Need lot of bot­tle for bolly top day

Herald on Sunday - - SPORT - By An­drew Alder­son

Few oc­ca­sions com­bine sport, fash­ion and hos­pi­tal­ity like the New Zealand Polo Open.

Crowds will flock to Cleve­don’s Fisher Field to mix cham­pagne, chukkas and chic into a cock­tail of panache at the fi­nals next Sun­day.

How­ever, per­cep­tion is not nec­es­sar­ily re­al­ity, at least not last year.

Forty mil­lime­tres of rain fell in the wee hours of the Fe­bru­ary 19 fi­nal, un­do­ing the work of the pre­vi­ous day’s he­li­copter “hairdry­ers”.

That made a long day for the tour­na­ment’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Hannah Mar­shall.

“I turned up at 6am in my gum­boots, which didn’t come off all day. They were quite snazzy — a croc skin va­ri­ety, not real ob­vi­ously — with a de­cent heel on them.

“The ac­tual day worked fine, it was beau­ti­ful weather. Ev­ery­one came in lovely out­fits and took it in good spir­its. It was a case of ei­ther en­joy your­self, or sulk. For­tu­nately ev­ery­one chose the for­mer.”

Mar­shall has seen the best and worst of con­di­tions. The 32-year-old lo­cal has been in­volved at the event for the best part of a decade af­ter em­i­grat­ing from Eng­land. She took up the sport while at­tend­ing the Royal Agri­cul­tural Col­lege (now Univer­sity) in Cirences­ter.

“This year, we’ve put in loads of new in­fra­struc­ture to han­dle the rain bet­ter. Other than a mas­sive nat­u­ral flood, we should be all right.

“There’s a new road around the field, so you don’t have to leave the grass. Last year’s that’s what be­came prob­lem­atic be­cause it turned to slush.

“Ob­vi­ously the event won’t run without the sport, so our prepa­ra­tions have been to get the field as good as can be. We’ve put nearly 600 tonnes of sand on, and it has been worked on nearly ev­ery day for two months.”

Ob­serv­ing fash­ion eti­quette ranks close in pri­or­ity to wield­ing a polo mal­let. Sum­mer dresses and tee­ter­ing heels are the or­der of the day for women. You can al­most hear Achilles tendons squeal­ing for mercy, es­pe­cially dur­ing the half­time tra­di­tion of ‘tread­ing the turf’.

Mar­shall rec­om­mends a grace­ful pirou­ette.

“It’s not only a way to show off your outfit; it’s ac­tu­ally im­por­tant to smooth out the field.

“If it’s wet like last year, the spec­ta­tors have a se­ri­ous func­tion, and it is re­ally ap­pre­ci­ated.

“Just give [the dirt] a lit­tle tap with the front of your foot and spin on your toes.”

Men tend to don the sport’s epony­mous shirt or slip into a be­spoke suit. Straw hats are set at a rak­ish an­gle; sun­glasses are of­ten mir­rored.

In a nod to rugby sevens, when the glasses stop clink­ing and the hands stop shak­ing, you can al­ways watch the ac­tion as a com­men­tary booms through the PA.

The ath­leti­cism and agility of the rid­ers and ponies — as horses are known in polo-speak — is riv­et­ing, es­pe­cially along­side req­ui­site hand­eye co-or­di­na­tion.

Those in the saddle pos­sess yo­gi­like core strength to swivel, swerve and swat the 8cm di­am­e­ter ball at speeds up to 50km/h. They give it a de­cent clonk, too. A mate took one in his be­spoke-suited shoul­der a cou­ple of years ago. He wore it sto­ically, but gave it a rub when at­ten­tion was di­verted.

Brit James Harper mar­ried a Kiwi groom from Hamil­ton, and has come to the open for the past four years. The event forms part of an in­ter­na­tional cir­cuit which has taken him to an al­pha­bet of coun­tries; namely the fields of Ar­gentina, Aus­tralia, Brazil, Chile, Dubai, Eng­land, Italy, South Africa, “pretty much all of Europe”, “a lit­tle bit of Amer­ica” and the snow of China and Switzer­land. The Cow­dray Park club in west Sus­sex is home.

“I al­ways rode as a kid and, af­ter play­ing lot of rugby at school, I was get­ting to an age where you pick girls and footy over rid­ing. Then they showed me this sport. I got the bug on the first day.”

Harper will play for the Knight Frank team along­side the Wood broth­ers, Char­lie, Jimmy and Henry.

“They are com­ing up from the South Is­land [North Can­ter­bury] and have put in a bloody good ef­fort to bring 32 horses.

“They’re go­ing to give me seven or eight for the six chukkas. What you do then is pick the best three or four. They might come out twice [in a match] and the oth­ers come out once.

Harper says the ponies and the grooms also play piv­otal roles.

“The horses are ex­pected to do every­thing; go as fast as they can off the mark and stop just as quickly. It’s pretty amaz­ing what we ask of them.

“You’re rid­ing and prac­tis­ing ev­ery day, es­pe­cially go­ing from coun­try to coun­try. Two to three days on them, and you’ve got a good idea how they’ll go. Con­fi­dence in your horses is vi­tal. You’ve also got to have trust in the grooms. Good grooms make a big dif­fer­ence.”

Mar­shall says for­tu­nately the event is well-re­garded enough that they don’t have to “pe­ti­tion too heav­ily” for qual­ity play­ers, es­pe­cially with spaces in only six teams on of­fer.

Re­gard­less of the vic­tor, one part of the day re­mains her favourite.

“See­ing the cham­pagne sprayed at the pre­sen­ta­tion. For me, that sig­nals the end to a year’s work with ev­ery­one fin­ish­ing safely and hap­pily.

“There’s ca­ma­raderie and a look of ela­tion not only from the play­ers but the grooms, pa­trons, fam­i­lies and girl­friends as they join in. Ev­ery­one’s cheer­ing and you can feel the de­light in what they’ve achieved.”

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