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Beginner's chukka: Alev Scott and her polo steed (Chris Lucas) 

Halfway through a particularly vigorous chukka, I am wondering how I got here and how I am still alive. A relatively unhorsey Anglo-Turk, I hold in my left hand the reins of a Grand National hopeful, and in my right a spindly mallet with which I must hit a ball speeding into the distance. Two Argentines have materialised on either side of me, an aggressive equine motorcade. Foreseeing a collision in which I will be squashed like the soft, white filling of an empanada, I rein the beast in with some difficulty and pray for the seven minutes to be up. 

I would love to confirm that polo playing is as sexy as Jilly Cooper suggests, but alas I cannot. Exhausted, embarrassed, covered in bruises which are the result of ineptitude rather than reckless talent or romps in the hay with Juan, I have never felt less sexy in my life. Yet there is a certain thrill in the sport that is magnetic, even if actual participation at beginner level is as unglamorous as it gets. I did not come here to play; yet here I am. 

Argentina is the home of polo and no place for a beginner like me. The level of play floats on an effortless plane far above the standard in Europe or America; the game is less about the strain and violence of charging into someone else's horse or line of fire and more about balletic twirls on hind legs and nonchalant semi-dismounts to reach an impossibly-placed ball. This is mostly due to the fact that Argentine children grow up on horseback, hat-free and care-free, thwacking mallets around at breakneck speed from the age of about three. English children, suited and booted in immaculate kit, have to wait so long for Daddy to sign all the waiver forms before they can so much as sniff a horse that they have no hope of catching up with their Argentine counterparts. Where Daddy does trump Papa, though, is in the financial department; pretty much any Argentine pony is his for the taking, and although flying ponies back to the UK is not as prevalent as it was three or four years ago, it is still done because anything other than Argentine stock is simply not acceptable. Embryos are the other option; a high-ranking polo mare is played at tournaments almost all year round so maternity leave is out of the question. Instead, her embryos are sold for up to $400,000. Adolfo Cambiaso is the national polo hero and his mares are the most coveted on the market; he sold the cloned embryo of one of his favourites for $1 million. No doubt a clone of the great man himself will be the next excitement on the market. 

In England, you have to have money to play polo. In Argentina, it helps if you come from one of the big polo dynasties but there are heartwarming tales of grooms climbing up the ranks, all because of their extraordinary horsemanship and immersion in their employer's lifestyle. A groom will play with his boss during practice, maybe give him some tips on a weak nearside backhand, train his herds and generally become a horseman par excellence. A chance to play in a proper match could be his ticket to stardom. This is the kind of player the Argentines love above any other — the Evita of the horse world, a talented everyman lording it over his more privileged fellows.

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Henry Welland
June 12th, 2011
7:06 PM
Most interesting article. If I were Abramovich I would certainly want to arrange it so that I could play in the cup final.

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