Social Saturday vs. Serious Sunday - Polo in the Park 2017
Arena polo on grass? We could almost hear the polo purists shuddering. Due to post-war development on part of the Hurlingham polo grounds it is no longer possible to have a full size pitch for polo and Chestertons Polo in the Park have taken full advantage of this to bring a more ‘accessible’ version of polo to an urban audience – four chukka, three-a-side polo with an arena ball, and with no changing of ends until the mid-way point. Having first attended the event in 2009 it has been interesting to see how the event has developed over time, now drawing a 10,000 strong capacity crowd on the Saturday (the event runs from Friday to Sunday). As such, here are the highs and lows of a polo-filled weekend at Hurlingham.
Any event with the words ‘Ladies Day’ in the title usually has us running in the opposite direction but in the interests of this article we took ourselves to a packed Hurlingham Park on Saturday to experience Ladies Day at Polo in the Park, although, as it turned out, ‘Social Saturday’ would have been a better moniker. Thanks to a last-minute marketing assault on social media, the day was a sell-out and, as we wandered round before the start of the first match, it was clear where the majority of the visitors’ priorities lay - the Mahiki tent. By the start of the first match the tent and open ground in front of it were a solid mass of pineapple cocktail drinkers, and so intent were they on enjoying themselves in the party atmosphere of the tent that when the ball later came flying in their direction they appeared oblivious, prompting the commentator to remark “the people in the Mahiki tent haven’t noticed, they’re not watching the polo, they don’t even care”.
Those of us who did find our way to the grandstand were in for a treat though as we witnessed some great sport. The first match of the day, Whitley Neill Team Cape Town versus Air Europa Team Buenos Aires gave us a flavour of what was to unfold over the latter stages of the tournament. The Buenos Aires team were the more evenly matched of the teams in terms of the members’ handicaps, but Cape Town really showed their class. Although they were a team with wildly differing handicaps, the team really consolidated around their star player, the 7 goaler Joaquin Pittaluga. The highest handicapped player in the tournament, Pittaluga provided the top level skills to score seemingly endless goals, while also giving the crowd the showmanship they craved. The Buenos Aires team simply couldn’t match the blistering pace and teamwork shown by Cape Town. This was to be something of a theme in about half the matches we saw, with Chris Hyde of EFG Team Zurich also putting a masterful stamp on their semi-final against ICM Team England.
While the high number of goals pleased the crowds, the polo aficionado found something more to enjoy in the final match of the day, Mauritius Team Port Louis versus Argentex Team Dubai. These teams were much more evenly matched in terms of handicap and, although there was only one goal (to Dubai) on the scoreboard by the end of the second chukka, this belied the close fought action witnessed on the pitch. The second half of the match provided a thrilling end to the day’s sport and a memorable moment was George Spencer-Churchill’s trick shot, punching an already airborne ball through the goal with the end of his mallet, the ball having been lunched towards the goal by his teammate.
A completely different atmosphere pervaded Hurlingham on Sunday. It might have been the collective hangover of Saturday nights well spent, or merely the quieter feel that a more select crowd brings, but those who headed to Hurlingham on Sunday were rewarded with more relaxed hospitality and an action packed afternoon of quality polo. In a contrast to Saturday, the crowds jostled for position to watch the 3rd/4th place playoff and the final. Mauritius Team Port Louis fought a close battle with Air Europa Team Buenos Aires for 3rd place. Both teams had failed to shine in their Saturday matches, mainly due to the stellar performances of the opposing team in each instance, but being more evenly matched in terms of handicaps the match galvanised an audience who packed the sidelines to get a good view of the action. The final result of 5-2 belied the close fight between the team. There was just the right contrast of fast galloping and close-quarter combat to appeal to the audience and there were a number of exciting near misses at the goal by both teams.
The excitement of this first match of the day meant that by the time Argentex Team Dubai and EFG Team Switzerland took to the pitch for the final there was a genuine air of anticipation, and what followed were 4 exhilarating and closely fought chukkas that were reminiscent of high goal. Team Switzerland, made up of Max Kirchoff, Chris Hyde and Max Charlton proved a formidable force on the pitch and had Argentex Team Dubai (George Spencer-Churchill, David Allen and Hissam Hyder) on their toes from the start. However, Team Dubai were more than a match, scoring some spectacular goals to the delighted cheers of the crowd. By the end of the second chukka, as the crowds surged onto the pitch for the final round of divot-stomping, there was only a goal difference between the teams.
Team Switzerland came back out for the third chukka on a mission and played cohesively, with all three players contributing equally to the play. Unfortunately they gave away several unnecessary penalties and ultimately just couldn’t quite match the ability of Team Dubai to get the ball through the goalposts, with the match ending 6-1 to Team Dubai. It was interesting to note how the new trend in polo to maintain the flow of play by not stopping for every foul was implemented here. There were a couple of bigger fouls that were, controversially, not stopped for, but the occasional aid of video replay helped the umpire to make the right decisions.
Flanked by two McLaren supercars, the winning team were presented with the trophy once they had liberally sprayed both themselves and the crowd with champagne in scenes reminiscent of a Formula One prize-giving, and nothing was mentioned of the best playing pony, if indeed there was one. This was a shame, as there were some really wonderful ponies on display. A grey belonging to Joaquin Pittaluga (Team Cape Town), the man of the tournament in our view, was particularly special.
Lucky as we were with two days of glorious sunshine over the weekend, Chestertons Polo in the Park seemed more popular than ever this year. It may be that the Hurlingham Polo Association (HPA) don’t want to emphasise an association with what a friend, visiting for the first time on Saturday, referred to as “an event more like a festival with horses tacked on than a polo tournament”, but in the interests of encouraging new audiences to the more conventional polo tournaments it seems the HPA may be missing a trick. By not consciously highlighting the upcoming high-goal tournaments to the audience, are they depriving polo of potential new spectators, players and patrons? You decide...