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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
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

Ashdown Group: Sales Support - Buckinghamshire - £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Internal Sales Executive ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Smart Meter Engineer - Gas and Electric - Dual Fuel

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises in the installa...

Recruitment Genius: Programme Manager

£30000 - £35500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Recruitment Genius: Provisioning Specialist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Provisioning Specialist is required to join ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum