The thrilling world of polo

The global superstar

He’s so famous he’s identifiable solely by his surname. There isn’t a trophy (Adolfo) Cambiaso hasn’t won. Only 37 and already acknowledged as the greatest player of all time, he holds more than 30 Master Cup titles, with his 1998 Argentine Open record of 67 goals still untouched. The late Kerry Packer once offered his four players $1 million each to beat Cambiaso’s team, knowing his money was safe.

The Argentinian grew up on a polo ranch created by his mother, Martina de Estrada, who was from one of the country’s founding families, and arrived in England aged 15, seemingly playing a different game to everyone else. The following year, he became the youngest 10-goal handicapper in history. And, later, the richest, when he signed for Sheikh Ali Albwardy’s Dubai side in 2001.
Cambiaso is married to Argentine model and television presenter Maria Vazquez, with whom he has three children. Polo may be synonymous with a Champagne lifestyle, but this globetrotter prefers the company of his young family; at parties, he simply just shows his face, then leaves.

His natural athleticism is mesmerising. He runs, but is notable for sleeping late and eating and drinking what he wants. ‘I’ve seen players looking about like goldfish, wondering where the ball has gone,’ commented his friend Peter McCormack to The Daily Tele-graph last year. Cambiaso can gallop the 600ft length of a polo field, bouncing the ball on his mallet before dispatching it into the goal. ‘I just play, that’s all,’ he offered. ‘When I’m in the field, I always connect with what I’m doing. I can’t explain it. I can’t control it. It just happens.’

The best Briton

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In any other sport involving a ball, James Beim would be a household name. A gradu-ate of the North Cotswold Pony Club, he’s been at the top of his craft for 10 years, winning The Prince of Wales Cup and The Queen’s Cup aged 22, and his first Cowdray Gold Cup in 1998 with top team Ellerston. He’s just won best British professional at the Audi awards for the second year running, making four times in all.

But, despite this CV, the modest seven-goaler still feels ‘honoured’ to represent England, and has to work at the corporate endorsements that flood towards less durable stars. ‘This year, I’ve got round to appointing an agent, who’s trying to get sponsorship, setting up a website and all the rest of it,’ he says. ‘Polo is working on its profile, and it’s got a lot better in the past five years, but it comes down to not being overly tele-vised. It’s true that tens of thousands attend the big international days, but not all of them are watching the match closely-they’re there for the social scene. However, anything that gets people to matches is a start.’

It’s a curse for top British players to stall around a seven-goal handicap. Mr Beim says the way to improve is playing the Argentine Open finals-an as-yet unfulfilled ambition. This tournament excludes patrons-and, there-fore, players of low handicap-making play all the keener. With a dozen ponies in both Britain and Argentina, and riding eight a day, Mr Beim feels lucky to have access to a horsepower supply from Eller-ston. Two of his top ponies were sired by Norman Pentaquad, who stands at the late Kerry Packer’s Ellerston Stud in Australia and has also sired a Melbourne Cup winner, Doriemus. ‘Horses make the huge difference at high-goal level,’ he concedes. ‘No racing driver has ever won in a Skoda!’

The pony

Some say 70% of polo is down to the pony. Production is big business, and science is changing the traditional transit of livestock across the Atlantic. Embryo transfer now allows top mares to reproduce without missing a season, with eggs from top ponies reportedly selling for $19,000.
The Argentine Pieres dynasty, whose patriarch Gonzalo Sr founded Ellerstina-one of only four teams ever to win polo’s Triple Crown-has 1,000 ponies in its breeding programme. However, Pieres’s son Gonzalo, ‘Gonzalito’, says fewer than 100 of those have the potential to go on.

Chita, his all-time favourite, was bred conventionally. She is by Sobornado out of Luna, herself the best mare ever played by his father. Luna produced other champions, such as Califa, the famed gelding of 10-goaler Mariano Aguerre and the first pony successfully cloned (this foal will be kept entire). Chita played every Argentine Open from the age of four to 15, as well as being the world number five’s preference for daily practice.

‘A pony is like a good car. You need power, acceleration and good brakes,’ says Gonzalito. ‘The good ponies know how to play the game, too, and they always have a way of knowing to be ready for the really big tournaments. Chita has everything, but her best ability is the turn, and the way she stops. You were always the first guy on the ball.
I have others that are amazing, but Chita was the favourite. Sadly, now, I’ll have to choose another, because she’s in the breeding programme.’

The star in waiting

Skill is one thing: for the fledgling professional, making your own luck is the challenge. It depends on the ‘rub of the green’, says the much-garlanded 20-year-old Jack Richard-son, who has thrilled the Cowdray crowds, but is still waiting for his high-goal break.

He won his first tournament aged 10, the Pony Club’s principal Gannon Trophy four times, and was in the winning Young England team against New Zealand in 2010. He turned professional in his last year at Harrow, admitting to taking too much time off from his studies. Already playing off
a handicap of four, Mr Richardson plays 8-, 12- and 15-goal polo, mostly for patron Simon Arber, the IT entrepreneur, beside Tom Morley, 30, his mentor. Mr Richardson was voted Julius Baer Victor Ludorum most outstanding young player at polo’s Oscars, the Audi awards. ‘You have to keep eating away at it, trying to stay well mounted and hoping you provide good value on your handicap,’ he says.

His inexpensive pony source is former racehorses, back into vogue, says Mr Richardson, because rule changes mean there is less stopping and turning and more speed. Lord Manton sends him two and three year olds from Yorkshire. ‘A racehorse has already been broken in and done something. You know what you’re getting when you buy it, and in two years, they can be playing,’ he explains.
‘It would be easy to lie down and say the Argentinians get everything, but the opportunities are there for British players-it just takes the right drive. Once you’re high goal, it picks you up; getting in the first time is the tricky bit, and if you try too soon and fail, you may never be asked again. I want to do it properly. In the past few years, I probably wasn’t ready. I am now.’

The professional groom

Sophie Bates was voted best professional player’s groom for 2011 in the annual awards given by Guards Polo Club, the last thing she expected when falling into polo by chance. Brought up in Farnborough, Hampshire, she joined a breaking yard when, for domestic reasons, she urgently needed a live-in position. It was suggested polo might suit her, and she moved into
a three-year role with a zero-goal-handicapped patron. When he broke his hand, Miss Bates was introduced to British legend Howard Hipwood; nine years on, she still cares for his string.

Like many entering the horse industry in the 21st century, Miss Bates gained an equine diploma at college but describes it as ‘an absolute waste of two years. Every-thing I know now is from experience’. She’s a huge admirer of leading polo veterinary surgeon Simon Knapp and player-coach David Morley, the HPA’s welfare chairman, and is proud of Britain’s clear global superiority in polo care. Mr Hipwood is mostly based in Britain, which suits Miss Bates, who’s a ‘home person’. She admits to watching little actual play, is not particularly interested in polo politics and is happy in the close-knit community of the pony lines. She modestly assumes her award was based on ‘shiny tack and shining horses’.

‘Polo ponies are a lot nicer to look after than Thoroughbreds or eventers-the latter are a lot bigger and not so well behaved,’ she adds. ‘You can bring in six at once from the field, which you could never do with any other horse. I don’t know whether it’s in their breeding, their way of life, or that they’re exercised together, but off the field, they’re generally quiet and calm. You couldn’t get me away from polo now.’

The patron

The nearest a football mogul gets to the action is a minute or so on the sidelines. Servicing four polo players can involve 60-odd ponies at some £70,000 apiece, their global travel and entourage of 20 grooms, physiotherapists, farriers and vets. But high-net-worth individuals will always invest because of the facility for the patron, as paymaster-player, to engage on the field of play.

Coca-Cola returns to the 2012 Veuve Clicquot Cowdray Gold Cup after six years’ absence under new patron Will Johnston, the fourth generation of the first family of American polo. Playing off two, he’s highly handicapped compared with rivals such as advertising guru Jean-François Decaux (0), financier Lyndon Lea (0) or the Venezuelan banker Victor Vargas (1). Not that any of them unbalance their teams: every high-goal aggregate is completed by a hotshot Argentinian Cambiaso’s retainer for Dubai is allegedly £1 million a year.

Mr Johnston’s great-grandfather, James F. Johnston of Chattanooga, started it all in 1901 by buying the first Coca-Cola bottling franchise. His descendants have won every American trophy, governed the sport and established thousands of acres of public polo facilities in Florida, Tennessee and Wyoming. Mr Johnston compares the thrill of playing to ‘driving a Ferrari’, but he always hopes he contributes to the match. He’s coached by former nine-goaler Julian Hipwood and he believes that direct exposure to top players definitely raises your game. ‘Polo is all-consuming. There are
so many moving parts. You could spenda lifetime on the horsemanship alone. I’ve played soccer and I’ve run, but they don’t hold a candle to polo.’