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


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