Very long term readers may recall that I am quite fond of the game of Polo. As a teenager and young adult living around the Windsor area, most of my weekends would be spent up at Guard’s Polo Club.

However, since I moved to London, return visits have been neigh on impossible either due to having the time, but lacking the funds, or when I had the funds, I was working silly hours so lacked the time.

This weekend though, Polo has come to London, and thanks to Visit London and Crowdity I was able to get a couple of free tickets to the Friday afternoon event. Doubly lucky for me, as Friday afternoon is usually my weekly “day off”.

Polo has a rather elitist atmosphere, and certainly if you go to a match, the audience will be largely made up of the panama hat wearing gents and tall leggy blondes brigade drinking Pimms and Champagne. However, most of the clubs dotted around the country couldn’t care less what your background is, so long as you like the sport.

As a “mere shop worker”, I spent many enjoyable years watching the sport up at Guards. Although the sponsors (and wives) were there for a “terrifically English day out”, we regulars were there for the sport.

And what a sport it is!

Eight high speed polo ponies charging around the pitch chasing a tiny wooden ball with players leaning dangerously far off their steeds to hit the ball at the goal. However, what makes this such a dramatic sport is not the speed or the mounted acrobatics, but the “riding off”.

If a pony is following the line the ball is rolling, then they are deemed to “have the line”, and the only way to get them off the line is to quite literally charge at them on your pony and bump them off the line – and it can get quite violent at times.

Hurlingham Polo in the Park 2010

Incidentally, don’t be fooled by thinking they are riding dinky little ponies – these are actually highly trained horses. The pony name is purely traditional.

The event this weekend is a newer form of the game which has been designed to be faster and more exciting for newer audiences, and the scoring system is designed to reward really long distance shots at the goals. More exciting as a goal is difficult at that range, so there are much cries of “awwww”, followed by the disappointment of “ohhhh” as the ball goes wide.

The new version of the game seems to generate more fouls though – probably due to the way the pitch borders are redesigned. This actually slows the game, but then as the penalty is a shot at the goal – the goal scoring rate can be quite high. Again good for the audience.

Hurlingham Polo in the Park 2010

We had three matches yesterday, and the first and third were good, but the second was spectacular.

What was already proving to be a good match had a moment of concern as one player was injured and the ambulance had to come out to tend to his injuries. Incidentally, that is how I got interested in the sport as I was a cadet at the St John Ambulance and we provided that same first aid cover at Guards Club. After just a few weekends of providing first aid services, I was hooked on the sport.

Ambulance offering aid

Anyhow, back to the match, and after six and a half minute four chukkas (sessions), the game was tied – leading to a sudden death final chukka and who scored the first goal would win. Probably some of the best Polo I have ever seen played itself out and the extra chukka actually went on for about three minutes with many near misses at the goal by both sides.

Thrilling.

The rest of the day was a bit odd for this polo veteran, as there were cheerleaders (!?!), pop music played after each goal was scored and the commentary was a bit ripe for some tastes. It was still damn enjoyable though.

The tickets I had were for the standing area only, but (cough), the ticket checking at the grandstands was relaxed to the point of being almost non-existent most of the time, so my friend and I snuck into the grandstands. Naughty, but much more enjoyable, and being the Friday afternoon, the grandstands were only half full anyway.

Although the variant of polo played this weekend is designed to be more thrilling to watch, I think I prefer the traditional version – which may have fewer goals, but does have (IMHO) better tackling and riding off.

Hurlingham Polo in the Park 2010

Sadly, Guards Club stopped offering day passes so the only way to get in is to either book a car spot (I don’t drive) or take out the annual membership, which is a bit expensive for me at the moment. Cowdray offers day passes, but it rather further away, and even less convenient for the drunken trip home.

More photos over at the usual flickr website.

Some match videos from last year over at the PolointhePark website.

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