Twenty-nine days after this author’s trip to Guards Polo Club to enjoy some Bank Holiday action the high goal polo circus has decamped forty odd miles to the south and the bucolic expanses of Cowdray Park Polo Club in West Sussex. Instantly, contrasts between watching Polo at Guards and watching Polo at Cowdray Park is noticeable and marked. Differences between the two experiences begin with the actual journeys to the venues themselves. Venturing to Guards feels a very urban journey; the drive up the M3 motorway into London’s commuter belt and the resultant venture through chi chi villages such as Windlesham, Sunningdale and Virginia Water proffer a sense that one has entered the capital’s hinterlands. Descending airplanes heading towards Heathrow arguably enhance such an ambience.
Head toward Cowdray Park and the opposite is largely true. Once off of the busy A3 trunk road one is soon into the countryside, the far reaching beauty and magnificence of the South Downs only interspersed by the odd charming locale such as Rogate, Fyning and Trotton as the drive passes sweeping fields of crops swaying in the breeze. Even the town of Midhurst, in and around where the club is based, along with the cheek by jowl neighbour Easebourne, provokes a sense of rural joy and charm, sporting bunting and banners advertising the major matches taking place as well as many a front door painted in the club’s distinct mustard yellow hue. Perhaps it is Sussex’s general gaze out toward the sea (as opined by Matthew Engel in his brilliant book Engel’s England) that creates a carefree sense of pastoral joy, verve and elan.
Almost inevitably, Cowdray feels a little less formal than Guards. Midhurst may be a proud host of the club but the town does not readily proffer the location of the afternoon’s play though as the smattering of homes and dwellings that form the town’s northern hinterlands and those equivalents in Easebourne hide the club’s presence from those driving along the main road. Entrance is afforded via the road for the farm shop and cafe from which one is disgorged into a beautiful expanse that sweeps down and away from the road toward the ruins of the original Cowdray House in the distance. Known as the Lawns complex, this section of the club’s grounds are the main pitches and possess a more open, ambient atmosphere than the equivalent at Guards.
Arguably Cowdray’s piece de resistance is the complex of grounds three or four miles further east from Lawns. Tucked away between the hamlets of South Ambersham and Selham is the Ambersham complex, a breathtaking savannah stretching magnificently amongst surrounding fields and narrow country lanes in the Rother valley. The complex features six pitches in total; five at the same level as the lane that connects the two hamlets, the sixth on a slightly elevated plateau lined by trees. Across the lane are a further two pitches at Manor Farm whilst mallet makers Polo Splice are located on the road to Selham. This small, enclosed patch of west Sussex is very much Polo country but it is also the countryside of one’s imagination: rural, fecund, wide ranging featuring scattered, humble dwellings and winding ribbons of macadam. Lawns may be the club’s showpiece but Ambersham feels like the club’s heart, provoking a sense of carefree abandonment. On a good day one could simply tack from one pitch to the other enjoying the various matches.
Such a modus operandi is not required on this particular visit but, in truth, this afternoon is a veritable gift from the tournament organisers. Throughout the remainder of the competition double match days feature contests at midday and 3pm. The opening afternoon of the 2018 Gold Cup features matches at 2pm and 4pm though, allowing one to escape the office at midday and be pitchside within ninety minutes, requiring just half a day’s leave as opposed to a whole equivalent.
The afternoon also offers the chance to enjoy watching the two best players in the sport; Facundo Pieres in the first match, Adolfo Cambiaso in the second. In some respects, the two could be considered chalk and cheese, or tiza y queso. Pieres and his older brother Gonzalito are handsome, photogenic stars, ideal for the more glamorous side of the sport. In contrast, Cambiaso, seven and ten years senior of the Pieres duo, possesses a rugged appearance but also exudes an air of mystery, something of an enigma perhaps. At just 19 years of age the Canuelas native became the youngest player in the sport’s history to achieve a ten goal handicap, a level he has maintained for almost a quarter of a century. Almost inevitably, both Cambiaso and the Pieres brothers have enjoyed great success on the fields of Cowdray Park; the former victorious on seven occasions, mostly in the colours of the Dubai polo team. The latter have traditionally hunted as a pair, initially as the vanguard for Jean-Francois Decaux’s La Bamba de Areco estancia but in recent times in the indigo shirts of the King Power Foxes, lifting the prestigious title on each of the last three years. King Power’s move to tournament sponsor has dictated a parting of the Pieres brothers for the 2018 edition though, Facundo donning the white shirts of La Indiana, Gonzalito the grey of Murus Sanctus.
Nevertheless, the Pieres dynasty still forms thirty seven and a half percent of the playing personnel for the opening match of the tournament as La Indiana’s opponents, Alfi Investments, features Nicolas and Polito, the former the younger brother of Gonzalito and Facundo, the latter the trio’s cousin. Three quarters of the clan take to the field at Lawns number 1for the contest with the day’s second match scheduled to take place on the neighbouring number 2 ground.
All three of the Pieres’, along with those in attendance, are greeted with the most glorious summer’s afternoon; azure skies and high temperatures with a soothing breeze to take the edge off of the latest heatwave. Play during the opening chukka seems to reflect the balmy weather as both teams attack with gusto during an entertaining opening seven minutes. Three goals in as many minutes at the beginning of the second chukka forges a useful lead for La Indiana though, the powerhouse pairing of Facundo Pieres and American Nic Roldan to the fore for the recently crowned Queens Cup champions. Alfi Investments respond with a couple of Nico Pieres penalties but an equivalent from Facundo keeps the green and blue shirted pursuants at bay at the end of the third chukka.
Half-time provides the opportunity for a wander down to the far corner of the Lawns Number 1 pitch where a gravel road ventures through the trees. One is eventually disgorged over a brook and onto another pitch, the complex’s River ground. Normally used for medium and low goal tournaments, the pitch is in contrast to its Lawns big brothers. In comparison to the vast open spaces back from whence one has wandered, the River ground possesses a more intimate ambience, tree-lined on two sides whilst a third enjoys a splendid view of the Cowdray ruins and the walled garden. The River Rother snakes in between the tree line. During a previous personal visit renowned Argentine ten goal star Pablo MacDonough launched a particularly zealous penalty that soared over the posts and landed into said river with a most audible sploosh! A quick investigation discovered the ball gently floating away toward South Ambersham.
The break serves Alfi Investments the better of the two teams and the newly formed squad dominate the opening half of the fourth chukka. They are unable to breach the mustard coloured posts though and are punished for their profligacy, Facundo Pieres producing two moments of brilliance in creating goals for Nic Roldan and Australian Alec White as La Indiana stretch their lead to four goals. The status quo remains in situ during the penultimate chukka but a beautiful under the neck shot followed by a stunning length of the field charge to outpace his cousin by Polito Pieres rewards the Alfi dominance during the second half. Polito continues his one man salvo after the restart with a converted penalty and another brilliant strike from the left flank but Facundo, riding his famed pony Cube, answers in kind to snatch the momentum back in favour of La Indiana as they edge a fabulous contest by just a single goal.
The scheduling on this opening day of the Gold Cup is such that, post the presentation of the Carlos Gracida Memorial Cup to La Indiana, there is little more than fifteen minutes between the end of the first contest and the beginning of the second between Cambiaso’s Valiente and their opponents Emlor. Those in attendance are required to do little more than stride across the narrow stretch of parched sward between the two main pitches at the Lawns complex and assume a similar pew for another absorbing contest.
One’s attention is soon grasped as Valiente sprint out of the blocks in the opening chukka with astonishing intent and clinical finishing, a hat-trick of goals from Magoo Laprida edging Bob Jornayvaz’s team into an early 4-1 lead. Laprida himself soon suffers an injury after being struck by the ball on the neck but the hiatus appears to affect Valiente’s momentum as they are pegged back by the red shirted Emlor; patron Spencer McCarthy in the goals, but a fourth personal effort from Laprida keeps them at arm’s length. Nevertheless, Emlor continue to plug away and take advantage of a strangely disjointed Valiente performance; Tincho Merlos converting a pair of penalties to restore parity at the midpoint of the contest.
By nature Polo is a staccato sport, offering passages of play involving frenetic action followed by elongated moments of inactivity. The latter scenario oft occurs post the award of a penalty; the careful placing of the ball and the rather circuitous circumnavigation employed by the penalty taker often dictating that a minute or two can pass without any significant play. The strikes of Tincho Merlos and Magoo Laprida during the opening three chukkas aptly highlight the slow-slow-quick-quick-slow passages of play. Nevertheless, the majestic, stunning sight and sounds of eight polo ponies in full flight is one of the most unforgettable experiences that one can enjoy in spectator sport; the incredible machine gun fire sound emanating through the ether a truly breath-taking spectacle.
Indeed, the visual aspects of an afternoon at the polo demonstrate the more enjoyable features of the experience. Almost inevitably set in the countryside and, weather permitting, under warm, sunny skies one can enjoy the fresh air, the bright colours of the team uniforms, far reaching views and the opportunity to take a pew within a few steps of the playing area.
The short interval proves crucial as Valiente appear to re-calibrate during the hiatus. Cambiaso, subdued during the opening three chukkas, moves through the gears and proves instrumental as Valiente open a four goal lead during the fourth chukka, Cambiaso producing a brilliant raid down the right flank as the seconds counted down to the hooter. The world’s number one ranked player produces another moment of coruscating brilliance at the start of the penultimate chukka, sprinting half the length of the field for another fabulous goal as Valiente dominate the fifth chukka, Cambiaso at the heart of almost every sortie forward.
Cambiaso’s brilliance prompts a tangential thought. Professional Polo players are rated according to their abilities but once a player reaches ten goals he or she cannot be rated any higher. What if a ten goal player continues to improve and, in theory, is playing at a better standard than other players rated at the same level? As Cambiaso took control of the contest in such majestic fashion one couldn’t help ponder whether the brilliant Argentine could theoretically be an eleven or twelve goal player, were such a rating to exist.
Such thoughts are ultimately irrelevant but one finds one’s attention almost invariably gravitates to the Canuelas native. Easy to pick out on the field of play courtesy of the Argentine flag emblazoned on his helmet, one almost holds one’s breath whenever he gains possession, the expectation of something astonishing about to unfold captivating the imagination and the gaze. Certain sports men and women possess that particular je ne sais quoi that all but demands those in attendance watch, save we miss something spectacular. There is almost an electricity that crackles through the ether, an unseen force that proves compelling and exciting. This afternoon may only be the opening salvos of the competition but Cambiaso lays down a marker for the next four weeks. Just once in the last seven summers has Cambiaso tasted overall success on the Cowdray sward. For a man of his brilliance and success such a record is one that needs revising.
Half a dozen goals adrift with just seven minutes remaining Emlor are left with an almost impossible task. Two early strikes from Valiente at the genesis of the final chukka confirm the victory for Bob Jornayvaz’s charges, a pair of late goals from Tincho Merlos and Diego Cavanagh adding a modicum of respectability for the Queen’s Cup quarter-finalists.
High goal polo in England may well be about creating a delicate balance between the four players within the twenty-two goal overall handicap but the presence of genuine world class players often shows through. At the moment critiques of both contests Facundo Pieres and Adolfo Cambiaso had demonstrated why they are ranked as the two best players currently playing the game. Pieres threatened brilliance throughout the first contest whilst Cambiaso shrugged off a mediocre opening three chukkas to produce a tour de force during the second half that turned the contest in his team’s favour.
The presence of both during the afternoon perhaps highlighted one of the other stigmas attached to Polo in the English sporting world and the ignorance regarding the playing side of the sport. Once one has confirmed that they are going to watch polo the atypical response is to be asked if Prince Charles or Prince Harry are playing as opposed to those asking such a question recognising the sport’s superstars such as Adolfo Cambiaso or Facundo Pieres. Indeed, the question is almost ubiquitous. Sadly, the intricacies and the inherent beauties that make Polo such a marvellous spectacle are simply not considered. Rather, they are lost amongst the stereotypes and assumptions.
The pigeonholing of certain sports in Britain arguably creates barriers that are simply not necessary, or perhaps used simply to re-enforce certain prejudices or stereotypes. All of which is largely irrelevant once one is enjoying a contest. Indeed, one is drawn to pondering a couple of simple questions: ultimately, does it matter? Does the financial input of the patrons and players diminish the enjoyment engendered by the contest? Only if one feels the need to construct those barriers.