Argentina : where the polo crowd swing swing

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The Independent Travel

I am sitting astride a horse possessed by the devil, beneath a hellish sun, praying to anyone who'll listen that I won't fall off. A blister covering half of the palm of my right hand is making it difficult to grip the bamboo-handled mallet, and my bum feels as though I have just completed the Cresta Run without a toboggan. A hat and some gloves would have been a good idea. Perhaps a few riding lessons might have come in handy, too - but it's too late to worry about that now and, frankly, each time my mallet makes contact with the ball, rewarding me with a deeply satisfying "plocking" sound, nothing else matters.

I am sitting astride a horse possessed by the devil, beneath a hellish sun, praying to anyone who'll listen that I won't fall off. A blister covering half of the palm of my right hand is making it difficult to grip the bamboo-handled mallet, and my bum feels as though I have just completed the Cresta Run without a toboggan. A hat and some gloves would have been a good idea. Perhaps a few riding lessons might have come in handy, too - but it's too late to worry about that now and, frankly, each time my mallet makes contact with the ball, rewarding me with a deeply satisfying "plocking" sound, nothing else matters.

Argentina is probably the best country in which to learn to play polo. Not only does it produce the best players, horses and coaches, but its wide-angle landscape has the space to accommodate fields the size of six football pitches. The Estancia La Martina is one of the country's finest polo ranches, located 50km outside of Buenos Aires, and I'd come there to see if I had the cojones to take part in one of the world's most dangerous, aggressive and skilled sports. As it requires supreme horsemanship, tightly toned limbs and nerves of steel, you may already have guessed the outcome.

My instructor, Marcial, began the lesson with an exercise designed to torture the inner thighs. It involved rising up out of the saddle and leaning forward, to the right and down, all at once, while trotting, as if hitting a ball on the ground. The next step was to try with a mallet, and then with a ball, and increase the speed as I went along. For a good few hours I cantered lopsidedly, swinging my mallet with one hand and gripping for dear life with the other. Marcial, to his credit, maintained both straight face and encouraging tone. I loved every minute.

The owners of La Martina invite you to think of the estancia as home, and all guests dine together. Over lunch on my first day (beef, of course, grilled to perfection and laid out beneath a blossoming jacaranda canopy), one of the guests, tried to describe the feeling of connecting mallet with ball: "It's like mainlining on heroin, it's that addictive." I scoffed at the time, but there is something thrilling about the contact, particularly the sound the tipa-wood mallet makes when it hits the ball. Also, the more you focus on the ball, the less you worry about the speed of your horse.

During lunch, the other guests raved about the game. There were two UK-based Americans; a jet-set couple from Lisbon; a middle-aged couple from Calgary (she already high up in North American polo circles); a Jamaican business man and an American flight attendant. They swapped stories from Hurlingham, Palm Beach, Deauville. The polo community is a close one, and most of these guests had one degree of separation.

It turns out that these days polo is peopled largely by self-made, middle-aged men, rather than the upper classes, or "the old polo families", as one guest put it. Polo will always be a rich man's sport, thanks to the cost of the horses - from $3,000(£2,000) up to $200,000 -, and the guests at La Martina were lavishly heeled. Nevertheless, they indulged my questions about the game with amiable patience.

La Martina is also the birthplace of the sport's number one player, probably the finest horseman in the world, 25-year-old Adolfito Cambiaso. His mother Martina owns the ranch which attracts everyone from polo-crats to rank beginners like me, all seeking to sample a sport which enthusiast Sylvester Stallone summed up as "like playing golf in an earthquake".

Thanks to Jilly Cooper, polo helped to define the 1980s. It then suffered a depression in the Nineties. But with the likes of Prince William and supermodel Jodie Kidd showing an interest in the sport - not to mention disenchanted fox hunters looking for a (slightly) less bloody equine pursuit - polo is once again on the rise.

Argentinian polo tends to be far less encumbered by social mountaineering. That said, at the final of the country's premiere tournament, the 107 Campeonato Argentino Abierto (the Argentinian Open), to which La Martina's guests and myself decamped en masse to support Adolfito's team, there was more than enough glamour to keep the Buenos Aires paparazzi happy.

For most of the game their lenses were trained on a couple sitting a few seats down from me - the president's son and his girlfriend, Colombian pop star Shakira - but all around were women in Prada shades and Armani, escorted by men with impeccable hair, suede loafers, chinos and Ralph Lauren shirts, any one of whom could have walked straight out of an aftershave advert. The older men sported the now rare lothario look: open shirts framing gold medallions and cigars as thick as Coke cans. Flurries of air kissing broke out all around as groups settled down to watch the game.

Argentinians play polo year-round, but the Open is their Wimbledon and takes place every winter at the majestic Campo Argentino de Polo stadium. Set among the glamorous high-rises of Palermo, Buenos Aires's most opulent neighbourhood, and shadowed by a vast, new mosque (created by former president, Carlos Menem), this has to be one of the most spectacular sporting arenas in the world. Nowhere will you see better players, more valuable horses and sexier spectators.

Polo was introduced to Argentina by the British in 1875, who had appropriated it from India. Modern teams consist of four players, and games are divided into time periods called chukkas, each of which lasts seven minutes plus stoppages. Open matches last eight chukkas, with four horses allowed per rider.

The handicapping system ranks players from -2 to 10 (Adolfito and two of his opposing team were "10"s); assessment is by judges. The ultimate is to see an "80" game, involving eight "10" players, but the final was a pretty close 75. Prince Charles used to be a creditable "6", but is now a "4". No English player has been rated "10" since the Second World War.

In polo, as in Formula One, the man is only as good as his mount, which is required to turn, sprint and stop in a blink. Argentinians, not known for sympathy towards their horses, begin training them from the age of two and they mature at four or five. Horses are usually good up until the age of 18. Their riders, on the other hand, can go on professionally until their mid-40s.

I feared the game would be difficult to follow, but it couldn't have been simpler, while the fluency, speed and aggression held me in complete awe. The horses were shining walls of muscle, with legs like supermodels' which helped them dart like dragonflies at their riders' whim. It became clear that anticipation, both by rider and, remarkably, horse, was the key to the game.

The next day, as I dismounted bruised, chafed and burned by the sun after my final fling on the field before flying home, a speech made by the hero in Jilly Cooper's magnum opus Polo, returned to me: "Come on, honey," mumbled Luke. "If you pull through, I swear I'll take you to Palm Beach, Windsor, Cowdray and Deauville. You'll have a life without winters, playing the best polo in the world." He may be talking to his lame horse Maldita, but it is the sort of promise that should guarantee a rapid recovery.

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