For the last 25 years or so, the sport of polo has attracted many foreign players to Pakistan. Every polo season, professional players from a number of countries have arrived and plied their trade in Lahore. And this year, 2023, will be remembered for when Elena Venot of France became the first woman player to appear in Pakistan’s professional polo circuit.
Twenty-four-year-old Elena has the highest handicap of 7 for a female player. For the mixed (men and women) game she has a handicap of 1. No woman has a mixed polo handicap of more than two. For the mixed handicap, a woman player is assessed vis-a-vis the men players.
Elena was in Pakistan for a little less than a fortnight, to play for BN Polo in the most prestigious domestic polo event — the Century Ventures National Open Polo Championship for the Quaid-e-Azam Gold Cup 2023. She played in every game and was a consistent scorer. BN Polo won the final, in which Elena was one of the goal-scorers.
Eos met with the Frenchwoman during this time for a little tete-a-ete.
For Elena, it was straight from the mother’s lap to the horse’s back. “My dad had started playing polo just a little while before I was born. Soon after, he got his first horse. I was only a month old when my father made me sit on that horse in front of him,” says Elena.
A female French polo player came, saw and conquered at the Lahore Polo Club recently, becoming the first woman to appear on Pakistan’s professional circuit. Eos finds out more about her
“By the age of three, I was already riding solo,” she says.
“I started playing polo when I was seven years old,” she says, adding that she would have started even sooner but the mallet felt too heavy for her before then.
“My father is the one who transmitted his passion to me and also to my two younger sisters. Thanks to this common passion, we are a very close-knit group of siblings. We had some private teachers at home for polo and also for classical riding, voltige [trick riding] and jumping lessons,” she says.
Soon, she was appearing in competitions.Celebrating with teammates after winning the National Open Polo Championship for the Quaid-e-Azam Gold Cup
“I was only eight when I played in a juniors’ tournament. Then at 13, it was a seniors’ event. Here I must mention that they were mostly mixed teams, since few women regularly play polo in France and hence there are not many all-female teams in most parts of the world, too, for that matter,” Elena points out.
Soon she became a much-sought-after player. “Aside from France, I have played in the polo circuits of Argentina, the USA, Switzerland and now, of course, Pakistan,” she says.
“Since my father has been living in the UAE for a long time, I have had the chance to play at the Ghantoot Racing and Polo Club in Abu Dhabi and the Al Habtoor Polo Club in Dubai, too,” she says.
In 2021 and 2022, Elena was in Argentina, also known as the ‘Mecca of Polo’. “During their long season, I appeared for both the ladies’ and mixed teams. In 2022, my younger sisters also played there. In fact, all the top ladies players of the world were seen in action there at the traditional ladies’ competition, the Pink Polo, hosted by the Thai Polo Club, Argentina,” she says.Elena loves horses and the love is mutual
But for Elena, the Pakistani sojourn will always remain memorable. “I was in Dubai when the officials of the BN Polo team invited me to play for them. Some fellow polo players had mentioned the wonderful polo atmosphere in Pakistan, and I readily accepted the offer,” she says.
“Within a few days, I was playing my first match at the Lahore Polo Club. I could feel the excitement and anxiety. After all, a woman was appearing in Pakistan’s pro circuit for the first time and that also in the country’s prime event,” she laughs.
“But it turned out to be a dream debut for me. BN Polo defeated FG Polo 9-5 and I top-scored with four goals. The icing on the cake was that I played the first match on March 8, which marks International Women’s Day. Even the commentator announced, ‘Elena Vernot has made the day special, creating history by becoming the first woman to play in Pakistan’s polo circuit’,” she recalls.
BN Polo continued its winning streak and Elena kept contributing. “We sailed to the final to face a strong team in Master Paints Newage Cables. It was Sunday and the crowded Lahore Polo Club wore a festive look. We won 12-6. Our star player Hamza Mawaz Khan was the top scorer, with five goals, and I scored three,” beams Elena.
“Overall, it was a wonderful experience. Facilities at the Lahore Polo Club were excellent. The horses were also amazing and there was great camaraderie among the team. I was overwhelmed by the hospitality. I have also made quite a few friends in Lahore,” she shares.
Speaking about her time here off the ground, Elena says that she enjoyed sightseeing in Lahore. “Lahore is a great historic city. I visited the magnificent Lahore Fort. The trip to the old walled city was fascinating. The spice market, Shahi Hamam and the colourful Wazir Khan Mosque all added to the charm of this beautiful city,” she says.
“Pakistani cuisine is also very delicious,” she says. “My favourite food here will have to be the biryani,” she adds.
Elena also travelled to Islamabad for a two-day stay. “Islamabad, too, was very enjoyable. It is different from Lahore as it is serene, green and hilly. I was captivated by the Islamabad Polo Club overlooked by the hills, and would like to play there someday,” she says dreamily.
“I am looking forward to coming to Pakistan again, for a longer time and to visit more places,” she says.
Irfan Haider, a former star player who also captained the Pakistan team and has held positions in the Pakistan Polo Association, rates Elena Venot better than most of the male players seen in action during the Quaid-e-Azam Gold Cup. “She is an excellent and bold rider, who can score from any position,” he says. “Four goals in the first match and three in the final speak volumes for her big match temperament.”
Polo is also known as the ‘Sport of Kings’. So this season, a princess of the Sport of Kings ruled the manicured lush green fields of the Lahore Polo Club on horseback, mallet in hand.
The writer is a freelance sports journalist based in Lahore.