The Instant Expert: The game of polo

The Instant Expert examines the sport of kings.

THE BASICS Here's what you need: eight mallets; one plastic or wooden ball; one grass field; two uprights to form a goal; eight horses (four per side); helmets; face masks (optional); goggles (optional); whips with fibreglass shafts wrapped in nylon; gloves with tackified leather through the palm fibres; brown leather boots (black would stain the white breeches); and rounded spurs (so as not to puncture the horse). Really, that's all. Oh, and specific dimensions for the field, the mallets and the ball.

THE BEGINNINGS The origins of polo remain stubbornly undocumented and huffily debated. Arguably the oldest team sport, polo swept from ancient Persia towards China or from China towards Persia or from India to China and Persia. Evidence suggests a beginning with Central Asian tribes around Persia, with a documented game from 600BC, featuring the Turkomans beating the Persians.

THE FIRST GAME In the modern era, British settlers in the Argentine pampas practised polo in their free time. One such, David Shennan, is credited with having organised the first formal polo game in the world on September 3, 1875.

THE NOMENCLATURE It's straightforward except for the "chukkas" and the "divot stomping" and the liberal use of the word "pony". "Stick" refers to the mallet; a "neck shot" goes under a horse's neck; a "bump" means one horse directed into the side of an opposing horse without asking either's opinion; to "leave it" is to bypass the ball strategically for a trailing teammate; and a "pony goal" means the horse causes the ball to go in. "Chukkas" is the best word ever devised for periods in a sport - six per match, 7 minutes each - while "divot stomping" involves fans at halftime fixing the pitch while dispensing aggression, and the "pony" is no pony, but a horse.

THE PRESENT DAY Dubai Polo Academy's literature counts 50 million people playing in 77 countries. A US Polo Association treatise counts 60 countries. Polo Times has 76 countries. Sixteen countries play professionally. And India plays ardently, with its 149-year-old Calcutta Polo Club the world's oldest active club.

IN THE UAE With bustling groups such as the 14-year-old Ghantoot Racing & Polo Club in Abu Dhabi and the five-year-old Dubai Polo Academy, and events such as the Gold Cup and the Cartier Cup in Dubai, and with the curious onset of camel polo, the sport fairly churns here. And there's little chance of rain-out.

THE ROYALTY Kate finally turned up to see William play at Tetbury, and hooray for that. Earlier, the 14th-century Byzantium Emperor Cantacuzenus supposedly died while playing, and India's 16th-century Akbar the Great was a fan. Word has it that the Chinese Emperor Tai Tsu got so irked over the death of a player in the year 910 that he ordered players beheaded, warranting a spot in the Sore Loser Hall of Fame.

THE ANIMALS While indistinctly bred and thus suffering intra-equine snobbery, the horses must combine Arabians' smarts with quarters' agility, according to the organisation sportPolo. Americans breed thoroughbreds with quarter horses for polo "ponies", Argentinians breed thoroughbreds with local Criollos, and the English bred many from a renowned ancestor named Rosewater. SportPolo recommends a "quiet, easy horse eight to 10 years old with no bad habits," which rules out any equine smokers.

THE SNOOTINESS Polo long has mingled with luxury, epitomised contemporarily with its close association with the Ralph Lauren brand. The Instant Expert, however, has it on good authority that Mr Lauren's clothing-copyright lawsuits against the US Polo Association routinely have resulted in his lawyers getting outwitted in court.

THE BEST Most say Argentina, the UK and the US. To pick one, Argentina.


Variations on a theme

While there are other versions of polo played on horseback - arena polo, beach polo, cowboy polo and snow polo among them - the sport does not require an equine presence. For example:

CANOE POLO A combination of water polo, basketball and kayaking.

CYCLE POLO Invented in 1891. Played on bicycles, of course, on either grass or, more commonly today, a hard court.

ELEPHANT POLO "The sport of maharajas," it is said. Played in Nepal, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.

GOLF CART POLO Popular with tourists at many resorts, especially in the Palm Springs, California, area.

SEGWAY POLO Began in the San Francisco Bay Area in California in 2004 by fans of the Segway, the two-wheeled, self-balancing electric vehicle.

WATER POLO Similar also to team handball and ice hockey. Olympic sport since 1900. Popular especially in US, Europe, Russia and Australia.

YAK POLO Invented early this century as a tourist attraction in Mongolia. Has grown into a club sport. Also played in Pakistan.

Published: August 31, 2011 04:00 AM


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