It’s the most prestigious polo club tournament in the world. But unlike similar sporting events elsewhere, there’s no snobbery involved in the invitations. Turn up at the ground in Buenos Aires’ leafy Palermo district, hand over less cash than you’d spend on a beer in an upmarket London pub, and you’ll find a seat in the stands.
Finding a seat in the saddle is more challenging. Many of the players of the Argentine clubs that participate in the Open share the same surname (the Heguy and Merlos families are particularly well represented), and there’s no doubt that this is a rich man’s sport. Individual ponies can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and players use fresh mounts for each of the game’s eight or more chukkas.
When the game begins and the tempo picks up, you get a sense of why they’re needed. The noise is terrific as the horses’ hooves pound the turf, turning up little puffs of dust as each foot slams into the ground, and the bulging muscles of their legs and rumps heave beneath their glistening coats. Astride them, the players seem almost to float as they whip their sticks around in dexterous circles and, leaning impossibly far from the saddle, clip the ball with backhand swipes that should surely dislocate their joints. Galloping flank to flank, they scorch along, pressing one horse against the other, piling its entire weight on that of the opponent, trying to push it out of the way – yet still, incredibly, the riders don’t fall off.
The crowd, meanwhile, cheers and chats, and natters on its mobile phones. It’s a mellow bunch of spectators of all ages, gently enjoying a sporting afternoon in the sun. And foreigners – fear not. You don’t need to be a polo aficionado to enjoy this game. You don’t even need to understand the rules. Any layman can see: in these men and horses, breeding and skill have come together to create a match of breathtaking bravado and beauty.
The Argentine Open takes place in Palermo, Buenos Aires, in Nov/Dec. See http://www.aapolo.com (Spanish only).