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

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Grange Retirement Home: Full Time Care Team Manager

£22,400: The Grange Retirement Home: This is a key role which requires a sound...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K YR1: SThree: At SThree, we like to be dif...

Guru Careers: Software Developer / Web Developer

£30 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Software / Web Developer (PHP / MYSQL) i...

Guru Careers: Account Executive

£18 - 20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Executive is needed to join one...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada