Polo's patrons in mint condition

The sport that costs a fortune also allows its tycoon backers to ride with the stars. Greg Wood mingles with the cool and the corpulent at Cowdray Park
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The Independent Online
The economics of many sports can be a little lop-sided, but when it comes to a thin rate of return, polo takes some beating. Consider this. The Labegorce team which won yesterday's Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup at Cowdray Park, the most important prize in the game, costs Herbert Perrodo, its patron, a minimum of around pounds 500,000 each year to run. Perrodo's prize was... the Gold Cup. No outsized cheque, no cash bonus, and in 12 months' time, he will probably have to give it back.

Say what you like about polo, it is certainly different, from the scenes on in the car park - a raucous cross between a car boot sale and the food hall at Harrods - to the game's unique structure. Were you to sit down and try to invent a sport, it is unlikely that a founding principle would be to allow - no, positively encourage - the participation of hopeless amateurs at the highest level of the game. Imagine Liverpool, for instance, being required to field nine professionals and a couple of those weedy kids from the playground who no one ever picked, or a club hacker going around Troon alongside Tiger Woods.

Yet that is one of the cornerstones of polo, and it has to be said that whoever slipped it into the rules 100-odd years ago was one of the most brilliant visionaries in sporting history. For if racing is the sport of kings, polo is the pastime of choice for international tycoons, since the average king these days does not have nearly enough disposable income to run a polo team, and its attraction for men with money to burn could be summed up in one word: vanity.

Michael Knighton may have kicked the ball around on the pitch at Old Trafford before his abortive attempt at a takeover, but had he succeeded, even he would not have expected to lead the line the following week. In polo, a patron would expect nothing else. The players are given a handicap rating, in "goals", of anything between -2 and, for the finest players in the world, a perfect 10, a mark which no more than a dozen or so of the finest professional riders can achieve.

Now this is the clever part: the four-man teams for the most prestigious competitions are allowed a combined handicap of no more than 22 goals, which generally means two of the best, another of a fair standard, and one who can barely swing a stick but, more importantly, is perfectly capable of signing cheques.

As a result, yesterday's final was effectively a match between Labegorce's two stars, Javier Novillo-Astrada and Carlos Gracida, and from the opposing Isla Carroll side which had flown almost 50 ponies from America for the 60-day season, Pite Merlos and Memo Gracida, Carlos's brother and generally reckoned the best player on the planet. Even to a relative polo virgin, Memo's talent was immediately obvious.

Polo is not a sport which is overburdened with either rules or strategies. There is little point for careful build-up play in midfield, not least because the midfield is the better part of 250 yards long, and the standard approach is to whack the ball as hard as possible at every possible opportunity. Memo, though, was never afraid to leaven the whacking with the gentle equivalent of a footballer's nutmeg, chipping delicately through the legs of an opponent's pony before spinning past and then, admittedly, lashing the ball upfield with all his might.

But while many had come to see the Gracidas, the real stars amid all the twisting and clattering of sticks were the ponies. As nimble as ballerinas and utterly unflappable. When a large helicopter landed yards from the Isla Carroll string, not one of the 30 or so ponies so much as pricked an ear. They can quicken from a standing start to a full gallop in a stride. Not only that, they can do so with a patron in the saddle, which in the case of John Goodman, the rotund owner of Isla Carroll, must take some doing.

So, too, does the business of following the action on a pitch which appears to be about half a mile long but in this, Cowdray's spectators have the inimitable assistance of Terry "the voice of polo" Hanlon. A commentator who seems to have learned his trade in the same academy which supplies the World Wrestling Federation, Hanlon's high-octane description of proceedings is something of a polo tradition. He even has a catchphrase, or rather a catch-noise, a strangulated squeak which escapes from his throat whenever a player bears down on goal.

"It's tick, tick, tick on the Veuve Clicquot clock," Hanlon kept yelling as the sixth and final chukka drew to a close with Labegorce 10-8 to the good.

And it was ching, ching, ching on Perrodo's cash register, but as the sweating, beaming patron struggled from his pony, he, at least, seemed to think that it had all been worth it.