Professional women polo players are pressing the Hurlingham Polo Association to grant more recognition and support in the wake of the governing body for polo in the UK introducing women-only handicaps in 2015.
Polo is one of very few sports to have men and women playing alongside and against each other, but the growth of women-only polo and an international women’s league has seen criticism levelled at the HPA accusing them of inequality in its support of female players in the same way that the male players are granted bursaries and assistance to develop.
However, David Woodd, chief executive of the HPA, refutes this. “I think there is actually (support and investment for female players) at a young age,” he said. “We’ve sent several girls to South Africa. In percentage terms, they have as good a run as anybody. The real issue is that it is still a game that is played mixed.
“Ladies polo is not growing but it’s healthy. Essentially it is a mixed game and the girls are girls and the men are men. It’s tough for them to compete on the universal stage. Is a girl going to get to eight goals? I would doubt it. They’re not going to beat Usain Bolt in the hundred metres, are they?”
However, Nina Clarkin, the top female player in the world at present on 4 goals, said: “Women players represent one of the largest growing sectors in the sport and it seems to be a trend worldwide and one that does not seem to be slowing down. The interest and the demand for women’s polo is really high and this allows women players to travel around the International circuit, making money, playing quality polo, and visiting fantastic places.
“I think that, with the introduction of women’s handicaps, the sport is going to continue to flourish and enjoy greater exposure and coverage allowing it to continue to develop and grow.
“To continue to improve we need the International circuit to remain strong to allow our talented players to play both in England and abroad year round creating viable job opportunities for our players and allowing them the opportunity to dedicate themselves to the sport.
“I hope that with the introduction of women’s handicaps, we will eventually see a World Cup Series for women and more sponsors joining the sport. I also hope to see an improvement of women players both in England and worldwide and look forward to being a part of this exciting time for women’s polo.”
Some professional players, however, believe strongly that the HPA does not go far enough.
Sarah Wiseman, a 2-goal British professional wrote in a column for Telegraph Sport that she believes the HPA should be looking to find sponsors and patrons for the game. “Why are we not doing more in the UK to promote the women’s side of the sport? It really is down to individuals, and clubs, and it seems the HPA are not that interested.”
The Audi polo award for Most Outstanding Female player – won by Wiseman in 2013 – was axed last year. Although there are claims by some that funding for ladies polo for training abroad and for bursaries from the HPA appears to be at odds for the women professionals as compared to the men, Wood disagrees.
He insisted that the HPA does support the growth of the women’s game.
“We absolutely support it,” he told Telegraph Sport. “We try to have some England ladies games, which we’ve had for the last few years. There’s an England ladies team playing in New Zealand next week, I think. We do support it. The girls have absolutely equal judgement when they’re 13, 14 and 15. Generally speaking, at that age they are every bit as good as the boys and some of them ride better.
“But as they get older the boys get stronger and it’s hard for them to keep up. It is rugby on horseback, really.
“We obviously invest in the England team. If there was a girl good enough to be in it, they would be in it, and they have been.”
Woodd points towards Clarkin’s role this year. “Nina has got the committee. For the first round of handicaps my understanding is that it is pretty automatic, meaning if you’re a girl and you’ve got a handicap of one, you will become three goals or four goals (in women’s polo ratings). Only for the ladies tournaments, obviously.”
Yet there are indications that more could be done from the top down. Clearly, looking around the world, the sport is growing quickly.
There was an official invite from the Argentine Association to play in the first Women’s International Series to be held at Palermo in 2014, in a women’s handicap 28-30 goal event, but it didn’t take place as no funding was offered to a British team.
In 2012, for the Florida International, a men’s team and a women’s team both were sent by the HPA, the men’s team had a coach as well as other costs covered. The women were largely self-funded, and went on to win.
Some tournaments have come and gone, and could have been given greater investment. The Coworth Ladies International was a tournament which ran for three years, and included some of the top British women professionals – Clarkin, Emma Tomlinson, Wiseman, Rosie Ross, and Lucy Taylor.
Even foreign professionals Lia Salvo – the best female player in Argentina, at 3 goals – and Marianela Castagnola plus some major patrons were involved. Guards ended the tournament “just as it was gaining momentum”, explained women’s polo advocate Alice Gipps.
It also received fulsome support from the late Charlie Stisted, head at Guard’s, who had supported its continuance.
Guards have since started a Ladies Charity game for their female members to support ladies polo, which is promising, but there is an argument this does not support the professional women’s players in the same way as an International tournament.
New Zealanders Roddy Wood and Tim Keyte, the manager of Cirencester polo club, are strong advocates of women’s polo and while Wood helped support the Coworth tournament, Keyte has created an International tournament at Cirencester that has also quickly become one of the main fixtures in female polo in the UK, and the first women’s tournament part of Sunny Hale’s WCT women’s league.
The WCT, founded by Sunny Hale, one of the best women’s players ever, who like Claire Tomlinson reached 5-goals at the summit of her career, played alongside Adolfo Cambiaso to win the US Open. The WCT league is now the largest polo league in the sport.
Cowdray Park also run a fantastic ladies tournament. Ladies tournaments are now held at the most famous clubs in the world such as Palermo in Argentina which is a huge step for recognition of female professionals.
Women’s polo is growing quickly around the world, with international ladies tournaments in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, USA, Argentina, and Australia. Meanwhile, Iran launched it’s women’s polo season last month to a media gathering.
In the Middle East, last December Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum created a three-day event, with cohorts on her Team UAE – Hale, Marianela Castagnola and Ploy Bhinsaeng, who beat Team North America and Team Europe to lay claim to the winner’s trophy.
It was an event designed to highlight the rising profile of women in polo. There was also an ‘All Stars’ match,with Sheikha Maitha, Castagnola, Lucy Taylor and Clarkin against Hale, Bhinsaeng, Hazel Jackson and Eva Brull.
It was a historical moment for women’s polo. With Maitha starting a ladies tournament in Dubai and HRH Princess Azamah an improving force with her Brunei team, they will both bring more publicity to female polo.
But for pros like Hazel Jackson, an ambitious British 1-goaler, it is just not good enough at present in the UK, under the HPA.
Jackson explained that, in her view, the status quo does not offer real incentive for young women to come into the sport as professionals at present.
“For me, it’s gutting to see that we get nothing from the HPA. Not even a training day, nothing to aim for and even when we do get asked to play on the most famous field in the world, they look straight passed us and sweep us underneath the mat.
“I know many people who would love to get involved with some more recognition for us girls, then maybe in the future we would be more appetising for potential sponsors.
“Look at Lia Salvo, the same handicap as me and Sarah Wiseman, lower handicap than Nina, and Lia is sponsored from head to toe, with incredible brands. She is the highest handicapped lady in her country.
“We have about five or six players of similar standard if not better, and no one even knows of us.”
We are looking for polo clubs to be featured in the Telegraph during 2015. Email Rod Gilmour and Gareth A Davies