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
Monday 21 July 1997
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.
Latest in Sport
Paul Scholes: Manchester United vs Liverpool - I don't understand why Brendan Rodgers was not more attacking against Basel
Jesus Christ plays for Chelsea - that's what one in five children thinks
Transfer Talk: Nemanja Vidic to return to Manchester United; Hazard to leave Chelsea; Sunderland want Radamel Falcao
Frank Warren column: Don't bet on Amir Khan landing pay day against Floyd Mayweather
Manchester United transfer news: Kevin Strootman move edges closer
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
New era of cheap oil 'will destroy green revolution'
Ukip founder Alan Sked and Nigel Farage 'begged Enoch Powell to stand as a candidate'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant
£20000 - £25000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Internal Sales Executive ...
£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises in the installa...
£30000 - £35500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Provisioning Specialist is required to join ...