Inside Sport - - CONTENTS - – Jeff Cen­ten­era

1While at­ten­tion turns to the sea­son of rac­ing, an­other set of sport­ing horses gal­lops into the spot­light this month. The FIP World Polo Cham­pi­onships will be held at the Syd­ney Polo Club, in the city’s west in the Hawkes­bury Val­ley, from Oc­to­ber 21-29. Eight na­tions will com­pete at these cham­pi­onships, the 11th since they were founded in 1987.

2This is the sec­ond time Australia has hosted the event, hav­ing held the 2001 tour­na­ment in Mel­bourne. It was the site of the best re­sult for the na­tional polo team (which shock­ingly doesn’t have a catchy nick­name), fin­ish­ing run­ner-up af­ter a one-goal loss in the fi­nal to Brazil.

3The world’s polo pow­ers: Ar­gentina, Chile, Eng­land, the United States, are Syd­ney­bound. Round­ing out the field are Spain, New Zealand and In­dia, where the mod­ern form of the sport is said to have orig­i­nated af­ter soldiers of the Bri­tish Raj picked up the pop­u­lar lo­cal game in Ma­nipur. The Ar­gen­tines have won four times, while the Chileans are the reign­ing champs, hav­ing won at home two years ago.

4This isn’t just recre­ation for the Roy­als, or the Pack­ers. At the elite level, there’s some se­ri­ous ath­leti­cism in­volved, for man and beast. “A lot of peo­ple say it’s like playing golf in an earthquake,” says Aus­tralian cap­tain Jack Archibald. “I’ve been lucky enough to play rugby and golf, and this is by far the hard­est sport I’ve ever had to play.” Archibald hails from a prom­i­nent polo fam­ily: his father and broth­ers play, as does his in-law, rac­ing com­men­ta­tor Francesca Cu­mani, and they breed horses on the farm at Scone. While the sport does in­deed have well-heeled as­so­ci­a­tions, Archibald says: “The base in Australia comes from coun­try polo, which is a lot of guys who grow up on farms.”

5Know what a chukka is: yes, a style of boot. But also the name of a pe­riod dur­ing a polo match, de­rived from the Hindi word for cir­cle. Each chukka lasts seven min­utes, with a time-on pe­riod of about 30 sec­onds. The num­ber of chukkas in a match can vary: games at the world cham­pi­onships will be played over five, with six in the fi­nal. Be­tween each chukka is a four-minute in­ter­val (as well as a longer half-time) dur­ing which play­ers change mounts – to avoid tir­ing out the horses, or “ponies” in polo-speak, each player has a “string” of mul­ti­ple horses he

or she will ride dur­ing a match.


Like golf, polo has a hand­i­cap sys­tem. Each player is rated from -2 to 10 goals; the hand­i­caps of the four play­ers on a team are added up, and the dif­fer­ence to the op­pos­ing team trans­lates into an ad­van­tage or deficit to start the match. The hand­i­cap is based upon the de­ci­sion of an ex­pert com­mit­tee. “There’s no ledger,” says Archibald, who is a five. “It’s a ridicu­lous way to hand­i­cap, to be com­pletely hon­est.” Most pro­fes­sion­als are rated at five or above. The ten-goal hand­i­cap is a mark of sta­tus in the polo world – there have only been two dozen or so through­out his­tory, and Australia has only had two, Sin­clair Hill and Bob Skene, who played back in the ’80s. “You al­most need to start when you’re three years old, and that’s all you do,” Archibald says. “That’s what they do in Ar­gentina.”


In­deed, Ar­gentina has a mys­tique within polo – Archibald com­pares it to rugby in New Zealand. All the cur­rent ten-goal play­ers are Ar­gen­tines (with one from Uruguay), and all three of polo’s Triple Crown events are played in Ar­gentina. When Kerry Packer put to­gether his world-beat­ing teams, they were stocked with Ar­gen­tini­ans – cham­pion club La Eller­stina takes its name from Packer’s Eller­ston prop­erty in NSW.


Most big-time polo is in­ter-club, with those top events con­tested by teams with com­bined hand­i­caps of 28 to 40. The world cham­pi­onships are played to a 14-goal hand­i­cap per team, to en­cour­age com­pe­ti­tion among the var­i­ous na­tions and the de­vel­op­ment of the sport. “In an in­ter­na­tional form, this is as good as it gets,” Archibald says. “We’re com­pet­ing against some of the best coun­tries in the world. It’s the pin­na­cle in terms of in­ter­na­tional polo.”


Is it the pony, or the player? “It’s 50 per­cent the rider, and 50 per­cent the horse,” Archibald says. “It’s got to be ath­letic enough to com­pete at a re­ally high level, but also quiet enough to with­stand the pres­sure. It’s too hard to play on a dif­fi­cult horse.” The host na­tion has to pro­vide the mounts: 280 horses pooled, rated and dis­trib­uted, about 30 to each team, strings of seven or eight. “The guys will get two or three days with the horse, to ride and get to know it. The teams that do well are the ones that are able to dis­tin­guish what they can and can’t do on each horse.”


Archibald sees a wide-open com­pe­ti­tion at the Syd­ney Polo Club. He’s acutely aware that Australia’s best pre­vi­ous re­sult in the event came at home, but The Horse With No Name (our sug­ges­tion for the Aussie polo team) is ready to sad­dle up, lit­er­ally and metaphor­i­cally. “We’ve got a young side, and that’s brought a lot of en­thu­si­asm,” he says. “Ob­vi­ously there’s a bit of pres­sure to per­form in your home coun­try.”

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