Once addicted, you will only stop playing polo when you are either broke or dead, ‘usually dead’ according to David Wood, Chief Executive of Hurlingham Polo Association. And a new trend for ‘cheap and cheerful’ polo clubs across Britain only promises to increase the numbers of aficionados; the ability to rent polo ponies, and enjoy free chukkas has brought down the cost of one of Britain’s more elite sports. ‘It’s a misconception that you have to be rich to play polo,’ says Will Ramsay, founder of the Border Reivers Polo Club in the Scottish Borders. ‘Children can do it on their Pony Club ponies.’
Over the last few years, changes to long-established rules and attitudes have made it easier for polo yards to be set up. In the past polo ponies were bought not hired and new clubs could not be set up within 30 miles of another. ‘There is more of a variety of clubs these days,’ Mr Wood confirmed. ‘They are not all exclusive and expensive.’ Kevin Lamacraft established a new polo yard on Exmoor when his hirling business was devastated by the Hunting Act: ‘We live in the real word,’ he explains, ‘We’re not on the M4 corridor or near London. We’re far happier to offer value for money and get commitment from our clients. We’re already noticing than polo is more addictive than hunting and we are looking for long term commitment.’
Commitment, according to Mr Wood, is often lacking in polo. Much of the recent impetus for polo has come from schools and the Pony Club rather than teams with patrons. ‘You get more supporters when two schools or pony clubs play against each other than any other match,’ he explains. ‘People love watching England play but there is just not the same loyalty towards sponsored teams or those with patrons. Plus no one can say it is a great spectator sport – you get a few good games but they are few and far between.’
The Border Reivers Polo Club is so popular with young people that Tuesdays is a reserved childrens’ day. Similarly a large number of Kevin Lamacraft’s clients are aged between 10 and 20 years old. ‘The standard of youngsters has improved quite significantly over the summer,’ he explains. ‘I certainly see a good future for polo in Britain.’
Polo is a fast team sport and is particularly appealing as it doesn’t have to take all day. ‘For boys it is not just trotting in circles and the children can make a mistake and correct it,’ says Mr Wood. ‘It is also one of the few sports where men and women compete on an equal footing.’ Polo has become the preferred sport of Mr Lamacraft’s two children. ‘They just love galloping around, the friendships and the parties,’ he says. ‘It is perfect for them.’
But new polo clubs are not only geared towards children. ‘It is very difficult for adult beginner players to get onto teams,’ explained Mr Lamacraft. ‘But we make sure they actually play. We often leave a space on a team for a new player.’ Mr Lamacraft takes his teams to play at the Taunton Polo Club. ‘It is a nice and relaxed club,’ he explains, ‘with no pressure or hype. I would be less comfortable playing at a more high profile club.’
Both Mr Lamacraft and Mr Ramsay have been able to aquire plenty of ponies over a short space of time. ‘The polo business was designed as a bolt-on to a riding holiday business we run and it works well alongside it. Our guests can practice stick and balling and we now have 20 polo ponies,’ says Mr Lamacraft. Similarly Mr Ramsay’s polo business attracts people from further afield, ‘We now offer beginners courses and have people coming up from London to play,’ he says.
But neither of these new ventures are being run to make vast profits. ‘We are very cheap and cheerful,’ says Mr Ramsay. ‘A full subscription is £400 and we don’t charge extra for chukkas.’ Mr Lamacraft permanently operates at cost or below cost price but maintains polo is still more profitable than his hirling business – particularly as the value of polo ponies has increased from between £3000 – £4000 to £4000 – £8000. ‘Polo ponies are more expensive to buy,’ says Mr Ramsay, ‘But they are cheaper to run as they can live out.’
By opening up polo to more people, new clubs are helping find talent at grass roots level. But Mr Wood warns against people getting the wrong end of the stick. ‘To be a professional you have to be really very good,’ he stresses. ‘It is a world-class sport and it is extremely difficult to get to the top.’ But as for encouraging more spectators at top level matches Mr Wood has a different tactic, ‘Maybe we should get the Conservatives to play the Labour party?’ he suggests.