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Fiona is crucial to the polo economy. Estancia owners make some money buying and selling horses among themselves, but their main clients are clueless Europeans who come and play, quite fancy a few of the horses they have been given, and fly them back to the UK or wherever home is. Even better for the estancia owners, some buy the horses and keep them on site for next time they're over. Ramon Santiago, a local estancia owner and Argentine patron, controls a good portion of the market; anyone who is anyone plays chez Santi. Weakened by childhood polio, he cannot ride himself but owns hundreds of horses and is an authority on emerging talent. Adolfo Cambiaso was a young protégé of his, making him both literally and metaphorically the Godfather of polo. He tells of a Frenchman who was dissatisfied with all the horses he was given to ride at the estancia and demanded to try the three horses kept in another field. 

"I told him these were the worst horses I had. He say, don't lie to me, I know they are the best. So I give him the horses, they are really s**t, and he wants to buy them all!" 

Santiago claims to have sold the animals to the Frenchman, who presumed he had got a good deal and outsmarted the devious Argentine into the bargain.  

The arrogance of foreign "patrons" (moneyed sponsor-players) does not stop there. Imagine a rotund version of Roman Abramovich insisting on playing on his own team and you will have some idea of the ridiculous nature of polo patronage. This is how it works: if you have lots of money and think you look good in polo whites, you buy up some high-goal Argentine players, trot onto a field somewhere near Buenos Aires with them and watch as they win a tournament for you. 

It is highly embarrassing for the Argentine players, who have to make some kind of pretence of involving their patron in the game. One passes to "Abramovich", who wheezes and knocks the ball towards a member of the opposite team; luckily, another of his players dives in, lobs it well away from the patron's danger zone and the game continues. Who is patronising whom? On a polo field thronged with highly-strung horses, mallets and a lethal ball, the patron-player scenario is lunacy on an epic and very expensive scale. 

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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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