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Polo’s hottest event returns to Hurlingham

FOR a game that’s nearly 3,000 years old, polo has certainly kept up with the times. Last year’s MINT Polo in the Park event at Hurlingham attracted a crowd of 24,000 and a TV audience of more than two million viewers, making it the most watched polo match ever.

The first recorded game took place in 600BC between the Turkomans and Persians (the Turkomans won, since you ask) – polo was then brought to India by the Moghuls. In the 1850s, British tea planters discovered it in Manipur on the Burmese border with India and thus began the world’s first polo club at Silchar, west of Manipur.

Flash forward to the grandstands of Hurlingham Park, where raucous crowds swig Pimms and champers as glossy ponies and their tough, stick-swinging riders charge around the green. This isn’t just any big day out at the polo, it’s the World Polo Series, with teams from London, New York (sponsored by City A.M.), Moscow, Barbados, Geneva, Milan, Durban and Sydney competing.

This is only the second time in 70 years that the World Series has been played at Hurlingham. The organisers are keen to bring polo back to its British roots – the Club has been the headquarters of British polo since 1874 and the Hurlingham Polo Association is still the UK and Commonwealth governing body of the game.

That said, they’ve decided to change the rules a bit (gasp), to make it more exciting and spectator-friendly – the pitch will be smaller, for example, bringing you closer to the action and there are lots of other small but radical changes (see www.polointheparklondon.com for the complete list). All teams are encouraged to have one female player too (the UK has Kirsty Craig) – indeed, since 2007, 56 per cent of new players in the UK are female. Something to do with pent-up aggression, clearly.

GIRL ON HORSE WITH STICK
Since the folks organising the Polo were kind enough to arrange a try-it-yourself-day, I figured I could do with a bit of aggression release. The fact that I’ve always considered myself a country club pariah and therefore not exactly polo material was another reason to give it a go.

On the plus side, I have ridden quite a lot in my time. But that doesn’t help when your coordination is as rotten as mine is.

Hurlingham Park is just round the corner from Hurlingham Club and is a lot easier to get into (meaning that a guard did not turn me away). Ponies huddled with impeccable decorum round the side of a changing and tea facility. We were given snappy red t-shirts with the Mint Polo in the Park logo on, and a very sporty jerkin. Then it was time for a theory lesson from an instructor, an old timer who had broken half a dozen collar bones (his own) in his time. He presented us with a a board dotted with plastic ponies and proceeded to condense down the 80 page polo rule book to a few key ideas, the most important being that the sport is like driving a car. You have lanes, yielding and merging. This is to prevent collisions at combined speeds of 70 mph.

We got up on some crates and had our first swings at balls – there are several ways of hitting it, as in tennis, and I was rubbish at them all. But when you do connect with the ball, it’s a lovely feeling, as in tennis. We crouched down on the crates – you have to go quite low to get near the ball – to simulate the stooping position in the saddle.

Finally, the horses – a docile but sensitive bunch – were brought over. They responded to the tiniest pressure with the reins and were ready to turn on a dime, which is a dream for a rider that’s used to doing battle with hard-mouthed school ponies. We lined up, women on one side and men on the other, and went at each other, following the ball around. The ponies are bizarrely fearless and calm – never flinching even when my wildly swinging stick pushed the ball between their legs or bounced it off their hocks and hooves.

It was easy to charge up to the ball with these horses but hitting it is a complete challenge. Wielding the heavy stick (I had wrist-ache for days afterwards) and manouvering it so its thin sides hit the ball proved difficult in the extreme. Still, the connection between women and pent-up aggression appeared to bear out: I eventually scored a goal (at a slow trot) and the girls’ team won. I’m looking forward to seeing the game sped up by a factor of a hundred come 4 June.

NEED TO KNOW | MINT POLO IN THE PARK
What: MINT Polo In The Park 2010 (The Polo World Series)

Where: Hurlingham Park, Fulham, SW6

Dates: Friday 4th / Saturday 5th / Sunday 6th June 2010

Timings: 11.00am (gates open) – 8pm

Prices: General Admission: 4 June £15 (junior £10); 5-6 June £20 (junior £10)

Grandstand: 4 June £35 (junior £15); 5-6 June £45 (junior £15)

Booking: www.ticketmaster.co.uk, tel: 0844 277 4321

Website: www.polointheparklondon.com

POLO DIARY | FROM CITY DAY OUT TO AFTERPARTY
FRIDAY 4TH JUNE: The Ultimate City Networking Event
Drag the boss down to celebrate the end of the working week at the pitchside bar and Central London’s only Veuve Clicquot Champagne Garden. To kick off this year’s celebrations, Okritie Team Moscow take on City A.M. Team New York in the opening match, followed by IG Index Team Paris vs Gaucho Team Buenos Aires. We also have a special evening after-work match at 6:30pm where MINT Team London play Thomson Reuters Team Geneva. Bring the kids down for high-tea at the traditional farmers market and let them run loose in the Kids Zone which is complete with bouncy castles, face painters and pony ride sessions.

SATURDAY 5TH JUNE: Semi Finals Day
Join the carnival atmosphere at Semi-Finals Day as Team Sydney and Team Durban kick off the action. Throughout the afternoon, there will be plenty of entertainment for the whole family including jousting, cheerleading, team parades and Devil’s Horsemen Stunt Riders. After the match, the teams will be available for photos and autographs on the pitch with signed polo merchandise to give away.

SUNDAY 6TH JUNE: Finals Day
The day starts with a match between the legendary Oxford University and Edinburgh University clubs. Bucks Fizz, Bloody Marys and an epic match should warm you up. The kid's zone is open all day with competitions, face painting and much more. Pitch-side bars will be buzzing and the food market will feature Argentine BBQ pits. With more jousting, stunt riding and The World Series Final, Sunday is the big prize-giving day.

AFTER PARTY: Nikki Beach
The legendary Beach is the after-party sponsor, so you can party right through until the early hours. This is the first major event for Nikki Beach in London and it will be creating a Nikki Beach Club complete with signature sounds and décor at the private Hurlingham Club itself. With 42 acres of magnificent lawns you can imagine the party will be a top evening jam-packed with music, dance and general merry-making.