I first came across the sport of polo at the aptly named Polo Bar of the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, India. I was unaware at the time how close I was sitting to where the modern sport began. Trophies, mallets, artwork, and tournament photos adorned the walls of this lavish, tented cocktail oasis. We asked about the memorabilia as we sipped gin martinis.
The centrepiece of their collection was a painting depicting a team of British polo players cowering on their horses as the Indians opposed them on giant, regal elephants. The bar man beamed as he described the decisive victory of the Indian team over the British in the late 1800’s that made it seem as if the Indians were riding elephants opposing the British on diminutive horses. This work speaks not only of the long history of the sport, but also of its popularity and rivalry, which remain today.
Although the sport originated two and a half thousand years ago in Persia as a cavalry training exercise, the modern sport was established in nearby Manipur, in the north of India in the 19th century. British soldiers found the sport there and spread polo across the world, to England, Malta, Ireland, Australia, the United States, and most famously, to the Argentine Pampas, where the soul of the sport remains. Polo thundered across the globe quickly, and it was even an Olympic sport until 1936.
The aim of the sport is simple. Mounted players, 3 or 4 to a team, depending on surface, use mallets to propel a cylindrical ball through the opponent’s goal. There are multiple periods in a polo match, called chukkas, which typically last 7 minutes. Play is fast as balls can travel at up to 110 miles per hour, so ideally, matches should be viewed from slightly above to observe the pattern of the horses and grace of the game. Although they’re referred to as “ponies,” polo horses are typically full-sized (14.2–16 hands at the withers), and players must maintain a string of mounts for every match, to change them frequently during play.
Today the popularity of polo is on the rise again. There are outdoor, beach, and snow tournaments played all over the world for eager spectators, sponsored by ultra-luxury brands. Players have become famous, drawing the younger set into the game, and the sport itself is once again reminiscent of its glory days. You can even find polo ponies thundering across the snow in Tianjin, China, and St. Moritz, Switzerland, and on the beaches of Miami, Dubai, Croatia, Singapore, and in September: Chicago.
Q&A with Gustavo Bilbao
I recently spoke with Gustavo Bilbao, a preeminent professional from Buenos Aires, Argentina, who’s putting on the 2016 Qatar Airways Chicago Beach Polo Cup this September on North Avenue Beach in downtown Chicago.
What drew you to polo? What about the sport most appeals to you?
I was born into a polo family in Buenos Aires Argentina. My family raises thoroughbred horses and cattle and the early exposure to horses led me to the sport. The contact with horses and nature are the most appealing aspects of polo, also the adrenaline and the camaraderie it creates. I’ve never seen anything like it in any other sport.
What is it like for a player in the modern game? How are matches and tournaments put together? Are most of you full-time players on standing teams?
High-goal polo is where the top professional players play, and they have standing teams for which they play an entire season, aiming at winning one or two top international tournaments, like the US Gold Cup, the Queen’s Cup or the Argentine Open in Palermo.
Then you have the mid-goal polo, where I play. As a mid-goal professional polo player, you are “guns for hire.” You play for any team that needs a professional player, and the way these teams are put together is normally by a patron, an amateur player who wants to play with the professionals and is willing to afford all the bills. The professional in mid-goal polo organizes the team, enrolls them in tournaments, and looks after the structure — horses, grooms, vets, farriers, transportation, shirts and all the other logistics — on behalf of the patron. The mid-goal professional is also in charge of training the horses, coming up with the team’s strategy, and also training or teaching the patron.
What drew you to Chicago as a venue for the 2016 Qatar Airways Chicago Beach Polo Cup, and why beach polo?
At one point, Chicago was the epicentre of polo in North America, and as young boy in Argentina, I used to hear all about the epic matches that took place at Oakbrook — the event the British Royal Family used to come play here. Sadly, those days are over, and I have taken it upon myself to put Chicago back on the world’s polo map where it belongs. My main goal as a professional player is to make polo a more widespread sport, bring awareness to people in order to grow it.
Text by Laine McDonnell Translated by Rui Chen