Polo is not the Argentinian national sport, nor is it the most popular, but there is no doubt that it contains all of the ingredients that make up for not only a fascinating sport, but also all the traditional regional components.
By those lucky things that life has, we were given a pair of tickets to go see two matches (one day tickets) of the best national and probably worldwide level of polo at the Campo Argentino de Polo, located at the neighborhood of Palermo in Buenos Aires. Also known as the Polo Cathedral, and where the tickets that during the normal season cost 20 dolars go up 10 times during the "Open" tournament, for matches that specialized journalists would say it's the best world polo event by the quality of both players and horses.
If you go to the site of the World Polo Tour and you look at the ranked players, you shall be amazed that not only the three top players are Argentinian, but also that from the top 50, only 15 are not.
We got the chance to see two of the Stella Artois Cup, a minor cup, but with big names that standed behind it. FIrst match was Chapaleufú versus Alegría and the second Ellerstina against Las Monjitas (former La Aguada).
The sport that began in Persia during the VI Century before our era, or "a long time ago", takes its name from the tibetan word pulu which means ball. From Persia, with time, it naturally spread to not only Irán, but more important China and Egipt arriving all the way to India, well before Colombus disembarked in America. It was actually in India that the british discovered this game and decided to take it to Europe around the end of the XIX century. From Europe to the New World it was easy, more so, due to the tradition of horse riding that multiplied in these corner of the planet. In present times, in Argentina it is considered to be a sport of the high clases, mainly based on the spectators, more than the players or the game itself, since there isn't anything more Argentinian than a man on a horse.
A Polo match has a duration of aproximately 90 minutes and so, two full matches were too much for us, and we decided to arrive late for the firts game, so we wouldn't get bored. By the size of the field (276 x 146 meters, twice the size of a soccer field, 105 x 70m), the sport is practiced traditionally with daylight not only for the benefit of the players and spectators, but more important for the true protagonists, the horses, that different from the racing horses, do not wear any blinders, instead they run with their eyes uncovered and need to be aware to run in every direction.
When you enter the Polo Cathedral, you breathe tradition and glamour from the sponsors (champagne brands, luxury cars, trendy clothes, etc) and although the noise of the stumping and the smell of the manure takes us on a different sight, the audience is more towards the glamour than the coutry side look. Most of the spectators did not come with an improvised look. But we do emphasize the word most, sin there is also a minority, not too small, among the crowd, that you can easily tell, has come to see a sporting event, besides beeing hip or not.
The first match began at 2.30 and we arrived at 3.30, enough time to see the last two chukkers (name given to the periods in polo and that have a lenght of 8 minutes and are 8 in total). We arrived and sat down in our seats to Alegria loose against the traditional polo family Heguy that by chance, are extremely important, since they are the founders of the true and original Argentinian horse breed, now world famous and that derives from a cross between a pure blood breed and a Criollo (Argentinian) breed. Their team has always been and still is known as Chapaleufú.
After the match, players salute gently each other and even with the referee, but during the game the intensity level and tension es as high as in other sports, and, insults, shouting, complains and controversial calls, are also present. Once the match is over, all is quiet and friendly.
Usually, when attending a sporting event, everyone chooses a side and team to root for and applaude whenever they score or support the claim of their team's players whenever it takes place, that being said, the heat fealt on other sports does not take place on these courts. In 2006, a famous and polemical event, took place through the at the time, most famous polo player, Adolfo Cambiaso (pioneer in polo horses clonation) invited a local soccer team group of fans, (that belonged to All Boys FC team), with the intention of making polo a “popular” sport, as he called it and even though the outcome was not as expected, definetively it made history and nothing has been the same since.
During the match we were watching, on the opposite stand from us, (allready during the second game) that rooted for Las Monjitas, a huge flag was spread among their fans during the first chukker, with a song, sung along just like you woudl experience at a soccer match.
FInished the first match and while Gonza explains to Jor the rules and details of this fascinating sport, they head towards the main arena, the Campo Principal, where they would witness the final of the Stella Artois Cup and wehere there can be seated 15.000 attendees (this day it wasn't full, probably half occupied). During the 10/15 minute walk to the Grand Stand, they went by various open shops of the event and team's sponsors, two bars (one the main sponsor of beer and another an exclusive champagne bar), an icecream shop and a series of horse “studs” each representing a pro-team with merchandising and pictures of their players, locations, horses, etc.
We climbed up to the Grand Stand "B" (Te stadium is organized by the first four letters of the alphabet), and we say climb, since we literally had to climb up 20/25 cm steps to get to the top, row 21, a location that althought the dizzinez of the hight, it had a great perspective, and once sitting down it wasn't that bad..
Little by little, the stadium started to be filled, and as it was already mentioned, there was a bit of everything among the public. There were plenty of those that came to show the last aquired outfit and also those that came strictly to see a polo march... anyhow, for both, the most wore accesory was a hat, cap or something to protect the head from the sun... this item was everywhere and in various styles.
The final began and soon the Pieres brothers (Facundo, one of the best players in the whole world and Gonzalo, also a Top 50) showed that Ellerstina, their team, was at a higher level thant their rivals and although thru the first chukkers the score wasn't so clear, they were allways on top. Facundo Pieres is an amazing player.
In Polo players are ranked with a "handicap" that goes from 1 to 10 and Facundo according the the International Polo Federation is a 10, but whatever numbers mean, in the field he not only gets faster to the ball, scores more than anyone, has more accuracy in his shots, but he would even play with his ball and club during the game, doing tricks that kids will imitate forever. He is the youngest player in Polo history to become a Handicap 10 (with 17, just a few months younger than his fellow countryman Adolfo Cambiasso) and during the match he gets mosts of the camera clicks and applauses. His brother and the remaining two in the team play at a very high level and although Las Monjitas fought every ball, and even finished with a respectable 18-14, they played well. Among the specialized audience, the most mentioned comment was that the next 2015 Ellerstina (also known as the “Z”) will be an "all Pieres" team (Pablo and Nico Pieres both siblings of Facundo and playing at the momment at Alegria with a 9 Handicap) and it gets clear that although sponsors and teams push for the best players to start with their jerseys, as the Heguy all play at Chapaleufu and the Cambiasso at La Dolfina, family tradition is extremely important in polo.
With each score, teams change sides and although you may imagine, as soccer, basquetball or hockey, you would run horizontally towards the opponents goal, in Polo you play everywhere, since it is such a big field, sometimes to go around an opposite player you may have to ride for a couple hundred yards. To score a goal, the ball needs to cross the imaginary line among two posts traditionally made of wicker and besides the two referees on horses, behind each goal there is also an assistant to signal these umpires in case of doubt when scoring. The umpires generally call fouls for dangerous riding or use of the mallet. Penalty for a foul can be anything from a free hit to a free goal for the opposing team.
Besides the already mentioned millionaire worth horses, the world class players and the spectrum of audience, there are another group of very important people during the game, of course, their low profile almost silent presence, the petiseros (pony care-takers). These group of folks are not only in charge of taking care of the ponies, help train them, dress them (they wear defenses on their ankles), brush them and tie their hair and tail for protection, but also, be ready at any momment during the match to get a horse up to a player or get him ready for the player to came and get on it. Players use up to four horses during the match and they will change horses periodically amongthem, to give them rest and have them fresh.
Many times, due to the intensity of the game, a player will change the horse twice on the same chucker and for that the petiseros need to be allways alert. If the intensity amerits it, players won't even get off the horse, will jump from one to the other, show off!
While watching the 5º chukker, in a confusing play a "Monjitas" player along with his horse fell and rolled over, exactly opposite to us. Not 5 seconds went by that two ambulances came riding from both sides and also referees rode to the area, along with players from both teams.
There where 5/7 minutes of tension among the audience, until the player stood up and got back on the horse with couraje. The horse on the other hand, as soon as it rose up, it went running straight to his care-takers, the petiseros.
The match continued and the best team won the Cup. The show, from every angle, much worth seeing, skilled athletes, amazing animals and some funny looking people... we left with many anecdotes and the experience was very enriching.
Slowly, the afternoon gave into the night, and the day was over, so back to our VW and head home for a well deserved break from high level intense game of an amazing sport, a well deserved rest, but not as deserved as the rest deserved by the horses, for them: a big standing applausse.