GONE ARE THE DAYS WHEN A TITLE AND A WAD OF FAMILY CASH WERE THE ONLY WAYS TO GET IN THE GAME.
Meet the men behind polo’s modern-day resurgence, and find out why it’s time to catch a few chukkas.
Think polo and invariably an image of toffs – popped collars, white chinos, champers and a guy called Tarquin scurrying about on horseback with an extended croquet mallet – comes to mind. And you’d be right – the sport is all of these things. But this equine outing, loved by royals and wealthy wannabes, is also outgrowing its aristocratic origins – steadily rising in popularity with a broader public and top-ranking players, who, in the past decade, have been vocal in shouting down its elitist reputation. While certain traditional British polo clubs still require members to part with exorbitant annual fees and have a couple of horses at home – or in the stables – pedigree’s no longer the only way in. “It’s a bit of a misconception,” says leading professional player Nic Roldan. “We’re all normal guys – athletes trying to make a living. And a lot of people don’t realise the amount of work, time, focus and determination that goes into being a professional polo player. It’s a dangerous sport and we put our lives on the line every day.” He’d know. Born in Argentina, Roldan was subsequently raised in the sticky heat of Florida and introduced to the sport by his father, who’d played for none other than the Sultan of Brunei. He turned professional at 14 and a year later went on to become the youngest player to win the US Open Polo Championship. As much as he seems to fit the polo-player mould, the 33-yearold is a firm believer in breaking down the sport’s various stereotypes. “It is, and always will be, a gentleman’s game. But at the same time, a lot of people see polo as a lifestyle, a social entity. It’s quite the opposite – it’s become so professional, the infrastructure is growing, the horses are getting better and better and the talent of the players is insane... But because the royals play it, there will always be that misconception that it’s a ‘posh’ sport. That’s why we need to transform that into something mainstream.” That change is happening – ‘urban polo’, a variant first developed in Australia in 2005, has delivered a different, youthful crowd, drawn to what’s a fast-paced and exotic alternative to a traditional day at the nags. Broome’s Cable Beach Polo, Sydney’s Polo in the City, Victoria’s Portsea Polo and the Gold Coast’s Polo by the Sea has each found success by melding luxury to accessibility and a dominant feeling of fun. Newcomers to the sport are lured by what’s an attractive day out, built on socialising, decent music and food (we’re looking at Melbourne’s Chin Chin, for one) alongside men and women working horses in close confines, given modern polo’s significantly smaller fields. Australian captain and Manager of Ellerston Polo Club, Glen Gilmore, says polo’s reach in Australia is wider than ever. “There are a lot more opportunities for people to come and see polo, as well as coaching schools and learn-to-play days,” he says. “The different events coming to cities – as well as social media – have allowed polo to attract a more varied audience.” Roldan agrees – that’s why he’s excited about the sport’s inclusion at next year’s Magic Millions Carnival, a week-long equine celebration coupling lucrative race days with the Southern Hemisphere’s largest horse auction. Roldan will make the trip to Australia with Argentinian polo star Alejandro Novillo Astrada, royal/olympian Zara Phillips, racing commentator and host, Francesca Cumani, and Cumani’s husband, Australian polo champion, Rob Archibald. “Events like Magic Millions open it up to a new audience,” says Roldan. “It educates them and gives them a better sense of what the sport’s about... And the competition and infrastructure are great in Australia. You have some of the best fields in the world, some really good players and there are a lot more coming up in the ranks. It went quiet in Australia for a while, but it’s picked up again and Magic Millions will really give it a big boost.” Australia continues to climb the international ranks, now seventh in the World Polo Championships.
Argentina’s still the country to beat, though, filling international teams with local players since British settlers introduced the sport there in the mid-1800s. “The polo passion runs in the family,” explains Novillo Astrada. “My grandfather started playing in the ’30s and ’40s, my father and uncle followed, then myself and my five older brothers. I love that it’s such a complex sport – you’re running 50km/h on a 600kg horse, trying to hit a very small ball. It takes a lot of intensity and preparation to play. And most people who go and watch a game realise how difficult it is to do all the things that we do on the horse.” Like Roldan, Novillo Astrada is keen to shatter the sport’s lofty reputation – “it’s not just for the rich anymore, it’s a lot easier to get into than it used to be” – a sentiment furthered by Gilmore, who points to the sport’s dusty Australian heritage. “It’s true, polo started here with farmers using their horses for cattle work during the week and polo on the weekends,” says Gilmore. “So the idea that polo is just a sport for the wealthy is not only outdated, but was never appropriate in Australia.” The modern game is anything other than dusty and outdated. Professional players travel the world and make a decent wage, even if most of their earnings are reinvested into their stable – a must when multiple horses are needed to compete. Then there’s the matter of fitness. “Every team has its own personal trainer and physio – they take it very seriously,” says Roldan. “And you have to be fit; you’re out there for two hours riding around on horses, chasing a ball. I do a lot of cross training and cardio. A bit of yoga, but more the Pilates type of stuff, actually. You don’t want to be bulky; you want to be lean and flexible. Depending on the season, I work out three to four times a week. No two sessions are the same and I try to do something different every day.” “I train every day with the horses, and three to four times a week without them,” adds Novillo Astrada. “I work on the riding muscles – the legs, back and abs. The arms and shoulders are also important when it comes to perfecting our swing.” The skill of the riders, the pace of the game and the beauty of the horses – it’s a trifecta that makes polo enthralling. “The speed, intensity and adrenaline that polo brings – it’s incredible,” says Roldan. “It’s a very fluid game, usually held in a beautiful outdoors setting. We’re sort of sun junkies – polo is about safety and we can’t play when the fields are wet. We need sun, good weather and dry climates.” “There’s an old saying,” says Gilmore, “that once you start polo, you only get out of it when you die, or run out of money. It’s that addictive.” magicmillions.com.au
“EVENTS LIKE THE MAGIC MILLIONS OPEN POLO UP TO A NEW AUDIENCE... GIVING THEM A BETTER SENSE OF WHAT THE SPORT IS ABOUT.”