Take polo's most historic venue, a wealthy entrepreneur with the chutzpah to change the
rules of play, a professional sports marketer, a governing body ready to recognize potential and
you have a new version of the traditional grass game, capable of drawing big urban crowds.
Mint Polo in the Park, a three-day event at
London's Hurlingham Club, attracted more
than 29,000 spectators this June and earned
plaudits from the sport's governing body in
the U.K., the Hurlingham Polo Association.
"The organizers have got the format and
marketing right and we must applaud
them," said David Woodd, the HPA's chief
executive. "Their new rules, which the HPA
has approved, make for fast, more
continuous play and the smaller ground,
less than half the size of a traditional grass
ground, brings spectators much closer to
"I saw very few polo people there,"
observed Woodd. "and I'm sure most of the
Londoners in the crowd were new to polo.
Even if a small percentage of them show a
keen interest, this would be a big plus for
our sport, bringing us hundreds of new
supporters to watch polo at our clubs."
This is high praise indeed from
officialdom in a sport steeped in tradition
and not always prone to readily accepting
change. It clearly reflected the HPA's
current drive to widen polo's spectator base
amongst the general public.
Over the past few decades, new versions
of equine polo other than the traditional
game on grass (disregarding gimmicks like
polo on elephants, camels and yaks) have
become well established around the world.
Snow polo started in Switzerland in the
1980s and is now played regularly in France,
Italy, Austria, Argentina and the USA.
Beach polo is played in Miami, in Dorset
and Cornwall in the U.K., in Mexico,
Germany, Thailand and Australia.
Of course, arena polo, indoor and
outdoor on artificial surfaces, has existed
since the 19th century and is big in the USA
and the British Isles, although it is little
The U.K.'s Polo in the Park, dubbed "city
polo" by the organizers, falls between arena
polo and the traditional grass game: three-aside
like arena polo, on a turf ground about
a third the size of a standard grass ground
but more than two and a half times that of
This year the three-day event saw six
teams competing, named after major
cities: London, New York, Moscow, Buenos
Aires, Sydney and Abu Dhabi. These were
names only; for example, those first three
sides were made up entirely with players
from England's national squad. Teams
were handicapped at 14 goals, equivalent
to high goal. The highest-rated players
were Argentine Piki Diaz Alberdi, 8,
playing for Abu Dhabi and Aussie Glen
Gilmore, 7, for Sydney.
Abu Dhabi won the MINT Polo in the
Park Trophy on the final day by defeating
Gaucho Buenos Aires 8-5. City AM New
York downed Otkritie Moscow 10-9 in a
penalty shoot-out to take the Camino
The venue for London's city polo could
not be more appropriate historically. The
Hurlingham Club was where the first rules
for modern polo were written in 1875. Polo
at Hurlingham inspired James Gordon
Bennett to import the sport into the U.S. in
1876. In the 19th and early 20th century,
Hurlingham was the epicenter of world polo
and the club's polo committee eventually
became the HPA.
Polo at Hurlingham ended with the
outbreak of World War II. During the war,
officers and men of the British Army and
Royal Air Force were quartered there with
an anti-aircraft battery and balloon barrage
unit. The main polo ground was turned into
allotments for growing vegetables. German
bombs landed on the estate, with serious
damage to the clubhouse.
After the war, the club's polo grounds
were compulsorily purchased by the
London County Council for a school, public
housing and a public recreation area,
Hurlingham Park. Meanwhile, the
Hurlingham Club has continued to flourish
as a private club with some 40 tennis
courts, a dozen croquet and bowls lawns, a
full social calendar—but no polo.
London financier and polo player Daniel
Fox-Davies first devised Polo in the Park in
2009. He struck a deal with Hammersmith
and Fulham Borough Council: he would pay
to construct a small polo ground in the council's Hurlingham Park, in the area once
occupied by the Hurlingham Club's famous
ground. Polo in the Park would have the use
of it once a year, with free or discounted
tickets to polo for local residents and with
the area reverting to public use for rugby
and soccer the rest of the year. Fox-Davies
even got the backing of London mayor Boris
Johnson for the inaugural event.
The first Polo in the Park, returning the
sport to Hurlingham after 70 years,
attracted the spectators, but drew criticism
and a certain amount of ridicule from the
polo community. The matches were played
four-a-side, too much of a crowd for the
small ground. The event was hyped by the
inclusion of polo-playing supermodel Jodie
Kidd in the roster of "world class players."
The innovation of an ice-hockey type "sin
bin" seemed out of place. Matches appeared
choreographed and some of the players
engaged in on-ground theatrics that fell far
short of Shakespearian.
Most importantly, the HPA did not
approve the new rules and the association
expressed serious concern about player and
pony safety in such an unauthorized event.
It was all changed in 2010 when Rory
Heron, formerly of Mark McCormack's
International Management Group, took
over organization of the event.
"Daniel (Fox-Davies) deserves every
credit for coming up with the concept and
investing his money—a lot of money—in
getting Polo in the Park off the ground that
first year," Heron said. "Now our relations
with the HPA are excellent."
In planning the 2010 Mint Polo in the
Park, Heron consulted with the HPA in
advance on such aspects as safety, the rules
and the choice of players. As a result, the
event got the full support of the governing
body. Last year the Hurlingham event was
named London Sport Attraction of the Year
at The London Lifestyle Awards.
I saw Polo in the Park for the first time
on the Friday this year, which is known as
"corporate day" because of the large
number of city types—bankers, stockbrokers
and the like—amongst the 7,500 ticket
holders. After a champagne reception and
luncheon in the Hurlingham clubhouse,
VIP guests strolled the short distance to the
adjacent Hurlingham Park and into the
Like at other equestrian events where
lavish hospitality is laid on, including horse
racing, corporate guests spent much of their
time boozing, gossiping and talking business
and only occasionally watched the action.
The general public in the stands were far
more attentive to what was going on out on the ground.
The ground, 218 yards long, is
lozenge-shaped, 93 yards wide over
most of its length but with the four
corners chopped off. Yard-high
advertising hoardings form a wall
around the playing area. The turf was
in good shape. "We've spent [over
$550,000] installing the ground and
reinstating it every year after it's
been used for rugby and soccer,"
At the far end of the ground was a large
public area that included a kiddies'
playground and catering for the public,
including Harrods Food Hall and the Veuve
Clicquot Champagne Bar.
Saturday was a sell-out this year, with 12,000 tickets sold. The gate was 9,500 on
Sunday. It rained heavily on that last day,
but thousands of spectators remained in the
stands under a sea of umbrellas,
enthusiastically joining in Singing in the
Rain played over the loudspeakers.
"I can see this new version of our sport
catching on in cities elsewhere, in innercity
parks where there is not enough space
available for a full-sized grass ground,"
says the HPA's David Woodd. That is, in
fact, part of the grand plan of Fox-Davies
and Heron, now joint owners of Polo in
"We're currently negotiating with
possible venues in the Middle East," Heron
says, "and hopefully we will be able to come
to a major city in the U.S. within the next
couple of years."