Inside polo, the sport of kings
From royal players and high society to wild variations, Tempus takes a fresh look at the exciting world of polo
Polo is the oldest team sport in the world. The first recorded tournament was held in 600 BC (Turkey versus Persia), but it’s thought the game dates to before recorded history itself. The now world-famous professional equestrian sport, played everywhere from the UK to Argentina and Nigeria, was first played in the country that is now Iran as a training game for elite cavalry units, before being adopted and developed by the Persian royal family. From there it spread to Tibet, China and Japan with the name ‘polo’ originating from the Tibetan word ‘pholo’ meaning ‘ball’. It wasn’t until 1869 that the first game took place in Britain (initially called ‘hockey on horseback’) on Hounslow Heath, by officers stationed at Aldershot.
Today, polo is a sport closely associated with high society and the British royal family – with King Charles and his sons the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Sussex all avid polo players. In the 1930s and 40s polo was at its most popular in Hollywood. Famous personalities who played at the time included Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, Will Rogers, and Walt Disney. Today, model Jodie Kidd is an avid player and Argentinian superstar player Nacho Figueras has modelled for designer Ralph Lauren – who introduced the now-iconic Polo shirt with pony insignia in 1972.
It’s not just men’s fashion that has been inspired by the sport. Lady Diana Spencer wore a red “black sheep” novelty jumper during a polo match in 1981, before her marriage to the then Prince Charles – in September 2023 the same jumper fetched a staggering $1.14m (£920,000) in a Sotheby’s auction in New York.
In May this year, the Duchess of Sussex turned out to support her husband Prince Harry at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club, wearing polka-dots – a nod to the chocolate and white spotty dress worn by Vivian (Julia Roberts) to stomp the divots in a famous scene from the big-screen film classic Pretty Woman
FAST & FURIOUS
The international polo circuit spans 11 months of the year. Among the best-known traditional tournaments are the Argentine Open in Buenos Aires each November; the Dubai Polo Gold Cup Series from January-April, at the Al Habtoor Polo Resort; the US Open at Palm Beach, Florida, in April; the Polo de Paris, which takes over the French capital’s Bois de Boulogne from April-September; and the British Open Polo Championship for the Cowdray Gold Cup in July in the UK.
While polo is usually played on grass – aided by spectators who tread the divots between chukkas – variations on the sport include the spectacular annual Snow Polo World Cup in St Moritz, and the Richard Mille AlUla Desert Polo in Saudi Arabia, which will hold its third edition in January 2024.
Each team consists of four players – usually three professionals and their patron – each given a handicap rating based on their skill level. The world’s top ranked male players are all Argentinian – with Facundo Pieres, Bartolome Castagnola Jr and Adolfo Cambiaso Jr leading the charge – while the UK’s Hazel Jackson and Nina Clarkin are the top-ranked women.
The match itself is divided by 7.5 minute chukkas, of which there are between four and six in a game. With such demanding gameplay, each player might use up to 10 ponies during a single match. Polo ponies are specially bred for quick bursts of speed, stamina, manoeuvrability and calm temperament – and can cost £100,000 each to buy, with an additional £36,000 per year to maintain and transport.
THE BRITISH OPEN
Matt Sim, assistant polo manager at Cowdray Park Polo Club takes us behind the scenes:
“Cowdray Park Polo Club is known globally as ‘The Home of British Polo’ and John Cowdray, 3rd Viscount Cowdray was instrumental in kick-starting polo after the Second World War. Thanks to his legacy Cowdray is one of, if not the, most aspirational polo club in the UK.
The most successful teams are the ones that work well together and play to each other’s strengths and as a general rule the better a team is mounted the more success they will have.
You always have four players on a team with defined positions. The No.1 attacks, No.2 is midfielder, No.3 is the playmaker on the team and no.4 defends. One passionate player owns the team and then employs three professional players to play with them.
Often people don’t realise that there is no prize money. And Cowdray doesn’t keep any ponies – we are solely a tournament host and play over 35 tournaments throughout the season. Our 10 grounds are kept to the best standards by our superb ground staff and seasonal workers.
The two scorers and 2-4 goal judges (depending on the level) have to be present at every match along with paramedics, a vet, two umpires and a third man. When we play 10 games in one day this becomes a beautifully precise balancing act.
We played 550 and 600 matches in 2021 and 2022, respectively – phenomenal so soon after the Covid-19 pandemic. The highlight of this year has to be the British Open Polo Championship for the Cowdray Gold Cup [in July, 2023]. The two semi-finals were a true display of the highest level of our sport and the final was a masterclass of the game.”