The strange world of polo, its patrons and the biggest game in the sport

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Imagine if Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich had bought Chelsea, and then made his first point of business to install himself as centre midfielder. Meanwhile, fellow football club owners, Sheikh Mansour, John Henry and Malcolm Glazer at Man City, Liverpool and Man Utd all did the same with their respective clubs – and nobody thought it strange.

While some may say Abramovich is not far from making himself the proxy manager, in polo you can become a patron and buy yourself a starting place in the team. Apart from some forms of sailing, there is no other sport in which this happens. It’s strangely near unique and inclusive.

A handicap system allows this setup in polo. This not only levels the playing field, but also ensures interest from the super rich. They know that getting involved doesn’t just mean a seat on the board and an executive box, but also a place on a pony in the middle of the action. Then they can sign sign up other players, either for the season, a week, a month or even just a single game.

“We’re the playthings of the rich, we’re guns for hire,” Malcolm Borwick, a member of England’s polo team, tells Esquire. He’s based in Buenos Aires, largely because it’s the sport’s main centre for funding professionals. From here, he travels to matches around the planet. It echoes Winston Churchill’s quote that, “a polo handicap is a passport to the world”. And Argentina is where you find the best, high-handicap players.

Rather than seeing the owners as rich interlopers, Borwick explains how they are simply part of the game. “We are hugely indebted to the fact that they want to play. For them it is a hobby; for us it is a career. Actually, a lot of the joy of this sport is in teaching it to patrons. These people were titans of their industries and now they have a new challenge.”

“Patrons have used refurbished Boeing 777s for transportation, with just two horses per flight”

Player handicaps range from minus-two to ten goals, with ten denoting the very highest standard. The total handicaps of the two teams are totalled up, with the lesser side getting the difference in goals as a head start. Around two-thirds of all handicapped players are rated at two goals or less. Since the inception of the system in 1890, fewer than fifty players have ever been awarded ten goals. Of the top-handicappers currently playing, all bar one (the Uruguayan David Stirling) are from Argentina. And if you want to see them in action, the Campeonato Argentino Abierto de Polo is the place to go.

The Campeonato is the global season’s finale, and the oldest championship in the world. It’s the Super Bowl of polo and the final curtain call of a circuit that runs from January to April in the United States, May to July in England and then September to December in Argentina. Although the very best compete, it has no prize money and is instead played solely for the glory of the game. It’s also the culmination of the three tournaments that are usually played with no patrons, due to the fact that it is eight-goal handicap and upwards. There have, however, been some sponsors who have qualified. The eight-handicap Canadian, Fred Mannix Jr, played in the 2012 Argentina Open, and is described by one professional player as being “eight goals and worth every penny”.

This level of ability is not something taken lightly. A technically difficult game that involves half a tonne of horse travelling at 30 mph, it is not a sport to be trifled with. Despite sitting this one out, the patrons are most certainly in attendance at the Campeonato. As well as being the biggest thing in the sport, in some ways it’s also like the Cannes Film Festival, where the façade is a big party but people come to do some serious business. The weekend sees owners buying and selling horses and signing up players for the next year, with staggering sums of money changing hands. And something as simple as a good run and goal in this one match will significantly increase the value of the pony.

And horses are something you need a lot of in this game. Because they run the equivalent of one to two miles during a seven-and-a-half-minute chukker, they are frequently changed to ensure peak freshness. With eight chukkers and four players on each team, the need for a big stable is essential. Team owners can own as many as eight hundred horses – and if that sounds expensive then wait until you try and transport them. While you may have bemoaned flying “cattle class”, patrons have been known to use refurbished Boeing 777s for transportation, with just two horses per flight. This isn’t unusual, and private jets are often used to jet ponies around the world – to Buenos Aires, Dubai, India, America, and increasingly South Korea, a place where the sport is growing rapidly.

“Because I made too much money too young,” is the (only half joking) reply when Esquire asks new Korean patron JB Lee why he got involved in such a ruinously expensive business. As the saying goes, if you want to make a small fortune out of polo, start with a large one. Luckily for him, he did. “I worked in oil trading for twenty years and I’m now semi retired, so I learned how to play polo in Singapore and thought it might be a good life after I gave up work. I moved back to South Korea to start a polo club there and we have about thirty members.”

He says that most of his club’s members work in finance and investments or run their own businesses, so he’s here to improve his team. “We have the hardware – good facilities and polo pitches – but we need the software: good players and good horses as well as experienced coaches.” The sorts of figures spent on such things run high. Emirati patron Ali Al Bawardi is understood to retain world’s number one player Adolpho Cambiaso as captain of Team Dubai for a fee of $1.6 million.

While some patrons buy their way into the team, others are content to sit it out and ensure that their team has best players representing it, and Cambiaso is the very best there currently is. He’s the game’s Lionel Messi and if you have the money, you hire him to play for you. Players will follow the cash, sometimes signing up for a single game, so it’s like paying a fortune to have Messi join your work football team for the night, except you don’t have to pass him off as a visiting friend or the new guy from HR.

In a country where the gulf between rich and poor is growing, it would be easy to conclude that polo is a pursuit that’s becoming ever more distant to the average Argentinian. But unlike in most other countries, the passion for playing is something that goes beyond the upper-classes and the game is not solely comprised of a wealthy elite. Professional player Patricio Amespil reels off a list of reasons why he thinks Argentina produces so many good players from all walks of life. They start when they’re younger, while access to good schools, clubs and horses is not as prohibitive as it is in the West. “You don’t have to be rich to play here, and also there is not so much of a rich person’s culture surrounding it,” he tells Esquire. In the land of the gaucho, boys growing up on estancia ranches play polo as soon as they learn to ride.

“There have been ten-handicap players who started as groom,” says Malcolm Borwick, echoing Amespil’s point. “Inevitably, the fact of owning horses is financially punitive, so it’s not as easy as taking up football or tennis. However, as a player, if you are talented and you work hard, this sport represents an opportunity to change your life.”

Nacho Figueras is a farmer’s son who started playing aged eight. He’s now the most famous name in polo and has been dubbed the David Beckham of the sport, largely because his good looks have made him more famous than other talented players and given him fame beyond followers of the game. He has also exposed polo to a wider audience. Figueras is the face of Ralph Lauren’s Black Label line, epitomising the kind of luxury brands the sport attracts. Royal Salute whisky’s partnership with world number two, Facundo Pieres, is another big tie-in.

But it’s not an upper-society closed shop. Even among those who don’t play, there’s an interest that crosses boundaries of class. Many of the general public follow a team and nowhere else in the world has a 20,000-capacity stadium just for polo. ESPN show games live in Argentina and it attracts a different set to that of Dubai, the U.S. or England. “These are the fans who know the game and not just the ‘hat people’ who are there for the champagne and dressing up,” says Enrico Roselli the manager of La Martina, a polo brand that’s one of the de facto uniforms of those who play and follow the sport. White shirt and jeans are the order of the day at the final, there’s barely a suit or ostentatious hat in sight.

The game itself is a true showpiece. Unlike the semi-interested brunchers in Dubai or the picnic-by-the-Land-Rover set in England, this is a crowd that watches every second, amid chanting, confetti and flags. The two teams in the final, La Dolfina and Ellestina, are the biggest two sides, with the former having won five of the last eight titles and currently fields a dream team line-up. All four players have perfect ten handicaps and the quintet includes the number one and two in the world — Cambiaso and Juan Martín Nero. They also have huge support from a large Uruguayan contingent in the crowd that has travelled to support the only non-Argentine, David Stirling.

Having the Palermo district of Buenos Aires as a backdrop to the game is a reminder that this isn’t some country club. Watching from high up in the stands also reveals a different game. Pitchside, you appreciate the speed, but with an elevated view you see the intricacy of movement and how the game unfolds tactically. And against the odds, it all pans out well for Ellerstina, a side that includes two ten and two nine-goal players. The team pulls off a 12-10 win to take the prestigious title of “best polo team in the world”.

Star player Facundo Pires leads them to this unexpected win, as golden boy Cambiaso staggeringly misses crucial penalty shots for La Dolfina. As the trophy is presented, the patrons look on, notes are made and strategies formulated. Post match, the talk in the press box, taxi cabs and bars is about Cambiasso’s three missed penalties. Why did he not change the taker? Why keep missing? Was he overconfident or just arrogant? Behind the scenes, multiple deals are already being struck. Patrons set up meetings to buy the horses that have impressed them, Facundo Pires signs up as an ambassador for Royal Salute whisky, and the Koreans are off to buy some new horses. Even before the ticker tape from the stands has settled, vast sums are being spent ready for next season.

For Esquire magazine

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