Hubert Burda Media

Marco… Polo

Visiting the world’s premier polo grounds in Argentina, a novice tries out the sport.

Friends had advised me to try tango. Argentina is, after all, famous for it. But the idea seemed to put me in danger of making a fool of myself. Argentina, I reflected, is also famous for polo, and it turned out that for 200 pesos or so a day, I could try it out at an estancia or ranch.
“Hmmm, that’s very brave,” my dinner companion said.
When people tell me I’m brave, I get nervous. But I also feel committed, especially when the person saying it has dark and sultry hair, and is the sort of person I’d like to know.
“Do you ride?” she asked.
As a boy, I had the conventional ambition of becoming a cowboy. It didn’t help that I was living in a city, but I had good instincts. For example, I had figured out that to get a horse to go you gave it a kick. And to get him to stop, you gave it another kick. Unfortunately, the first horse I rode didn’t know that and I wound up leaping off at mid-gallop into a mound of fragrant mud.
“I’ve ridden,” I told her.
Perhaps, it occurred to me, I should have gone for the tango.
In the morning, I was greeted at my hotel by Juan, a local player, and we drove 90 minutes to the 180-hectare estancia he took over from his parents. I was given boots that were too large, so I put on North Face hiking shoes along with thin pads for my legs. Polo players, it happens, customarily wear whites on the bottom and colours on top. My blue jeans marked me as a country bumpkin. I finished off the outfit with a helmet, which I jammed on to my eyebrows and kept in place with a chinstrap.
I caught my reflection in a glass panel. Look, Ma, it’s the Man de la Mancha!
“This is a good horse for you,” Juan said.
It was not the right horse for me. The right horse for me was at a food court at the Mall of America and jiggled for 43 seconds when you put in two quarters. This horse, however, was the one on offer.
“Climb on,” he said.
Already this was feeling advanced.
“Come, Rosinante,” I said. Her real name was Calipers, but if I was Don Quixote, she’d have to take the name of his horse. “Let’s make a deal. I won’t hurt you and you won’t hurt me.”
The King’s Game is not a mass market sport, but it is played around the world and in Argentina, it’s as big as it gets. There are 37,000 registered members of polo clubs here and every year aficionados — sultans and sheikhs, movie stars and moguls —pour in by the jet-load to train, play and watch. The professional season locates here between October and December, capped by the Argentina Open, the sport’s premier event, in Buenos Aires.
Argentine players dominate the world’s top ranks. At one point, nine players had a perfect 10-handicap rating — higher than all the rest of the nations of the world combined. They include Adolfo Cambiaso, whose fame extends beyond the sport, and indeed has extended the sport’s fame. It’s a long polo tradition that wealthy people hire pros, like the House of Medici used to hire artists. Having or being a patron, each in its own way, is proof of having arrived and Argentine players are hotly pursued.
The sport’s money is in the horses and what put Argentine polo in the saddle are its custom-bred polo ponies, a cross of native Criollo and imported thoroughbred, with a dash of Arabian and a pinch of Quarter Mile. A strong four- or five-year-old can go for as much as 200,000 pesos.
The estancias, where horses are bred, sometimes host clubs or visitors who come for stays that last from a day to a couple of weeks. Some have luxury suites, chefs and a variety of activities. The one I visited had 12 simple cabinas, a clubhouse and a clientele focused mainly on polo.
The players during my visit were weekend warriors from Buenos Aires. They were mostly in their 20s and 30s and included a medical student, some guys who worked in financial services and one whose main occupation was playing polo on weekends. “This is my psychotherapy,” he said.
The grandpa was a 53-year-old named Trevor. As a cameraman for CNN, he covered the war in Nicaragua with Christiane Amanpour (now CNN’s chief international correspondent), then quit to become a rock star, which saw him through the 1980s. For the past three years, he has been coming to Argentina to chase his passion for polo.
“It gets you into shape,” he told me. “It has taken 10 years off of my life.”
He meant that he felt 10 years younger, but I could see the truth of what he actually said pretty quickly.
Juan’s teaching approach seemed to be that you get it or you don’t. He sent me into the field to get to know the horse, which walked, then cantered.
“It’s smoother if you gallop,” he said when he checked in with me some time later.
That was no doubt true. Unfortunately it was also faster and at that particular moment in my life I was not ready for that level of commitment.
I bounced along for 20 minutes.
“How do you feel?” another player asked.
“Glad I already have had children.”
“It only hurts the first year.”
Some time later, I graduated to a mallet. It’s for hitting the ball, but it also helps with balance, like poles in downhill skiing. You hold the reigns in your left hand and the mallet in your right. The swing itself is similar to golf, requiring a shoulder turn and full extension at the point of contact.
After a little while, I felt as if I was getting the hang of it, striking the ball as the horse cantered, turning the horse on a pivot when I over-ran the target.
“You look good,” Juan said. “You are improving quickly.”
“I’m thinking of myself as a warrior charging into battle,” I told him. “It seems to help,” I added, in case my first remark sounded too confident.
Part one ended with a convivial steak lunch in the clubhouse.
Part two began with a real game, which was, they explained, divided into time periods called chukka.
The difference between playing with seven others — four-a-side — and by yourself is akin to shooting free throws in your driveway vs going full court. When the action got close, I was neither an officer nor a gentleman, mastered by fear as expletives directed at the general situation poured involuntarily from my mouth. I swung at the ball three times and hit it once. Rosinante wanted to go for it — her training was taking over — and she started to gallop. My foot came out of the stirrup and I was slipping off to one side, experiencing a spasm of pessimism about my immediate prospects and another in my lower back.
I pulled the reigns. I pleaded. I called out to God. I was saved.
I gave thanks and straightened myself out. I was sure I’d made a spectacle of myself. But no one seemed to notice. They were already chasing the ball 100 yards (91.4m) in the other direction. And good riddance too.
I’d just come to a truce with Rosinante and reminded her of our mutual non-aggression pact when I heard the hoofs beating earth back down the field, moving clouds of dust back toward us.
My courage rallied. I saw the ball within reach. I swung and my mallet connected on the sweet spot.
Of Rosinante.
I’d never hit a living being with a mallet before. I’d wanted to a few times, but the would-be target has usually been taking my call from a distant part of the world.
“Oh!” I said. “I’m so sorry. Are you OK?”
She eyeballed me balefully. She didn’t blink. Only the dead and the highly irate don’t blink, and from the snorts, I gathered that Rosinante wasn’t dead. She seemed to be OK. I was not. My lower back felt as if someone shot me with a dart. My inner thighs burned. Mostly, though, I was weary.
I noticed the others had stopped playing. At last it was over.
“Oh, great time!” I said. “Is it time for tea already?”
“No, no. That was only the first chukka.”
“Oh. How many are there?”
I stretched out and tried to wedge my joints back into place.
“Do you do yoga?” Juan asked.
I tried not to take it personally.
I had dinner plans with the one who thought I was brave at a restaurant in Palermo SoHo, one of Buenos Aires’ trendy neighbourhoods. Being off the horse was like having land legs after spending all day on a boat. I entered the dimly lit establishment and tripped over an ottoman in the bar.
“So did you manage to hit the ball?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said. “The same number of times I hit the horse.”
It turned out that she’d been riding since she was six-years-old. She owned a Ducati motorcycle and attended racing school where they took the mirrors off the handlebars. She regularly went for long hikes on glaciers wearing crampons. She was brave.
“Polo’s a hard sport,” she said.
“Do you happen to know how many Extra-Strength Tylenol you can take in a day?”
She fixed me with a look so full of pity, I almost felt sorry for myself. “If you’re sore now,” she said, “It’s not good. It’s not even tomorrow yet.”