Polo has long been considered a sport played and watched by the rich and famous, from the hallowed turf of Windsor’s Smiths Lawn in front of royalty to the snow covered lakes in glitzy St. Moritz. That view is changing, writes Algy Sim.
Polo is no longer the preserve of the privileged few. The number of polo clubs in the UK is increasing significantly and events such as Chestertons Polo in the Park, a three-day event which finished at the weekend, becoming an annual occasion hosted in the heart of Fulham in London.
It has also become far more affordable to learn to play. Many smaller clubs are offering deals to encourage new players to the game. Take, for instance, Dorset Polo Club. The west country set-up is currently offering a ‘zero to hero’ package of club membership and 12 lessons from £500, and is a mere two hours’ drive from London.
This concerted effort to make the sport more accessible and to entice the general public to try their hand, has required some changes to the game.
The sport by its very nature requires a large area for the two teams of four players and their horses, to battle it out over a polo ball made from hard plastic. A full size polo ground measures some 300 yards by 160 yards, and this in itself creates a challenge to keep the spectators engaged, as much of a chukka can be played in the distance.
Speak to some top players and they are indifferent to the way the sport’s UK governing body, the Hurlingham Polo Club, are running and promoting the game, which has changed little in decades. Look at changes made by fellow fast-paced sport Formula 1, they say.
And although they may be reluctant to changes to the field, reducing the size of the ground is an effective way of providing plenty of up-close action for the crowds at events such as Polo in the Park.
However the smaller arena brings with it safety considerations for the horses, players and spectators. Players are therefore limited to three per side and the traditional ball is replaced by a larger air-filled and softer version.
Great for the spectator? Not necessarily. In the three-man format it is much harder for the stronger players to carry a weaker player, meaning the game can become more disjointed and less free-flowing than in its original four-man format.
Given the limited space, the three-man game also tends to result in shorter plays at lower speeds.
Additionally, the different construction of the air-filled ball changes the dynamics of the game, often delivering less distance and control to the players. Therefore in providing greater proximity, you lose some of the essence of the game of polo, the speed and the thrill of the open play over larger grounds.
These promoter-driven events should be encouraged, though. Polo in the Park is an entertaining day out and provides a great shop window offering a taster of the sport up close and personal, in a controlled environment overlooking the Thames.
As a purist of the sport, having indulged in the shortened London version, I suggest you make your way down the M3. There, you can get on a polo pony and experience the excitement and pleasures of the real game – playing four-a-side on a larger ground, hitting a polo ball over greater distance whilst overlooking the beautiful Poole Harbour.