Fingers crossed, warmer weather is approaching, bringing with it the opportunity to enjoy some time outdoors. It’s perfect timing for the start of the polo season, writes Jan Clarke
The season gets underway in Chester with the LDF International Polo tournament on the 2-3 June, which invites guests to watch four teams battle for a £10,000 prize pot, and sponsors including LDF, Laurent-Perrier and Stella Artois ensure the start of the season is a glamorous one and worthy of the game’s reputation as the ‘sport of kings’.
Polo has long been recognised as the game of choice for millionaires and royalty. However, dig a little deeper and you’ll also find a sport which has a wider appeal than the traditional elitist image would suggest. It’s been said that polo is the fastest-growing spectator sport in the world. Now played in 80 countries across the globe, attracting crowds the size of which is usually the preserve of football games, surely, this is as it should be for the game which is believed to be the oldest team sport known to man. So no royal titles are required: just bring a picnic, bring your children, bring your enthusiasm and enjoy a great day out.
The exact origins of polo are unknown, but it’s said to have first been played by Nordic warriors over 2,000 years ago. The first recorded polo tournament was played in 600BC in Persia (present-day Iran) and the Mogul conquerors of India then spread the game across the eastern world. The British were introduced to polo in India, in the late 19th century, and went on to establish the rules of the modern game with the very first polo club, The Calcutta Polo Club, founded by the British tea planters in 1862. In the UK, the sport is now governed by the Hurlingham Polo Association which was established in 1874 to implement and control the rules of the game. Cheshire is well known on the polo circuit, with the present-day Cheshire Polo Club being a successor of the Manchester Polo Club, the oldest club in England.
The name ‘polo’ is said to have derived from the Tibetan word ‘pulu’ meaning ball; and with professional players sometimes known as ‘hired assassins’ and ponies reaching speeds of up to 35 mph, it's the ball you will be watching. For beginners like me, the object of the game is to put the ball between the goal posts using the mallet, which can only be used on the right side of the horse. The path of the ball is then known as the ‘right of way’. Players can hinder the opponent by blocking the shot with their mallet or by hooking their mallet around the opponent's to prevent them from hitting the ball. Play is divided into six periods of seven minutes each, known as chukkas. It’s between every two chukkas that spectators are invited and encouraged to take part in the grand old tradition of ‘divot stomping’. Visitors to Chester have an extra incentive to get stomping with the addition of hidden treasure on the pitch – a silver cork and a fantastic prize. However, as they say, just beware of the ‘steaming’ divot!
Back to the game. There are four players in each team and on average each player will play eight ponies in a match, so guests enjoy some serious horsemanship during a game. Charlie Walton, a regular at Chester, first started playing at the tender age of ten. For him it’s all about the horse. “It’s rare for me to go a day without riding. I spend a lot of time ensuring that my horses are well cared for. The health and happiness of the ponies is everything and makes your game better.”
He continues, “Every tournament is memorable for different reasons but games at Chester are particularly enjoyable as there’s always a great atmosphere.”
If you think it all sounds a bit too complicated, Chester provides an engaging commentator, talking the crowd through this face-paced game: the rules, etiquette and, of course, the teams, so everyone can enjoy the match. And there's plenty to keep the young ones entertained, with pony pampering, storytelling and good old fashioned fun.
In summary, to enjoy the polo a millionaire’s lifestyle is optional, binoculars may be helpful, friends and family – essential.