December 7, 2013
England’s polo scene
Could they ever challenge Argentina?
LONDON — Lyndon Lea, a rich financier, will have spent at least US$6.5 million this year as patron of the high handicap Zacara polo team, which won major honours during the English season. The team included Argentine Facundo Pieres, one of seven 10-handicap players which took part in the season. There was no prize money. Just a small silver trophy and a chance to shake hands with the Queen, which was enough for Lea.
It is different for the players of course, and Pieres, as well as Adolfo Cambiaso, the world’s top player, will have earned US$2.4 million during the season — paid by patrons — playing for Dubai, the richest team. If there were no patrons, there would be no polo professionals. For rich team patrons it is a chance to enter society and rub shoulders with royalty. They are most welcome, as long as they provide the cash. You can easily spot them. They are the ones playing with a zero or one handicap, but they are not good enough to take part in high handicap matches.
As in Argentina, the British polo season is ruled by established polo families, but that is where the similarity ends. Andrew Hine, an England international says: “The Argentines have an advantage over us right from the beginning. They are born on a horse. It is their mode of transport in the country. Also, their climate allows them to play all-year round.”
That seems to mean that England will never be able to reach the same standard. In a recent medium handicap international tournament at the Palermo polo ground, in Buenos Aires, England did beat Argentina, but it was with England’s virtually strongest team, while Argentina had to field lower handicap players to equal the team handicap of its rivals. Yet England could well be second best in the world and their season is one of the strongest — thanks mostly to patrons without whose wealth the whole glamorous spectacle would crunch to a halt.
This danger is ever present in the current economic climate. Four polo clubs have closed since 2009 and another has been put on the market by receivers. But polo is booming in schools and universities. Twenty-eight schools have teams, with Eton the best at the moment, but supremacy changes hands quickly from one year to the next as leading players leave school.
The game became popular after World War II, mainly through the efforts of the Duke of Edinburgh and Lord Cowdray (John Pearson) who despite having lost an arm in Dunkirk, played with an artificial limb with a hook to hold the reins. Soon his team was playing in front of 10,000 spectators at Cowdrey Park Polo Club on his vast estate. Jilly Cooper, the author of books on polo, feels it was royalty which made the game popular in England... also, she adds, those sexy Argentine players.
The number of players registered with the Hurlingham Polo Association (HPA), which rules the game in Britain, has doubled in less than 20 years. In 1995, there were 1,473. Last year, there were 2,887. But as the high handicap game has become faster and more professional, a gap has opened between the old school and the new and it is no longer a game just for the upper-classes, but for the rich. Some pros own 40 or 50 horses costing from US$6,500 to US$200,000s. Club membership can cost US$5,300 a year and lessons between US$100 and US$130 an hour. Add to this grooms, horse transport, insurance, tournament fees, etc., and it can be a few thousand more.
There was much rejoicing when James Packer, the son of former famous patron Kerry Packer, announced his entry into British polo with plans for a new multi-million-dollar polo facility in Sussex. But his team, Ellerston, competed only for one season before he — like so many sun-loving Australians — became fed up with England’s weather and moved his operation to Spain. But this year, in his place, came Dubai’s Sheikha Maithha bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (handicap zero) with the UEA team, making her the only female patron or player in high handicap competition.
Argentine players are endlessly chased by women and they have, in the past, broken up several marriages, but these days, as pros, they are quite busy and do not have much time for the social scene. It was different in the old days of Argentine Luis Basualdo, who married Viscount Cowdray’s daughter, Lucy (after making her pregnant), danced with princess Diana and played with the Prince of Wales. They still remember him as a bounder, because of his behaviour and some scandals.
The Vestys are another polo dynasty with daughter Nina Clarkin (handicap four) being the best female player in England after being put on a horse at the age of two. Her father, Mark, was a good player until he broke his back in a hunting accident in 1984, but continues to be a great supporter of the game, backed by a meat-packing empire which also used to own the former Anglo Frigorífico in Buenos Aires (where he played occasionally).
Then there are the Tomlinsons. Mother Claire was the best female player (handicap five) in her day while sons Luke and Mark (with handicap seven and six respectively) both play for England and also in Argentina during the high handicap season, including at the Argentine Open. Luke and James Beim are the highest handicap players in England.
It is interesting to note that Arena Polo, with three players a-side, is also played in England. The players agree that this is a very poor relation of the game on grass, but lots of people watch it and it is good propaganda for spreading the game. Yet it is also interesting to point out that 27,000 tickets were sold for one match on grass, while a yearly Gaucho One Day International was played at the O2 stadium in London in front of 20,000 spectators — both gates exceed the number of spectators watching the Argentine Open final live. The games were not on TV however.