Polo – the sport of Kings – generally receives a mixed reception, but more due to elitist perceptions that surround the sport, than an actual dislike polo itself. In an attempt to bridge this knowledge gap and enlighten the masses (myself included) on the reality behind the most royal of sports, I spoke with one of the most accomplished Polo players of the modern generation, Malcolm Borwick.
Born in Hampshire, Malcolm hails from a family with history entwined with that of polo; while his father played polo during his time in the British Army, his great grandfather took part in the prestigious Westchester Cup in 1902, and his grandmother competed in the first ever women's test match in 1924.
I caught up with Malcolm in Cape Town, the morning of the Sentabale Royal Salute Polo Cup at the Val de Vie Estate. Sentabale is a charity co-founded by Prince Harry and Prince Seeiso, following a visit to Lesotho in 2004 where he was touched by the devastating effect of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Since the two Princes have made it their charge to raise funds to support the children of Lesotho - what better way for royalty to do so than to use the Royal sport of polo? Hence the Sentabale Royal Salute Polo Cup was born, raising funds with prestigious polo tournaments hosted all over the globe.
It actually wasn’t the first time I had spoken to Malcolm. Less then 24hrs earlier we were on the same flight from Heathrow to Cape town, where we shared a few words pre and post the slumber that is a requisite part of long haul journey. I have always believed - based on experience - that you can tell the essence of a sport from the nature of the people that play it. It wasn’t an in depth conversation by any means, but it was enough to surmise the manner of the man, and through that manner, the nature of polo, the sport. From Malcolm emanated an air of pride and humility; a calm warmth of nature, backed up by an alertness - he was always acutely aware of everything transpiring in our periphery. Now at the hotel, suitably fed and watered, it was time for our interview.
EA: What would you say is the current popularity of polo globally?
MB: I think polo has an amazing position in people’s sub consciousness. I think people have in their mind a concept of what polo is and often from my point of view as a polo player, it’s the wrong impression. And what we do with the polo clinics for Royal Salute is try and break down a few of those misconceptions about the sport. Primarily how hard it is; people say “Ahhh it must be impossible!” but yesterday afternoon we took twenty-five people who’ve never sat on a polo pony and we had them hitting a ball – albeit with varying degrees of success – on a horse. And now hopefully this afternoon when they watch the Royal Salute Sentebale Polo Cup those twenty-five players will actually engage with the game.
Polo as a sport in the UK is a lot more accessible than anywhere else in the world; you can get a polo lesson for the same price as you can get a golf lesson. For £45 you can go your local Polo club, turn up with nothing and they’ll give you boots, hats, sticks whips a horse to ride – and you can get a polo lesson. So, we want to get out that message that this is something that, as a present or as a package, is something you can have a go at; it will alter your expectations. The sport is regarded as one of the most complex sports to play; it has so many variables, it has so many difficult elements, but that’s its magic, that’s why it captures you, that’s why it captures people so well. You can’t go and shoot a 59 or you can’t go break a 147, polo is one of those games that even when one of my best friends, who’s a player called Agustin Merlos, scored the record number of goals in the most competitive match of year he came of the field and said “If only I’d scored that one shot” and I said “but you’ve just broken the record!?“. That’s the magic of the game. To have the perfect game is impossible, so that keeps you going back.
EA: From a spectators standpoint, what do you feel makes Polo so interesting to watch?
MB: Aesthetically it’s a really beautiful game to watch. You have the dynamic of the horses going at 45-50mph, you’ve got the sound of the perfect connection, much like in cricket, when the ball comes off the middle of the willow and races to the boundary. You’ve got the competitive nature of two teams giving it everything they can on top of very, very powerful animals, trying to get the better of each other. It’s a beautiful outdoor summer sport; you’re playing in amazing backdrops, like the Royal Salute Sentabale Cup being played here in Cape Town at Val de Vie with the backdrop of the mountains. All of those things combined make it aesthetically a very nice sport to watch.
EA: As a polo player you get to play at many venues across the globe. Do you find the sporting culture surrounding polo is similar across the globe?
MB: If you go to a country like Argentina where polo is much part of their culture, you get more of a sense of a fan base for the sport. Whereas you might go to other countries where the fans of the sport are more of the “hanger-on” department, where they’ve come to go to an event that’s spectacular, they like to be seen at that event and go because it’s an aesthetically pleasing environment for them to be in. You go to Argentina and there is twenty-seven thousand people watching a game, all of whom know the rules back to front, inside out and have opinions on what horse you’re riding and what play you make, that’s very rare. So that’s a very different audience to your social crowd that come to watch the Royal Salute Sentebale Cup.
EA: Given that Polo is such a prestigious sport, can you give us some insight into the social life of a polo player?
MB: There are two elements. In no professional sport now do we finish a game and then go out clubbing, that’s just not part of professional sport anymore. We are more focused on recovery, recuperation and getting ready for the next game. Tom Brady was once asked a question as to what was the secret to his longevity in sport, and he said “Sleep”. I would rather go to bed at half past eight in the evening and sleep for 10hrs a night and be able to play in the NFL for another five seasons, than go out clubbing. I can do that when I finish playing. Now that’s professional sport.
Now the social side to polo is very important and 90% of the polo we play around the world is a Pro-Am activity; we have one amateur on the team, who is the team owner. It’s his hobby and his enjoyment and if he wants to go out for dinner or go out for a drink after the game, we go out willingly because he’s having a really nice evening out, so we get to piggyback on that and have a really nice time. So there is a social element to polo that is good fun, and part of the attraction to polo is that post match enjoyment, like any sport. The camaraderie that sport brings between the two sets of teams competing is why many people play sport.
Prince Harry took the field for the Sentebale Royal Salute Polo Cup in Cape Town as part of His Royal Highness’ South African tour. The Royal Salute team took home the trophy – presented by Royal Salute guest of honour, Torquhil Campbell, the 13th Duke of Argyll, in what was a closely fought match, with a victory of 8 over the Sentebale team score of 7*.
EA: The teams in polo are formed in an interesting way, with the owners often taking part. How does this work with camaraderie within the team?
MB: I think there are only two sports in the world where the amateur can basically, play Centre midfield for Manchester United. Yachting, you can own a yacht in the Volvo Ocean race or the Americas Cup, and you can Captain that yacht, and employ the best people around you. Polo is the other sport where you can choose to play in the British Open, the US Open, the French Open; you can choose to play at the very top level of sport by employing professionals to play alongside you, to raise the team into the handicap category. The way the handicap system works, is it’s the sum of the four players handicaps that makes up the handicap for the team. For example, the Premier League circuit we play around the world will be a 26-22 goal handicap – so the sum of those players has to add to 22 or upwards. The next level down, Division 1 might be 18-22 goals. Division 2 might be 15-18 goals, so you choose which league you want to compete in depending on the sum of your four players.
Now these amateurs that own the teams, they do it as their hobby because it is the most engaging sport they’ve ever played. These are alpha males – and females – who’ve dominated everything they’ve done in their lives and they take up polo and because of the complexity of the sport, they can’t dominate it and it hooks them. They love the sport with a passion, and they push to improve. How does it affect the camaraderie of our sport? It’s our job as professionals to incorporate them and to make them the best players within the parameters of their ability, within which they feel comfortable playing and performing.
If they are enjoying their hobby, they’ll continue to play, and we’ll continue to work.
EA: We know you love polo, but if you could be world class at any other sport what would it be?
MB: Like all of us we harken back to our youth with rose tinted glasses, and we look back at the successes we might have had in other sports at school or at university and say “I could have done that”. I loved and still have a huge love for cricket and I often say that my most enjoyable afternoons in the while summer are the two days that I get to go and watch cricket. I grew up with some very, very talented cricketers; Ben Hutton, Andrew Strauss, Robin Martin-Jenkins to name just three who I played alongside for many years at school. I’ve seen them go on to have very successful cricketing careers, and I would have loved to have a crack at that in a different life. But I chose polo instead, and I don’t regret it for a second, I’ve had an amazing journey.
All photography by Chris Jackson | Getty
ART DIRECTION BY NAS ABRAHAM | @NAS_ABRAHAM
Images from the 2015 Sentebale Royal Salute Polo Cup at the Val de Vie Estate, South Africa RoyalSalute.com | @RoyalSalute
To find out more about the Sentebale charity www.sentebale.org | @Sentebale
Malcolm Borwick is one of England’s leading professional polo players with a six-goal handicap, as well as being a Royal Salute World Polo Ambassador.
EDITOR | SAMSON