Toffs only? Polo is seeking new image

The sport seen as a preserve of snobs wants fresh blood. Jonathan Brown and Charlotte Rhodes report

IT may have been invented by war-like Eurasian tribesmen as a way of keeping fit until the next bloody tussle with rival herders, but polo gave up claims as a sport of the ordinary man around the time of Byzantium. Over the years the noble classes from Maidenhead to Manipur have enjoyed nothing more than squaring up for a few hard- fought chukkas.

But now the Hurlingham Club, the spiritual home of polo in Britain, is hoping to again throw open the sport to the masses as it prepares to host the first tournament in central London since the Second World War.

With tickets costing just £15 each and entrance free to locals, polo's governing body hopes the three-day international event, Polo in the Park, will lead a popular renaissance for the testing pursuit which pits man and pony against each other in an at-times death-defying test of skill and horsemanship.

Hammersmith and Fulham council has given the go-ahead to the event next June, which will bring up to 5,000 to west London to witness city teams from across the world thunder at up to 40mph across the lawns at the Thames-side Social Club in a globally-televised contest. Among those to welcome the initiative yesterday was Jilly Cooper, whose bestseller Polo depicted a horse-mad, sex-crazed world.

"Polo's like playing golf from a helicopter," she said. "It's a great adventure. People absolutely fall in love with it once they see it. The ponies are so clever and brave and the players are gorgeous men, so people always like that, don't they?" World Polo Ltd, the sport's first franchise-based polo tour, is planning massive investment in next summer's tournament, which will also see a major refurbishment of Hurlingham Park. But whether this will help dispel the "toffs on horseback" image remains to be seen. While polo matches have long been a place for the super-rich and the merely privileged to get together – it was through the sport that Princess Diana met the cavalry officer James Hewitt – some find it harder than others to be accepted into the fold.

Earlier this year, Katie Price, better known as the glamour model Jordan, accused the organisers of one polo tournament of snobbery amid allegations that her manager was told that she was "not the sort of person they wanted" at their event.

Price, 30, paid £6,000 for a table at the Cartier International at Windsor – the polo calendar's most glittering occasion – but it was alleged the organisers Chinawhite vetoed her presence. "It should be about the sport. No one should be excluded," she said. A spokeswoman for Chinawhite said the model was only refused entry because the event was sold out.

The Girls Aloud singer Sarah Harding sampled the sport for a reality TV show. She concluded: "I had a great time, but I was in agony and covered in bumps. I used to do showjumping when I was little, but this was bad."

Paul Bristow, a Hammersmith and Fulham councillor, said it was his intention to break down the class barriers. "Unfortunately, that has been the traditional view but polo originated in the city, and if we want to attract a new generation, it has to be held in places like inner London," he said.

The sport insists it has been trying to make itself more popular andwants to return to the Olympics after a 72-year absence, although it will not be back for the London 2012 Games. But there has been major take-up among India and China's new monied classes and a resurgence as a university sport.

"Polo has changed in the past 10 years and there are more clubs," said David Woodd of the Hurlingham Polo Association, the UK governing body. Still, even devotees such as Jilly Cooper concede not everyone can afford it. "There are such nice people who play and they are not at all snobby. It's only that the horses are quite expensive, but most of the teams have a patron who picks up the bills," said Cooper.

Polo: The history

While polo in Britain can only date its origins back to the high Victorian period – it was brought here by the 10th Hussars at Aldershot, Hants, in 1869 – the sport had been played among the princes of Asia for nearly 2,000 years. Persia, now Iran, is considered the birthplace of the sport, with accounts of matches and top players in ancient literature and art. The name is said to originate from the Tibetan word pulu, meaning ball. By the time of the arrival of the British Empire in India, the game was being played from Constantinople to Tokyo. Military officers in the sub-continent took to it with vigour, establishing a club at Silchar in Assam and the game spread through the empire. Indian teams dominated the first internationals, then Britain and Argentina led the world, with the South American side taking the last Olympic gold in 1936. The Hurlingham Club, founded in 1869, became British polo's HQ. However the post-war Labour Government's compulsory purchase of the polo fields to make way for a council estate saw the game lose its central London home. Today the Guards Polo Club in Windsor is the top venue: the Duke of Edinburgh is president, the Queen is patron.

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