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Pony and rap ; Princes William and Harry are keen players and Claudia Schiffer and Elle Macpherson are fans. Polo matches have replaced pop festivals as the places to hang out with the in-crowd
by Karyn Miller
Mail on Sunday; London, May 18, 2003

The last time polo was trendy was the Eighties, when icons of the era such as Brooke Shields, Robert Wagner and the cast of Dynasty were regularly photographed astride polo ponies, their voluminous hairdos tucked into riding helmets. At the end of that decade, Jilly Cooper published her bonkbuster, Polo, and established a colourful, if terrifying, vision of the polo scene.

Big shoulder pads (women), cripplingly tight, white jodhpurs (men, particularly Argentinian ones), virile love gods and lots of steamy goings-on.

Between then and now, the game has made the news only rarely - when Prince Charles has tumbled from his mount, for example.

But the film rights to Cooper's novel were sold this year and polo has become fashionable again. This time around, the sport of kings has gathered a fresh selection of celebrity converts. Trendsetters such as Elle Macpherson and Claudia Schiffer have both appeared in glossy magazine photographs, watching from the stands. The Cartier International Polo event is a celebrity magnet, with visitors including Angelina Jolie and Penny Lancaster, Rod Stewart's latest squeeze.

The two sons of Small Faces drummer Kenny Jones, Jay and Cody, are regular players. Jones, who owns Hurtwood Park Polo Club in Surrey, says: 'I want them to dominate polo in the same way that the Williams sisters dominate tennis.' Another talent is Tom Rutherford, son of Genesis founder Mike Rutherford.

But polo's two biggest stars are undoubtedly Prince William and Prince Harry. The Prince of Wales's 1999 Christmas card featured the three of them astride their ponies, in the scarlet and royal purple shirts of Team Highgrove. William played polo at Eton, and when his team won a trophy at a charity tournament last summer, he was presented with his prize - and a kiss - by Schiffer.

Polo is also shaking off its stuffy image. The programme for the Prince of Wales Trophy, the season's traditional curtain-raiser at the Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club next Sunday, reads more like a BBC Radio 1 road show than a sporting competition. Its snooty- sounding title has been abbreviated to a snappier, more customer- friendly moniker?(the Prince's Polo); Ruby Wax will be hosting an open-air concert, with performances by Liberty X, Emma Bunton, Big Brovaz, Girls Aloud and Most Wanted; giggly young things will be lolling around in the sunshine and London nightclub Chinawhite is organising a 'party tent'.

The Prince's Polo is the first of the UK's four 'high-goal' tournaments (in which players have high handicaps) and professionals from around the globe will take part. Ten thousand people are expected to attend, many of whom will be polo virgins. They will be drawn not only by the attractions on offer, but also by unusually modest ticket prices. Prices start at pounds 5 (for the under-16s) and peak at pounds 50 (for entrance to the premium enclosure and grandstand seats). However, concert tickets cost an additional pounds 35, and entry to the Chinawhite tent is restricted to members and those enjoying corporate hospitality. Nevertheless, compared to the steep prices charged at other summer festivals - this year, Glastonbury tickets cost pounds 110 - it's a trifle.

Polo, that bastion of the elite, is selling itself to the hoi polloi.

One can only wonder what Rupert Campbell-Black, Cooper's suave playboy hero, would make of the descent of thousands of pop fans on to the hallowed turf of the polo ground. Until now, polo has been a formidably exclusive sport, the preserve of society's monied grandees. Stables of ponies do not come cheap - a top thoroughbred can cost as much as pounds 70,000. There are additional costs, too: mallets, helmets, regulation breeches, club membership fees, tournament entry fees, and so on.

Spectators have been a similarly exclusive breed. Numerous polo tournaments take place throughout the summer months, but many of the season's events require an invitation or a paid-up membership as a prerequisite for a spot in the stands. The Hildon Queen's Cup, which takes place at Windsor Great Park in June, is organised by the august Guards Polo Club. Entry is gained only via a corporate hospitality package, or a membership card. A year's subscription costs pounds 225 and there's also a pounds 150 joining fee. A similar policy operates at the 107-year-old Warwickshire Cup, which is held at Cirencester Park Polo Club, also in June. The subscription here is a more modest pounds 105.

But even if you're prepared to pay to rub shoulders with polo's finest, sounding like a pro is a different matter - the rules and terminology of the game are quite daunting. To people not schooled in the game from birth, terms such a chukka (a period of play), a millionaire's shot (hitting the ball from behind, between the pony's back legs and front legs) or bumping (when a player steers his pony into the side of another pony to deflect a shot) mean nothing. No wonder that, until now, most of us have felt excluded.

'To most people, polo isn't a sport, it's an image,' says Henry Brett, the country's top-rated player. Yet, as the revamping of the Prince's Polo indicates, that image is primed for change. At the Prince's Polo and at the Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup, membership is not a prerequisite for entry, and ticket prices are affordable. The sport is becoming more accessible and, consequently, its popularity is growing.

And it's not just men taking up the mallet - an increasing number of women are, too. Dressage and eventing come across as rather dull by comparison - especially when polo matches offer a chance of 'bumping' a prince. Rake-thin model Jodie Kidd, who has temporarily abandoned her catwalk career to concentrate on her game, has become something of an ambassador for the sport.

Although she has been playing for only five years, Kidd has already earned herself a place in the Women's World Championships in July. Her partner of three-and-a-half years is Tarquin Southwell, one of this country's most talented players, who was once memorably described as 'the man who put the "oh" into polo'.

'I like polo players,' says Kidd. 'It's not the jodhpurs - it's the boots and knee pads. I just love rough-and-ready guys.' A fresh crop of handsome young players has recruited a new generation of fans to the sport - in particular, teenage girls. Traditionally, this hitherto-untapped fan base has dedicated itself to the worship of manufactured boy bands. But how can warbling weeds such as Ronan Keating and Gareth Gates compare to the array of strapping polo talent on offer?

Brett has often been compared to a rock star. He has the dark, brooding looks, an unruly mane of hair and is prone to temper tantrums. In 2000, when England lost the Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup to Argentina, he returned to the team tent in a rage, screamed and cursed, threw his mallet to the ground and hurled his helmet to one side. Surely, that's the polo equivalent of throwing a television set from a hotel window.

An added attraction for new fans is the intimacy of the game. Unlike rock concerts, there are no barriers or burly security guards between them and their heroes.

The new popularity of the sport among the young - there is even Pony Club Polo, for riders aged between six and 21 - may owe something to the influence of the growing anti-hunting movement. Public schools such as Rugby and Stowe have replaced their beagle packs with polo teams. Despite the physical risks of galloping around a field with mallets, many parents consider polo to be a safer option than foxhunting - at least their little ones won't be harassed by animal activists.

The parental seal of approval would usually be the death knell for any fashionable teenage activity. Certainly, it wouldn't be easy to find parents with a similar enthusiasm for their offsprings' patronage of rock festivals such as Glastonbury, Creamfields or Ozzfest. However, polo has a wealth of lifestyle advantages that even the young can't ignore. Champagne in place of warm beer; marquee dining instead of camping stoves and Supernoodles; flushing toilets; comfortable hotels rather than damp tents. And best of all, tickets that are easy to come by. Beat that, Glasto.

For tickets to the Prince's Polo call 0870 160 2837, or visit www.princes-polo.co.uk.

 

 

 


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