BY EMILY NASH
It’s a favourite pastime of the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry, whose father Prince Charles and grandfather the Duke of Edinburgh were keen players in their day.
But to many outsiders, Polo is a mysterious blur of galloping ponies, mallets flying, tight white trousers and a little too much Champagne.
So with the UK Polo season now well underway, HELLO! teamed up with luxury whisky brand Royal Salute to find out more and take a crash course in the “Sport of Kings”.
It’s a sticky, humid day in Palm Beach, Florida, as three of Polo’s most famous faces gather to teach their sport to a bunch of novices.
England player Malcolm Borwick is joined by Argentine superstar Nacho Figueras and former model Jodie Kidd, who he describes as one of the world’s best female players.
In just a few hours, Malcolm and Nacho will line up alongside Prince Harry for the annual Sentebale Royal Salute Polo Cup, which has so far raised more than £1million for the African charity Harry founded in memory of his mother Princess Diana.
But first Malcolm promises to take us from “Zero to Hero” and get us hitting a ball from a moving horse by the end of our 90-minute session.
He is passionate about making the traditionally exclusive sport more accessible and somehow manages to convince HELLO! we can crack it despite a serious lack of equestrian skills.
“By the end of today you’ll get a feeling that you can actually do this,” he says. Polo is played in 68 countries around the world.
“Winston Churchill said that a Polo handicap is a passport to the world and that’s true,” says Malcolm. “One of the things that Royal Salute has been able to do with this platform is encourage and grow the sport in places where you wouldn’t imagine they would play Polo.”
So having never imagined we would play Polo, we take to the field armed with miniature hand mallets to learn the four main strokes of the game.
It turns out being able to tell your left from your right is pretty crucial at this point.
Polo sticks are held in the right hand only – for safety – and can be swung on the pony’s near (left) side – or off (right) side. We try out the relatively simple offside forehand, the powerful near side forehand, the offside backhand and tricky near side backhand.
So far, so complicated, but to our surprise, we are all soon hitting balls up and down the field. Next we are split into teams and told to play a chukker – one of four, seven-minute periods of play that make up a match. Each team is made up of four players and Malcolm explains that the player in first position is like a striker in football – his job is goal scoring.
He compares the number two player to a “Jack Russell”, because they play hard and get involved with everything. Prince Harry is a natural number two, according to Malcolm, because he “is high energy, naturally outgoing and wants to be in the thick of the action.”
The third position is the “general” – like a centre-half in football – they control the speed and direction of the game. Number four plays in defence and waits at the back – a position favoured by Prince William.
“With the Duke of Cambridge, he is naturally more conservative and better suited to a defensive position,” says Malcolm. He and Jodie also demonstrate how to “ride-off” against your opposing number – bumping and pushing them as you ride side by side to try and stop them getting the ball. It all looks rather dangerous.
Jodie, who recalls being “brought up on the side of a polo field,” says players have to be “incredibly athletic.” She says: “Not only are you riding a horse at 40 miles per hour, but you’ve got to have the skill to hit this tiny little ball through very small goals.”
So in slightly chaotic scenes, we race up and down on foot, trying out our new skills, attempting a few ride-offs (minus the ride) and even scoring a goal or two. Easy. Now we just have to do it all again from five feet above ground on the back of a horse. It turns out it’s hard to look cool and collected after galloping the 300 yard length of the field on an imaginary horse in 30 degree heat, so HELLO! tries to pretend that smouldering Nacho, once voted the world’s second most handsome man ahead of Brad Pitt, is not watching, nor is his impossibly beautiful and stylish model wife Delfina Blaquier.
Next comes perhaps the most surreal part of the lesson. We climb onto stacked hay bales for some “stick and balling” – practising our shots using full-length mallets from a height. HELLO! even manages to connect with the ball a few times and send it a respectable distance.
Thankfully Torquhil Ian Campbell, 13th Duke of Argyll, is on hand to field it back to us.
The Duke is global ambassador for Royal Salute Whisky and will later present the winner’s trophy to Prince Harry’s ISPS Handa Sentebale team at the exclusive Valiente Polo Farm.
But for now His Grace very graciously collects my wayward balls and shouts encouragement. Not your average taster session.
Finally it’s time to saddle up and take to the field on horseback.
“When’s the last time you were on a horse?” asks Malcolm. “Never? That’s fine. Reins in left hand, stick in the right. Off you go!”
At a very slow trot, we set off around the field, swinging our mallets and more often than not, managing to hit the ball and not the pony.
HELLO! feels elated and can’t wait to do it all again. Ponies, royalty, exotic destinations, luxury whisky, sex-symbol players and glamorous guests. What’s not to love?
A brief history of Polo:
– Polo was first played by noblemen in ancient Persia more than 2,000 years ago and quickly spread across Asia.
– In the 1860s a British Army officer stumbled across a game in Manipur, India and realised it could be used to train soldiers to ride with their left hand and carry a sword in their right.
– The 32-page rule book he wrote is still followed to this day.
– The game quickly spread across the rest of the world, becoming a particular hit in Argentina and enjoying a boom in the USA in the early 1900s.
– The sport was impacted by two World Wars, but, says Malcolm, “It is now on the way back up.”
Money raised at the 2016 Sentebale Royal Salute Polo Cup will help send 1,500 children and teenagers to monthly clubs and a five-day residential camp at the Mamohato Children’s Centre in Lesotho, where can learn to overcome the stigma of living with HIV.
Royal Salute also sponsors Sentebale’s Care Give Initiative, which supports the parents and grandparents of children living with HIV.