A LOOK AT THE FASCINATING HISTORY OF THE SPORT ON THE IBERIAN PENINSULA

By Alejandra Ocampo

August – the month represents the height of the European summer and the crux of the polo season in Spain. The action takes place at Santa María Polo Club, in Sotogrande, which has hosted the prestigious International Polo Tournament, composed of the Bronze Cup, Silver Cup and Gold Cup, since 1971. The best players in the world head to the club for an intense month of polo – the last stop before the high goal season begins in Argentina.

Sotogrande played a fundamental role in the growth of polo in Spain; the area is now one of the most important polo destinations in the world. Thanks to its proximity to Marbella, the resort has also become a desired holiday spot.

POLO IN SPAIN: THE INFLUENCE OF ALFONSO XIII & THE FIRST CLUBS

Polo landed in Spain around 1870 thanks to Pedro Nolasco Gonzalez, owner of a winery, who was also the Marquis of Torresoto. He was introduced to the sport by the family Cristóbal de Murrieta, a Spanish businessman who lived in Kent, England. In 1872, the Marquis of Torresoto founded Spain’s first polo club, Jerez Polo Club, in Jerez de la Frontera. Madrid gained its first polo ground shortly after, in 1876, at Casa de Campo, as ordered by King Alfonso XII; Barcelona followed suit in 1897, with the Real Club de Polo de Barcelona.

It was Alfonso XII who shared the first polo rules in Spain, but the Madrid ground was closed with his death in 1885. His son, Alfonso XIII, became a huge proponent of the sport and encouraged its growth in Spain. Alfonso XIII ordered the ground to be reopened and in 1904 inaugurated Madrid Polo Club, which became Real Club de Puerta de Hierro in 1915. In 1908, Alfonso XIII became the first European monarch to play polo in public. The King not only played polo in Spain, but also travelled to places like Deauville, where he was a guest of honour in the early days of the club. One of the King’s best polo friends was Juan Traill, who in 1913 became the first 10-goal player in Argentina. Polo grew enormously during the rule of Alfonso XIII; clubs and grounds were built in Santander, Bilbao, Sevilla, Cordoba, Valencia and Granada. But unfortunately, the practice of polo in Spain would soon start to decline. Its popularity fell until the 1960s, when one club gave the sport its deserved glory: Sotogrande.

THE REBIRTH: SOTOGRANDE & THE REAL FEDERACIÓN ESPAÑOLA DE POLO

Everything started by chance, thanks to two Filipinos: Joseph Rafael McMicking y Ynchausti and his wife Mercedes Zobel de Ayala y Roxas. Manila born McMicking, who had British heritage on his father’s side, was the heir to a Filipino multi-national, Ynchausti y Compañía, while Mercedes was a member of the prestigious Zobel de Ayala family.

With the end of the Second World War, Joseph became a millionaire, and he set up one of the first venture capital companies, in California, where he was known for his philanthropy.

In 1962, Alfredo Melian, a cousin of Mercedes’ who worked for the Ayala Corporation, travelled to Spain with the aim of finding a place in the heart of the Mediterranean apt for constructing a luxury vacation complex. Alfredo, also known as Freddy, hopped on his motorbike and set off in search of the perfect destination, with beaches, good location, and near an airport. He found it. He called his nephews, Jaime and Enrique Zobel, and together they chose a place called Paniagua, in San Roque, near Gibraltar, and started building their dream. The McMickings created Sotogrande.

After moving into their new location, they founded a community based on friendship and sailing. In 1965, Enrique Zobel built the first polo field known as the Beach ground – the beginnings of Santa María Polo Club. A couple of years later, in 1967, the ground began to be used for private and family tournaments.

Only in 1971 was the prestigious International Polo Tournament founded, the highlight being the Sotogrande Gold Cup. This surge of polo in Sotogrande was likely what impulsed the founding of the Real Federación Española de Polo in 1972, one hundred years after the birth of the country’s first club in Jerez. Today the Federation is in charge of the promotion, organisation, and development of polo in Spain.

Sotogrande did not stop growing. The Silver Cup was founded in 1973, and bit by bit, the best players in the world trickled into the resort, having heard of the great polo, warm climate, and impressive fields and installations.

In 1984, a huge storm swept away the Beach ground, which lead to the creation of the Rio grounds, between 1985 and 1986. In 1992, grounds were built at Puente de Hierro, and in 2001 construction began on Los Pinos fields, officially inaugurated in 2008. Today the fields at Rio and Puente de Hierro are used for low and medium goal tournaments, while Los Pinos host high goal matches. Los Pinos also includes a commercial center, and hosts spectacular after polo parties at night.

Since its inauguration in 1965, Sotogrande has been inextricably linked to polo, attracting the best players from around the world. Thanks to the perfect weather conditions, polo can be played all year round, and Santa María Polo Club hosts numerous tournaments over the autumn and during Easter, as well as those organised in spring and summer, forerunners to the August high season. Within Sotogrande, there are two prestigious clubs, Dos Lunas and Ayala, the latter owned by Iñigo Zobel, son of the founder of Sotogrande.

With over fifty years of polo history and prestige, the sport continues to grow in Sotogrande; year on year, Santa Maria Polo Club becomes the epicentre of polo.

BOOK LAUNCH: POLO HISTORY IN SPAIN

On Friday, August 11, at Santa María Polo Club, polo fans will get the chance to learn more about the fascinating history of the sport in Spain. Doña Elma Caballero González-Gordon will present her book, “History of Polo in Spain” at Finca Dos Pinos. Ramón Mora Figueroa, President of Santa María Polo Club, will also be present at the event.