Polo, Sport of Kings Featured

As English as afternoon tea, polo is the ultimate luxury pursuit. Luxos visits the Queen's Mother's Centenary Trophy to discover more.
by 29 June 2009

Polo has always intrigued me. Not that I’ve come into much contact with the sport, unless you count repeated viewings of the polo scene in Pretty Woman. So when Luxos was invited to attend the La Martina Queen Mother’s Centenary Trophy - a prestigious polo tournament at Guard Polo Club in Windsor, the frequent stomping ground of a certain William and Harry - I jumped at the chance to go.

Then, promptly, started panicking. I know nothing about polo. And so, I started researching. Polo,that most English of sports, actually has much more international origins. The Chinese and Persians were in fact the first to play the game over 2000 years ago.

No one is entirely sure, but the name “Pholo” is believed to be derived from the Balti language of Tibet, where it means “ball” or “ballgame”. The Monguls are thought responsible for taking the game east. When the British tea planters arrived 1850s, they discovered the game and subsequently founded the first polo club at Silchar, west of Manipur.

Even today, the world’s oldest polo club is in fact located in India: the Calcutta Club was founded in 1862.

Initially the game was largely rule-less. Known as “hockey on horseback”, the game wasn’t formalised until the 1870s when John Watson of the 13th Hussars established the present rules. Around this time, Monmouthshire, the first English Polo club, was established in 1872 by Captain Francis “Tip” Herbert of the 7th Lancersat his brother’s estate at Clytha Park, near Abergavenny. Other clubs were soon established and the game’s popularity spread. Today, polo is played in over 77 countries, most notably in Argentina, USA, Mexico, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

In England, there are presently more that 30 polo clubs, and approximately 1,200 players. While there are many notable British Polo clubs, Guards Polo Club - where the Queen Mother’s Centenary Trophy is held - is perhaps the most renowned, most likely because of its association with royalty. HRH Prince Philip is President of the club, with the Duke of Wellington serving as one of the Vice Presidents.

Essentially, there are two ways to be a polo player. Either by being supremely talented – most top polo players were basically raised on horseback – or supremely rich; the game is prohibitively expensive for most people, what with the cost of good ponies, kit and players.

It’s also not a sport for the faint-hearted. It isn’t until you see the sheer size of the ponies and witness the breakneck speed at which they travel during a game do you realise the skill and bravery involved.

My day out at the Guards was fantastic. We arrived in Windsor Park late in the morning and enjoyed a leisurely lunch while the players kitted up. Then it was Pimms and champagne on the patio while we watched the match.

Polo is surprisingly quick and intense; perfect for those of us who are a little, ahem, bored watching traditional sports. Everyone was exceptionally welcoming.

Charmingly, the tradition of replacing the divots is still held. At half time – or between chukkas, if you speak polo - all the spectators are expected to take to the field and fix the lawn; stamping down the divots created by the horses’ hooves. It’s great fun. Made even more so by the fact that you are often rubbing shoulders with royalty.

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