Fabien Pictet, as a polo patron and as a man, has never been shy about speaking out. A dozen or so years ago, with his polo team ‘Emerging’ in England’s high goal tournaments, the player-patron overturned tables and the form book with three brilliant seasons, winning two major high goal trophies. He built “a team and cavalry” as he recalls it now, and laid waste to reputations.
Now 57, Pictet, a financial wizard based in Mayfair, is no longer a high goal patron but has his polo base in Mallorca, Spain where his son Sacha is leading the charge, but has watched from afar in recent seasons and has theories on how the dominance of just a few teams in high goal polo could be changed.
Pictet believes the number of ponies per team per event should be limited – which could encourage more young players, and indeed patrons back into English high goal polo. Pictet laments the fact that perhaps just nine high goal teams will play in English polo this coming season. Too little, and indeed, too little progress, he reckons.
Pictet has always had an acute eye on the sport. It’s worth racalling how Pictet tackled the Hurlingham Polo Association back in 2004 with concerns over the fairness of tournament organisation – which led to rule changes – after his team had been disqualified from the prestigious Queen’s Cup after he had refused to play a match. He had done so on the grounds of principle, and his interpretation of the rule book.
Pictet said at the time that when the draw for the first round was made privately at Guard’s Polo Club, Windsor Great Park, he felt that the odds were stacked against him unfairly.
Pictet complained that a three-team league was unfair because it gave potential advantage to the two teams playing last. “This basically means that those two teams will know the results of the first two games before they start,” he had said at the time.
Pictet had written to Guard’s seeking clarification, asking them to “ensure fair play”, but the Queen’s Cup tournament committee at Guard’s Polo Club, whose president is Prince Philip, declined to change the venue or date of the match.
Pictet then failed to show for his match, was fined £20,000 and was banned by the Association from playing at any club for 28 days. It ruled him out of contention in the next tournament, the Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup, and in the process he lost half a season, paying out £200,000 in player contracts.
Pictet, then 46, had entered high-goal polo three years earlier. He had an astounding second season in the sport in 2002, winning two major high-goal trophies, including the Queen’s Cup.
However, he had considered quitting. Three years earlier, The Telegraph had uncovered, there was a disciplinary inquiry at Cowdray Park after a match between two teams appeared one-sided, though the chief umpire did not intervene at half-time.
It led to David Wood, the HPA chief executive, bringing in a penalty shoot-out rule, phasing out the prospect of sharp practice which could take place. “The penalty shoot-out is one of the best things that has been brought into the sport in my time,” he said.
Pictet contacted Telegraph Sport last week having seen a series of articles on suggestions for changes in the sport, and comments from leading player Facundo Pieres on the state of the high goal game.
Pictet said: “The HPA doesn’t seem to be evolving fast enough and now the result is you have eight or nine teams in this year’s high goal which is a result of not taking the right decisions and not clamping down.”
“I’m 57 now so I stopped high goal quite a few years ago. I tried one season but I guess I was nostalgic. It was ridiculous. I didn’t have anything. That was the end of it. I bought myself a nice property in Mallorca and discovered some Germans were playing there and moved my horses there. I played there. Quite frankly I’m not in physical shape anymore to play that level of polo. But I’m very sensitive about what’s happening because I think it’s ridiculous for the youth in polo. They have to make the changes.”
“We’re in a situation today where the top teams in high goal polo have unlimited funding. It’s a bit like Barcelona, Real Madrid and Paris St Germain in football now.”
“You can’t compete with people like that. They go so far ahead. If you have 50 or 60 high goal horses during the season there’s no way the second level of teams can actually put on the horse power because they change every two minutes. It’s a bit like Formula 1 before they made the changes with the tyres and things like that. You can have a new car full of fuel and new tyres every two minutes. The result is the gap has become bigger and bigger.”
So here’s Pictet’s first suggestion: “I thought a lot about it and I think they should really limit the number of horses you can bring. The game would be a lot better. Even though they’d come with $200,000 horses. You’d have a handicap on people, not on horses. You can’t run out every bloody chukka and go up and down and change horses every five minutes. At that level horse power is about 80 percent of the game.”
“A lot of people will hate me for saying that, but it’s not possible. You cannot continue this way. We had one of the best cavalry in 2004 and 2005 and the most expensive horse I had at the time, which was the top of the market, was around 50 grand. Today the same horse is 200 grand. It’s gone up four times.”
“If you add to that the players salary, you would probably have to pay the top guys a million or million and a half whereas back then it was 250 grand. The price of everything has gone up. It becomes ridiculous for people to try and put teams out if they don’t have that type of unlimited, billionaire funding. They have to bring the game back. It suffers. It trickles down the whole food chain.”
“A lot of people will look at polo for the first time and not understand who is playing where because you change sides every time. Do the same thing as football. Three on one side, three on the other side. If you make it simple for the referees, easy for people to understand, you would have a different game.”
Pictet believes it would make the sport more competitive at the top level for more teams and more of a spectacle for fans. “The cost would be a lot less for everybody. It’s hard enough even if you hire (ponies). But even the pros all have a huge production and twenty horses to choose from. Every good pros have six or eight horses and that’s it. It opens up the field completely. You have more change, more competition.”
Looking back on his successful times, Pictet added: “When I entered in 2000 I was told by Bautista Heguy that you need three years to build your calvary. I was lucky, I won in two years. We had a very nice cavalry. But it was possible then. If I did today what I had done in 2002 it would be impossible. Even then I was probably off the budget of the major teams.”
“Today, if you want to get the top, top guys, which these four teams have, your salary is probably at least three million. Your cavalry is not a one day cost, it’s a yearly cost. I had no stars at all. I played quite hard myself so we had a real team. That’s where we made the difference,” added Pictet.
“They have to simplify these rules and limit the horses. It will trickle down completely and give a chance to young up and coming players. It’s really a no brainer.” Amen to that.