Polo has always been seen as a noble sport that brings the worlds of affluence and luxury together in glamorous global locations. Antje Derks meets one family that has fallen under its spell to discover polo's secrets
The 2008 polo season is just underway. The first major high-goal tournament of the English season is the Queen's Cup, which runs from 20 May to 15 June and is played at the world-famous Guards Polo Club near Ascot. Other highlights include the Gold Cup played at Cowdray Park Polo Club and the Cartier International, this year between England and Australia at Guards, both of which take place in July.
Polo is unique among team sports in that amateur players, often the team patrons, routinely hire and play alongside the sport's top professionals. Argentina dominates the professional sport, and is today the source of most of the world's 10-goal (ie, top-rated) players, including Adolfo Cambiaso and Facundo Pieres.
But playing polo seriously at any level is expensive. Running a high-goal team costs millions for example. The trouble is that for most people, once they try polo, they become addicted.
One family with just such an addiction is the Mathias family. Chris and Clare Mathias and their three daughters arrived on the polo scene eight years ago after Clare had given her husband a polo lesson for his 39th birthday.
The family bought a couple of polo ponies and, not wanting to be left out, Clare herself took lessons at Ham Polo Club, London's only polo club. Within a couple of years Chris and Clare's couple of ponies had become a string and they were playing chukkas (a period of play, usually lasting about seven minutes but the term is also used when referring to polo practice) and tournaments regularly. Today they own the Clarita polo team, which encompasses 45 ponies, grooms and
professional players at the family's sprawling estate.
Clare manages the team fulltime, presiding over a budget in excess of €1.3 million. She has even written a presentation about what Clarita is – its philosophy and how those who work within it are expected to behave. It is being translated into Spanish so the Argentine grooms and professional polo players connected with Clarita know what is expected.
This might seem extreme but as Clare says, "this is where my marriage happens, this is where my family lives, this is where my daughters are growing up. I want people to respect each other, to nurture good sportsmanship and to be good role models for the children who also live here".
Thea and Abby, the couple's oldest daughters, started playing competitive low-goal polo last year. Their 11-year-old sister, Sassy, has started stick and balling and it won't be long before she is joining her sisters on the field. In fact Chris and Clare have had to start a third Clarita team. Following in the footsteps of Clarita White and Black, Clarita Pink has been set up especially for the girls.
The Clarita polo teams are forces to be reckoned with. Last season both teams had many successes in the low- and medium-goal tournaments. Chris and Clare believe it is "the joy of connecting with the ponies in a sport that is compelling, competitive and requires new skills and mental strength, but is also very levelling and the people are wonderfully eccentric" that makes polo so addictive.
Conscious that their position to play polo so extensively is a privileged one, the Mathias family wanted to ensure that they and their daughters kept their feet firmly on the ground. They set up The Hummingbird Trust a year ago as a formal vehicle to involve and educate the children in philanthropy. Its prime focus is to support the NGOs in Calcutta that address women's issues and child-trafficking. The Mathias' wanted to put the opportunities afforded to them and their children like a good education and the chance to play polo into perspective and make sure they never took their lifestyle for granted.
According to Clare this was decided with the input from the children who also designed the name and logo. "It has led to some fabulous debates – age appropriate – about why the poor are poor, HIV/AIDS, conservation issues, generic drug production, money management to name but a few," she says. "Hopefully this is a long-term way to connect us as a family for generations". Chris makes his contribution by putting 10% of his business shareholdings into the Trust's name, which is a fantastic commitment.
A royal tradition
While polo is a family sport for the Mathias's, it has been well known as the sport of kings for centuries. Several members of the British royal family are keeping up the tradition to this day with Princes William and Harry the current generation on the circuit. Their grandfather, the Duke of Edinburgh, played polo until he was 50, while their father, Prince Charles, then took up the batten until he retired in 2005.
Like the Mathias family, the Prince of Wales also tied polo to philanthropy. He actually only played polo to raise money for charity and, by the time of his retirement, had raised around €10.6 million.
But it's not just royalty who have been associated with polo: the super-rich and the famous both add to the air of exclusivity and luxury. Despite efforts by the sport to broaden its appeal – some matches are now shown on Sky TV – polo is still the preserve of the super wealthy.
Matches such as the Gold Cup final held at Cowdray Park Polo Club in West Sussex and Cartier International Day played on the hallowed grounds at Guards Polo Club near Ascot are a major part of the English summer season. Some of the biggest names in show business, modeling and the world of business click champagne glasses with royalty at the China Whites marquee at Cartier, or lunch in the Veuve Clicquot tent at the Gold Cup.
In fact, the social side invariably overtakes the match itself. Jack Kidd, brother of supermodel and polo player, Jodie, co-organises a giant party on Cartier International Day, which takes place after the polo match, while luxury brands such as Cartier, Veuve Clicquot and Audi all sponsor polo, convinced that an association with the sport of kings will improve brand image.
With the sport clearly a sport on the up, many people will be hoping polo's mix of social glamour and high level sport will rub off on them too.