10 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
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.”