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
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
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
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