The sport of kings returns for its prestigious annual summer event, triumphant in the face of Auckland’s notoriously capricious climate.
The weather was forecast to be a typical midsummer day: long spells of sunshine with a breath of wind, just enough to tousle the hair and keep things pleasant. Yet in the days leading up to the Land Rover New Zealand Polo Open 2017, the pattern shifted, rain clouds crept stealthily overhead and the heavens opened. Those of us attending the event feverishly hoped for sunshine, as much for ourselves as for the players.
A gloomy forecast did nothing to dispel excitement for the event, as the Polo Open is, for many, the highlight of the city’s socialite calendar. It’s a rare opportunity to see the world’s best polo players in action right here in New Zealand. No sooner have they wrapped up the late European summer tournaments, than the players and their vast entourages arrive in New Zealand for the start of the summer season here. This continual on/off season timetable means the world’s top players return to New Zealand year on year, making it a second home, and a place where they happily return.
Held in Clevedon, to the south of the city, the immaculate Fisher Field is the setting for this remarkable sporting battle. The Land Rover New Zealand Polo Open remains Australasia’s premier polo event, and one that is fiercely contested by the international teams. It retains its position as the sport’s most revered event despite the emergence of the Urban Polo franchise, with events springing up in Auckland city centre and Wellington.
Arriving late, and in heavy drizzle — my perfectly curled hair immediately frizzy and beyond repair — I made my way to my host’s tent in search of a restorative glass of champagne. Spying a vacant seat underneath a sturdy-looking canopy, I sat down next to a girl in red, painting her nails to match. “Sorry about this, I left in a hurry,” she explained apologetically.
The drizzle began to settle, wreaking silent havoc on the polo field where the first game had just begun. Jets of water sprayed into the air with each thwack of the ball, the players riding hard to keep the game moving at pace, battling against the waterlogged pitch. Looking around at the other spectators, it seemed that people were spending more time looking down at their feet regarding their soaked-through shoes than at the action on the field.
During the break between matches — at 45 minutes each, there’s plenty of time for socialising — I learned a little more about the game. The tournament had started a week prior, with players from New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, England and South Africa hoping to win a spot in Sunday’s final. “Why do the players travel with so many horses?” I naively asked. I learned that professional players will often use a different horse for each chukka (7.5 minute period) of the game. That’s 24 horses per team, per game. A lot of horses.
A testament to the capriciousness of Auckland weather, the skies rapidly cleared, the clouds departed and the fierce Kiwi sun beat down on the crowds and players, the sudden humidity and free-flowing champagne making for a heady mix.
The traditional ‘stomping of the divots’ was a soggy affair with high-heeled well-wishers possibly doing the pitch more harm than good, but it offered a good excuse to step out into the sunlight and dry out. Hordes of beautiful people in fantastic florals and mud-splattered whites duly made their way from the field to the New Zealand Herald’s Viva tent to line up and take their turn on an improvised runway; entering the Best Dressed competition is serious business. Fashion designer Kathryn Wilson, All Black Beauden Barrett and Real Housewives of Auckland TV star Michelle Blanchard were a few of the recognisable faces amongst the fashionista crowd.
It seems there’s only one thing to do between matches at the Polo Open, and that’s to drink Veuve Clicquot. With the afternoon heating up, ties became loosened and high heels were discarded, the party atmosphere visibly turning up a couple of notches. My fear that I would find myself in the midst of a thirty-something frat party full of misbehaving loons was groundless as the atmosphere was fantastic. The polo isn’t the races: it’s about Aucklanders coming together, dressing to impress, and celebrating being in a country that is revered as one of the world’s top destinations for polo.
“It’s because of the New Zealand Thoroughbred,” explains Lucy Ainsley, PR Manager of Ainsley Polo. “It is the perfect prototype polo pony; professional players and patrons come here every year to choose the world’s best ponies — we breed them right here.” She tells me that Adolfo Cambiaso, the world’s number one player, has one of their New Zealand Thoroughbreds in his breeding program in Argentina, which is about a big an endorsement as one can get.
The polo business in New Zealand extends well beyond selling horses, with many breeders offering holidays, lessons, and the chance to practice the game against some of the world’s best. “It’s a bit like Richie McCaw turning up to train with you at your local club on a Sunday,” Lucy says of Ainsley Polo’s lesson program. “There’s no better way to learn than by playing with the very best. For the sport to continue to thrive we want to promote it globally as well as locally.”
Steadily growing applause signalled the entrance of the two teams — Tiger Building and Semco PDL — onto the field, ready to play the final. Play was fast and the spectators gave the players their full attention, whooping and cheering loudly at the action. In terms of rules, it’s a fairly easy sport to follow; the most difficult part is keeping an eye on the ball. More than once I found myself squinting and looking at the wrong end of the field.
Players from Ainsley Polo, who exited the tournament earlier in the week, seemed happy enough to watch from the sidelines, enjoying their relative anonymity in the crowd. “We just love playing here,” one of them told me as we sheltered from the sun under the canopy of a large tree. “I’ll be sad to be returning home to the UK next week.”
Winning by a close 7-6, Tiger Building emerged victorious, with New Zealand’s Clarkin brothers — highest ranked player John-Paul Clarkin, with a handicap of 7, and his brother, rugby player Matt Clarkin — making up half of the winning four-man team.
The trophies awarded and the champagne duly sprayed at the hands of the winning team, the spectators turned their attention to the after-party. Wanting to quit while I was ahead, I jumped at the chance to grab a lift back to the city, but not without looking longingly at the party that was just getting started as we drove away. I headed home to soak the mud from my shoes and lay out my dress for dry cleaning, ready for 2018.
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