THE short drive from the main gate of the Mahalaxmi Race Course to the polo field within the confines of its vast expanse is a bumpy one. On Friday afternoon though a number of high-end cars,from BMWs to Mercedeses had plied their way across the clumsy route,honking past horses and trainers to embellish the parking lot at the Amateur Racing Club (ARC)–the association in-charge of the sport in the city.
From colourful summer dresses doubled with trendy hats and hairdos,the dress-code at the make-shift stands too was glamorously chic with fashion statements ranging from bold to loud. Not for nothing is polo dubbed the sport of the royals after all.
Dressed in a casual tee and shorts with his greying mane resting just over his shoulders,Samir Suhag didn’t have to put much effort into fitting in with the flashy surrounds. And India’s most renowned polo playeran Arjuna awardee to bootoozed with the confidence and verve that comes with being the foremost exponent of his sport. Suhag basked in the limelight,indulging those seeking to pick his brains on topics relating to polo and otherwise.
All of a sudden,the collective attention of all those present at the ARC,including that of Suhag’s himself,shifted to the action just about to get underway on the field.
Four men,distinguishable by their appearance as well as the heavily accented English,had just appeared on the scene,mounted upon their respective ‘polo ponies’–though referred to as ponies,these are fully-grown horses. The abrupt shift in focus though was understandable. For,on a polo field,Argentinians demand attention just by their mere presence. The likes of Juan Jose Araya,Marcelo Araya,Enrique Jose Miles and Alejandro Savage might not lay claim to be counted among the elite polo players in the land coined as the mecca for polo,in their own admission that is. But there’s an inherent panache that Argentinians bring to the sport akin to Brazil and their Samba style of football.
And whether it was the flourish in the swing of their mallets or their general ball-play,it came through significantly in the exhibition game that Araya & Co indulged in at the ARC on Friday.
But unlike in India where polo remains a niche sport and the likes of Suhag an extremely rare breed,polo entertains immense popularity in Argentina. To the extent that family get-togethers in the Araya family and many others from Buenos Aires to Flores are enjoyed on the polo field.
“Though football reigns supreme,polo is played across the country by kids and adults like cricket is here in India. And it’s very much a family tradition. Our grandfather used to play polo at a high level,and it came down to us through the generations. I grew up watching my brother play,” says Marcelo,the younger of the two Arayas.
It’s the colossal flat lands that extend all across mainland Argentina and the high quality of horse-breeding,specially in terms of polo ponies,that have made the country a dominant force in the polo world,believes JJ,a veterinary doctor by profession.
“We have vast fields and most families own large farms where we grow up riding horses. My son is just five but he’s already adept at handling a horse and also the mallet at the same time,” he adds.
Modern polo really originated in India,under the aegis of the British rulers during the late nineteenth century. The Anglo-Saxons though also held colonial rule over Argentina simultaneously. And the Argentines ended up taking to polo far better than any of their subjects in other parts of the world.
“Polo though really became a national craze after the Argentina team won Olympic gold in 1924 and especially after they replicated the feat in 1936 during the Berlin Games. That set the ball rolling,” explains Marcelo.
Argentina have ever since been,to bring in the inevitable comparisons,to polo what the West Indian team of the 80s and the invincible Australians from the noughties put together were for cricket,having won four out of the nine World Cups held so far,including the last one in 2011 that was held in their own backyard. They also have the most number of players with a 10 handicapthe highest rating possible for a polo playerin the history of the sport.
“And now we also have a Pope from Argentina. Not to forget the other miracle man. You must have heard of him. Messi?” quips Marcelo.
And while the polo players do not quite lay claim to the same popularity as their football stars,they have their own following with the domestic competitions attracting thousands of fans to the stadiums.
Despite their high-profile billing,thanks mainly to their nationality,Araya and his team found India’s infamous bumpy surfaces a major hindrance just like they did last year and ended up losing the International Cup trophy to the ARC team for the second year running,with Suhag leading the charge for the hosts.
“Back home,we’re used to playing on fields that resemble golf greens. The surface here is too bumpy,and it’s difficult to control the ball as well as getting used to riding the horses here,” laments JJ.
But having enthralled the swanky polo enthusiasts in Mumbai over the weekend in a way only Argentinians can,Araya & Co are now away to soak in the sights and sounds of India,presently debating between the beaches of Goa and the forts of Jaipur for their next stop. Whichever way they go,like Marcelo insists,they’re hoping that the bumpy rides are behind them.