6.5.
In early qualifying games, Ciroc Vodka defeated Bernd Gruber, 8-4.5, and Maserati 13-6.5, to set up its finals showdown against Engel & Volkers, 8-4.5 winners over Maserati and 9-6 winners over Bendura Bank.
Team captain Sebastian Schneberger returned to the tournament he has competed in since its inception in 2003. Valentin Novillo Astrada also returned to join Schneberger. New to the lineup was Dutch polo player Aki Van Andel, who spent the summer season dominating the Spanish circuit. The 3-goaler was named Most Valuable Player in his debut.
It was Schneberger's third title equalling the record of Brit Jonny Good. Engel & Volkers, one-time title winners, was making its fourth finals appearance.
"This was a great event and I'm so happy we walked away with the title," Schneberger said. "It was a tough match, but we rallied together and did what we came here to do."
Ciroc Vodka led 4-2 at halftime and 6-3 after three chukkers.
Grant Ganzi, a member of the winning 2017 U.S. Polo Assn. team in the St. Regis World Snow Cup in Aspen and Team USPA, made his Europe snow polo circuit debut competing for Bernd Gruber. In addition to Ganzi, Grand Champions Polo Club was well-represented with Novillo Astrada, Gaudenzi and Melissa Ganzi.
Bendura Bank finished fifth in this year's tournament. Bendura Bank lost to Corum, 11.5-9, in the opener and Engel & Volkers, 9-6, in its second game.
Alejandro Novillo Astrada, at 8 goals, the highest ranked player in the tournament, was forced to leave the Engel & Volkers game in the third chukker when he clashed heads with his horse. He was replaced by 7-goaler Isidro Strada. Bendura Bank earned fifth place with an impressive 13-6.5 victory over Maserati. Bendura Bank led 10-3.5 going into the final chukker.
Melissa and Grant Ganzi made history as the first mother and son to compete in a major European snow polo tournament. Ganzi, the only woman in the tournament field, was perfect at the penalty line converting her team's penalty shots on Saturday and Sunday.
Ganzi was the first woman to compete in the St. Moritz Snow Polo Tournament in 2016 and first woman to make the final in 2017. She is also the first woman to win the St. Regis World Snow Polo Tournament in Aspen for Flexjet in 2016 and 2018 Bendura Bank Snow Polo World Cup. Ganzi and her son will also compete in St. Moritz. It will be the fourth consecutive year Melissa Ganzi will compete in St. Moritz. She will be joined by teammates Gaudenzi and Novillo Astrada.
Gaudenzi, the event organizer and co-founder, was pleased with the tournament's success.
“What an exciting weekend this has been," Gaudenzi said. "Our team may have not made it to the final, but this year’s tournament has been the best yet, with record crowds and fantastic players.
"I can’t wait for next year’s edition and we hope to welcome everyone back for the 18th Bendura Bank Snow Polo World Cup. But for now, off to St. Moritz!”
Jan-Erik Franck, the voice of polo who also announces the fall and winter seasons at Grand Champions and Santa Rita Polo Farm and St. Regis World Snow Polo Tournament in Aspen, was his entertaining self announcing the Kitzbuhel event. He will also announce this week's St. Moritz World Snow Polo Cup.
The Kitzbuhel event was started in 2003 by Tito Gaudenzi and his father Reto with four teams and 1,000 fans. It has grown into one of the country's major sporting events and attracts more than 15,000 fans over three days.
During the winter polo season, Grand Champions, the nation's largest and innovative USPA-sanctioned polo club nestled in the heart of the world's winter equestrian capital, is hosting 22 tournaments: 6, 8, 12, 20, and 0 to 40 goals, WCT Finals and women's weekly league play and 26-goal World Polo League tournaments at both Grand Champions and Valiente Polo Farm.
Grand Champions tournaments attract a large international field of players from all corners of the world including India, Mexico, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Argentina, Canada, Ecuador, Brazil, Switzerland, France, Germany, Uruguay, Azerbaijan, South Africa, Nigeria, Venezuela and England.
Season highlights for 2019 are the Jan. 26-Feb. 9 Sterling Cup, March 1-31 $50,000 National 12-Goal Tournament, March 1-16 John T. Oxley Memorial and March 3-24 $100,000 World Cup Tournament, a unique 0-40-goal, winner-take-all single-elimination tournament.
The biggest highlight of the season is the debut of the World Polo League, the nation's only 26-goal league featuring some of the world's top players and nine team sponsors at Grand Champions and Valiente. The WPL will fill the void created when the U.S. Polo Association, the sport's governing body, announced it was lowering high goal polo to 18-22 goals at International Polo Club and would not have 26-goal polo and instead feature the Gauntlet Polo Series with the C.V. Whitney Cup, USPA Gold Cup and U.S. Open.
Grand Champions and Santa Rita Polo Farm is the largest and most unique polo facility in Wellington with 120 stalls in five self-contained barns, exercise track, five climate-controlled tack rooms, vet room, staff quarters, guest house and three polo fields with state-of-the-art underground irrigation including one field for stick-and-ball with plans to build more polo fields in the future.
Grand Champions Polo Club and Santa Rita Polo Farm caters to men, women and youth polo players at all levels and ages. Its' expert staff can customize a complete playing experience including horses, pros and certified umpires in addition to lessons and practice sessions as part of its' Polo On Demand program, created by Grand Champions President Melissa Ganzi when the club first opened.
The Polo School, a stand-alone USPA-sanctioned polo club, is thriving. It is dedicated to teaching polo to all ages, particularly grass roots youth. Its mission is to provide individuals opportunities in polo at every economic and ability level. Scholarships are available. The Polo School operates in Wellington January through June and September through November. Headed by Director of Operations Juan Bollini, The Polo School has nurtured several men and women polo players now playing in the pro and amateur ranks since its inception.