Packer reaps the ultimate reward

Greg Wood watches the Australian magnate weigh in with an enthusiastic performance in polo's equivalent of the FA Cup
"I can't believe it, there's people still arriving," a flustered Cowdray Park official said at two o'clock yesterday afternoon. Since the day's first match at Britain's premier polo venue was not until three, it seemed a strange complaint, but after a stroll through the car park, her reasoning became clear. Good heavens, she must have been thinking. They're only allowing an hour for lunch.

They take lunch seriously at Cowdray, near Midhurst in West Sussex, and the borders of the vast polo pitch were already a cross between a car boot sale and the food hall at Harrods. Kerry Packer appears to take lunch seriously too, not to mention breakfast, dinner, supper, elevenses and a little high tea. The only difference yesterday was that Packer was on the other side of the fence.

There must be two principal drawbacks to being a polo pony. The first is the habit among major owners of branding identity numbers on to their property's buttocks. The second is the chance that you will find yourself carrying the captain of the Ellerston Whites, Packer's team and one of the finalists in the Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup, the FA Cup final of polo and a trophy which the Australian magnate had been pursuing for years.

But this is the unique attraction of polo for men like Packer and Urs Schwarzenbach, "patron" of the Black Bears, the Whites' opponents yesterday. Not for nothing do they keep a string of 100 ponies and dozens of staff to prepare them, when the reward for winning the sport's biggest event appeared to be a magnum of bubbly and a kiss from the sponsor's wife. What matters is that polo's system of handicapping allows the owners to step over the sidelines and get involved.

Each of a team's four members has a rating in "goals", from zero (the poorest) up to 10. In the Gold Cup, the sum of the handicaps must be no more than 22, so with one Whites player on 10, and another rated nine, the way was clear for Packer (rating: one) to form a formidable rearguard. It is a little like Jack Walker insisting on keeping goal for Blackburn as a reward for his investment.

Not that Packer failed to punch his weight. He clouted the ball with admirable gusto, even if his ponies did seem to take a little more time to hit their stride than those of his colleagues. Having started the match a goal to the good (another quirk of the handicapping system), the Whites put a further four through the posts before two of the six seven-minute chukkas which make up a match had been completed. And if at times the scene resembled the front line at Agincourt, at others there was considerable skill and athleticism to appreciate, not least from the ponies.

The word "pony" summons images from Thelwell, but polo ponies are big, almost 15 hands high, which only makes their mobility all the more remarkable. They can go from a standing start to a full gallop in a couple of seconds, brake even faster, spin through 180 degrees and then pound off once more.

At times it would have been almost balletic, had it not been for the persistent accompaniment of Terry Hanlon, the "voice of polo". On the blue-blazered, upper-class polo circuit, Hanlon seems to be the closest they get to a bit of rough, and his roars and whoops - "it's KP, it's KP, come on KP!" he yelled as Packer bore down on the goal - ripped through Cowdray's otherwise torpid atmosphere.

"The chips are in the pan and you can hear 'em sizzling," Hanlon announced as the match entered the final chukka with the Whites still leading, by 10 goals to six. The Bears rallied, but Packer's team, with their patron's great ambition so close to being realised, held on to win 12-9.

The applause was warm from the blazers and Gucci set as he stepped up to receive his champagne, a rich man tasting ultimate success in the ultimate rich man's sport. Around the fringes, though, was the odd hint of dissent. "I've been poaching salmon since three in the morning," one woman said, "and I'm bored senseless."

Hanlon had summed it all up a few minutes earlier. "This is real pressure," he bellowed. "Have you ever been in a pressure cooker? Have you ever worked in a factory?" If the first suggestion was strange, the second was just plain daft.