From Hastings it’s a two hour drive past Uckfield, Haywards Heath and Billingshurst, an English odyssey of country pubs and roped-off cricket squares, high crops and trees in full-spread leaf, the verges lined with cow parsley, rosebay willowherb, ragwort. The green of June is on its way towards the brown of August. Then you turn into Cowdray Park just outside Midhurst, and there is a corner of an English field (a very fine field of smooth and firm green turf, it must be said) that is forever Argentine.

Action from Gold Cup semifinal: Dubai v Scone Polo
PICTURE: Mark Beaumont

For I have come, with up to 5,000 other spectators, to watch the semi-finals of the King Power Gold Cup, the polo equivalent of the Lords Test Match in cricket or the Wimbledon Tennis Championships. And out of 16 players on show – four teams of four horsemen each competing in the two matches – 11 are Argentine nationals. Not to mention the horses: over a hundred of them, the majority of which were also apparently born and raised on the pampas stretching west from Buenos Aires. (Each player has up to ten different mounts at his disposal for changes during the game). As I wend my way from the public picnic area on the top slope, past the corporate hospitality tents on the side lines, I notice the home counties accents of spectating gentry and City accountants gradually infiltrated by the South American Spanish of stable lads, farriers and family supporters, and the array of Range Rovers, Discovery SUVs and Porsches parked alongside supplanted by equine pantechnicons. The Falkland Islands may still be in British hands but, for just a few weeks of each English summer, Argentina rehearses its more successful annual invasion in reverse.

The sport of polo is one of exhilarating intensity and mobility. On a field of play measuring 300 yards by 160, on which you could fit four or five full-size football pitches, the two sets of horses  –  they are called ‘ponies’ but are generally of 14 to 16 hands in size –  dash after a high-impact plastic ball with the diameter of a croquet ball, directed by riders with the reins in one hand while wielding a long-handled wooden mallet in the other. There are goals at either end, marked with rubberised posts. The object, as in football or hockey, is to hit the ball through the opponents’ goal, though with no height limit. It is possible for a skilled player to dribble the ball along the turf, or even to juggle with it on the mallet. But most of the play consists of hefty thwacks either forehand or backhand to shift the ball with most rapidity up, down or across the field to where a team-mate may be in space or the hitter’s own pony can catch up with it first. Thus, in some respects it’s more like speeded-up golf on horseback than mounted hockey.

Each game is divided into six sessions called ‘chukkas’, each in principle of seven minutes duration, but with time only running while the ball is in play. Whenever there’s a rule infringement, or the ball runs out of play, or a goal is scored, or there’s an injury, the clock stops, so each chukka will last a lot longer.  But the ponies -selected and trained for speed, agility and manoeuvrability rather than long distance stamina – will be raced out within a shorter time and have to be exchanged, as a Formula 1 driver makes a pit stop in mid-race.

Confusingly for the spectators, who are necessarily a long way from the action (I recommend taking a pair of field glasses), the direction of play is reversed every time a goal is scored, so that the team in red vests you’ve decided to back are suddenly aiming in the opposite direction to the way they were facing before. Meanwhile the player galloping headlong to the corner is not taking part in a tactical flight of fancy, or forgetting which goal he should be aiming for, but rushing to secure his next mount before re-entering the fray.

Action from Gold Cup semifinal: Dubai v Scone Polo
PICTURE: Mark Beaumont

Patrons and star players
The teams for the major competitions are assembled by patrons – corporations or wealthy individuals – recruiting star players for a particular season, like cricketers in the Indian Premier League, though some may contract for a longer period. Most of the stars are Argentine. Thus the semi-final line-up in the Gold Cup pitted VS King Power (three Argentines and a Thai) against Park Place (three Argentines and a Russian), and Dubai (three Argentines and one UAE player) against Scone Polo (two Brits, an Argentine and an Australian). Individual patrons – spot the nationality in each team – can also pick themselves. You may not have quite the skills to join the same football team as Lionel Messi, but you can play alongside the polo equivalent if you’ve got the money.

In the first game, top-rated Argentine Hilario Ulloa scored seven goals for Park Place, but they were pipped at the death by his fellow-countryman Juan Martin Zubia controlling the ball from a throw-in and racing ahead of the pack to score his sixth in a 11-10 victory.

In the second game two Argentine brothers, Barto and Camilo Castagnola, aged just 18 and 16 respectively, showed precocious skills and instinctive awareness of each other’s movements to set up a 14-10 victory for Dubai against a more experienced Scone line-up, Camilo scoring six. The two British players, including England captain James Beim, received a groundswell of home support, but it wasn’t enough to sway the action.

The final took place on Sunday, and there are further less prestigious tournaments still to come in the English season, but the top players and their horses will move off to Spain for a series of tournaments there next month, then (home, in most cases) to Argentina for their main season in November and December. Local lovers of equine sport will have to find other excitements. 

Ah yes, Glorious Goodwood starts next week, 30th July! Except that it’s now called Qatar Glorious Goodwood. Is nothing English any more?

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