Almost invariably the reaction is the same: “Oh, that’s a sport for the rich.” The dismissive, almost disdainful, response is predictable and technically correct but rather ignorant. To so readily scoff at a sport because of finances seems rather churlish though. No attempt to learn or understand the intricacies, just a figurative raising of one’s palm and a “no thanks, not interested.”
The age old tug of war between what is deemed a sport for the rich, or a sport for posh people, as opposed to a sport of the everyday man and woman on the street is somewhat blurred in the twenty-first century though. Venture down to one’s local Premier League Football team and one can expect little change from fifty pounds for a ticket. Attend a near equivalent Polo contest (semi-finals and the final of the major tournaments notwithstanding) and one is only required to part with a few pounds regardless of whether there are one or more passengers in one’s vehicle. Arguably this is the dichotomy of professional Polo: the significant expense to play the sport in comparison to the peanuts charged for the opportunity of spectating. Deign to attend on a weekday and one may not even be required to pay at all with the added bonus of more than one match being played on that particular day.
Money is understandably to the fore at the polo but talking about such matters seems almost treason amid something of an omerta regarding the financial side of the sport. One won’t discover equivalent discussions of astronomical salaries that are part and parcel of the football world.
From a playing perspective almost all of the best players are from Argentina. At the time of writing eight of the top ten players in the professional rankings hail from the South American country; the two exceptions being David ‘Pelon’ Stirling from across the River Plate in Uruguay and Rodrigo Andrade from nearby Brazil. Hence, polo patrons (the individuals bankrolling the ream) pursue the best Argentine players in order to build the strongest four player team possible. Crucially, each player is awarded a handicap according to his or her ability and no team’s total handicap can exceed twenty-two goals. Predictably, the very best players possess a handicap of ten goals, the highest award possible. Most patrons play at the opposite end of the spectrum but the patrons are not merely sources of cash that reside on the sidelines. Most participate as one of the four players although the majority will only reach a handicap of one or two goals at the very best.
All of which provides a heady concoction of intrigue and fascination if one is willing to look past the inevitable assumptions, prejudices and preconceptions. English polo’s two most prestigious events take place during a hectic two month period from mid-May to mid-July. Opening proceedings is the Queen’s Cup played at Guard’s Polo Club in Windsor Great Park before the teams then largely decamp to West Sussex for the Gold Cup; the main event of the summer played at Cowdray Park polo club, based near the town of Midhurst.
Geographically, the high goal season begins in what could be described as an English polo diamond, an expanse of terra firma in Berkshire and Surrey bounded by the M3, M4 and M25 motorways along with the A322 link road. Inside these macadam borders are the high-goal homes of Guards Polo Club, Coworth Park Polo Club and the Royal Berkshire Polo Club along with a number of other farms with associated polo fields that will host matches during the first half of the English high-goal season. Jewel in the crown of the tournaments played in this part of the Home Counties is the aforementioned Queen’s Cup, a tournament largely played at Guards Polo Club with a handful of contests taking place at surrounding venues.
Curiously only one match is scheduled for the second Bank Holiday Monday in May: a contest between El Remanso and Clinova to be played at Guards itself. The former are an intriguing team in that they are almost unique in the modern day English high goal polo season. Sponsored by the eponymous estancia located approximately 120 kilometres to the south-west of Buenos Aires, the team does not employ the almost traditional amalgam of a couple of high handicapped strike men, a low handicapped equivalent and a patron of limited ability utilised by most teams but, rather, employs four players of medium handicap in order to spread the playing abilities equitably. Thus, the current combination includes a trio six goal players (Englishmen James Harper, James Beim and Ollie Cudmore) alongside El Remanso old hand Charlie Hanbury, playing off of four goals. The El Remanso name is very much part of the fabric of the English summer, sponsoring teams for almost a decade. In contrast, the presence of Adrian Kirby (0 goals) in the Clinova line-up permits the aforementioned patron to employ a couple of Argentine sharp shooters in the form of Juan Gris Zavaleta, playing off of seven goals, and Nicolas Pieres, brother of the legendary Facundo and Gonzalito, and playing off of nine goals alongside Englishman Malcolm Borwick, playing off of six goals.
Somewhat fittingly, considering the contest is the only Queen’s Cup match taking place on the day, the match between El Remanso and Clinova is to be played on the Queen’s Ground, the premier pitch at the Smith’s Lawn complex. Situated in the heart of Windsor Great Park, Smith’s Lawn is a remarkable and stunning facility. The grandeur of Guards’ location becomes evident as soon as one enters the park via the Blacknest Gate; the route from nearby Virginia Water to the club ascending akin to a low Alpine route before disgorging any visitors onto a vast, open plateau at the south-western corner of the club grounds. The immediate view is striking as pitches stretch into the distance, verdant and shimmering in the afternoon haze. Forming an L shape amongst the surrounding trees there are ten pitches in total with the Queen’s and Duke’s grounds, those nearest to the clubhouse, reserved for high goal matches.
And yet, despite its magnificence there is an air of vulnerability regarding the complex. Possessing such a prime location in Windsor Great Park comes at a price: that of residing cheek by jowl with paths and roads frequented by the public at large on a daily basis. Little more than waste high black fencing separates the high goal pitches from the roads that venture alongside the grounds, various unlocked gates and the odd gap in the fencing providing opportunity for anyone to wander onto the pitches should they wish. Indeed, this author and his wife strolled across the sward of the Queen’s and Duke’s grounds some eight or nine weeks previous en route from Virginia Water back to our car. To some extent the welfare of the pitches seem dependent on the general public behaving themselves as they wander through. Nevertheless, one would struggle to find a finer setting to enjoy an afternoon’s contest; such is the beauty and magnificence of the locale.
The two teams may well employ slightly different tactics regarding playing personnel but neither bore dividends during the first round of matches in the competition. El Remanso began their campaign on the opening day of the tournament but lost by the odd goal to La Indiana, the runners-up twelve months previous, whilst Clinova were no match for the power of Pelon Stirling and Juan-Martin Nero, losing 9-4 to La Bamba de Areco, another stalwart of the English high goal polo scene.
Perhaps the opening round defeats has an effect on the formative moments of today’s contest as the first chukka features a period of scrappy play pockmarked with early mistakes. El Remanso edge ahead but confusion soon reigns as the players head for their respective corners to change ponies with thirty-odd seconds remaining in the chukka. Even the Guards commentator is nonplussed as to the scenario unfolding on the Smith’s Lawn sward.
Post a short tete-a-tete at the far end of the ground play resumes with the second chukka. The hiatus seems to have suited El Remanso the better as the navy shirted team take control, Charlie Hanbury to the fore. Nico Pieres interrupts the team’s latest sortie with a dramatic block on the goal line but El Remanso’s James duo, Beim and Harper, both score to open a 5-1 lead. The advantage extends to six goals prior to a brilliant strike from the right flank by Pieres into the goal at the statue end of the ground. The match commentator, in his charming Irish lilt, opines that Pieres was almost in Windsor when he took the shot, whilst a stunning seventy yard back-hand effort from Malcolm Borwick soon after further helps to stem the tide. Both teams score once more prior to the end of the third chukka but perhaps of equal concern are the ominous storm clouds gathering over Windsor Great Park. Polo and rain do not mix.
Meteorological issues aside, half-time ushers in one of polo’s great traditions: the tread-in. On the surface the tradition appears little more than something of a social occasion and a chance to wander on the field of play. No sooner has one begun a meander across the sward than one discovers that the tread-in also serves as a reparatory exercise. Understandably, eight polo ponies at full flight create significant divots in the turf but the depth and size of some of the divots still comes as something of a surprise. From afar the playing surface appears akin to the best bit of Wilton or Axminster; up close the polar opposite very much becomes evident.
Thankfully the threatening clouds soon begin to disperse and there is no interruption to play. Neither team can gain headway during the fourth chukka but Clinova rally during the fifth as Pieres and Juan Gris Zavaleta assert their influence, halving the six goal deficit to just three as the match enters its final seven minutes. The prospect of a dramatic comeback by Adrian Kirby’s yellow-shirted charges appears a distinct possibility but any thoughts of such a scenario are soon dispelled courtesy of an early penalty and a brilliant angled strike from the left flank by Charlie Hanbury as El Remanso keep Clinova at arms’ length.
Indeed, Hanbury’s sixth goal of the afternoon proves to be the final strike of the contest as the last chukka peters out, El Remanso emerging as comfortable victors. Despite the convincing scoreline the match has proved an intriguing contest, particularly during the fifth chukka when Clinova threatened to reel in their opponents. Within a few minutes of the game’s denouement there is a flotilla of vehicles heading back down the incline toward Virginia Water. The ease of access to and from the club arguably provides a metaphor for the afternoon. Misconception dictates that polo is not a sport readily accessible for many. Reality dictates differently. Playing the sport may require significant financial input but spectating and enjoying the sport at large is comparable and, in many cases, requires less financial output than the equivalent levels in other sports. Today’s entrance required parting with twenty pounds. Not twenty pounds per person but twenty pounds per car. And not twenty pounds per match but twenty pounds for the day. The afternoon may have featured only one contest at high goal level but others will feature more. From a spectating perspective any barriers between the sport and one’s attendance are not of a financial nature. Rather, said barriers are often those created and embellished in the mind.