The nobility not only enhance the sport with their presence in the stands to enjoy the beauty and strength of the horses, combined with the skill of the players with the clubs, but they also practice it
Polo is more than just controlling a horse weighing more than 990 pounds with the reins in your left hand and holding a mallet with the other hand to hit a ball less than 4 inches in diameter, while the pair of horses move at a speed of 50 mph on the huge rectangular padded field.
Polo is a way of life, as seen in the film Pretty Woman, where Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, playing Vivian Ward and Edward Lewis respectively, stroll leisurely across a polo field while enjoying a glass of champagne. This lovely tradition is part of the game's charm: at half time, spectators are invited to descend from the stands onto the pitch, where waiters await them with trays of glasses of sparkling champagne, to stroll around the pitch, arranging the divots torn up by the horses' hooves during the match with their shoes and commentating on the game.
Known as the "sport of kings", polo, like other ancient sports, is of uncertain origin. It is said to date back to the 6th century, during the Persian Empire, where it was played by royalty. The game then spread to China and Tibet, and it is thought that it was in the latter country that it took its name; polo comes from the word "pulu", meaning ball. Centuries later, with the arrival of British troops in India, the game reached Great Britain, where it was regulated, and from there it began its conquest of the world.
Polo in Mexico
Polo arrived in Mexico at the end of the 19th century through the Escandón and Gómez de Parada families, who established their respective fields near their homes in Mexico City, specifically in the Escandón Colony (their residence was the current Russian Embassy) and on the grounds of the former Hipódromo de la Condesa (now known as Amsterdam Street, in the Condesa Colony).
In 1900, as the game of polo was being accepted in our country, the Escandón brothers –Eustaquio, Pablo and Manuel – were invited to be part of the international team, along with the American William Wright, to take part in the debut of polo at the Olympic Games in Paris, where they won the bronze medal. Decades later, at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany, Alberto Ramos Sesma, Juan García Zazueta, Miguel Zavalgoitia and Antonio Nava Castillo won the bronze medal.
Mexico confirmed its level of play in the final of the first edition of the FIP World Polo Championship for 14-goal foursomes, held in 1987 at the mythical Argentine field of Palermo, where the hosts faced the Mexican team of Armando González Gracida, Valerio Aguilar and Manuel Nava Ayón and J. Celis. The match ended in a 14-all draw and, as the tie-breaking chukkers were not included in the rules, the title went to the South Americans on the basis of their superior number of victories in the previous rounds.
In 2008, the Campo Marte in Mexico City and the Tecámac Polo Club were the venues for the eighth edition of the FIP World Polo Championship, where the Mexicans Carlos Gracida junior, 17, considered the youngest player of the tournament, Julio Gracida, son of Memo, Ulises Escapite and the veteran Valerio Aguilar finished third, ahead of Spain. The title went to the Chilean quartet, who beat Brazil.
The arrival of the Gracida brothers – Guillermo junior and Carlos (1960-2014) – on stages around the world brought Mexico recognition as a polo power. Both polo players had the highest handicap in the game: 10, a rating that few can achieve. This rating is obtained by evaluating each player's performance in the middle and at the end of a season, taking into account his ability with the mallet, knowledge of the rules, skill with the horse, team play, sportsmanship and ball striking. The handicap committee assesses each player's skills and classifies them for the upcoming campaign. The evaluation criteria range from -2 to 10 goals.
For 21 years, Guillermo was ranked as a 10-goal player and Carlos for 15 seasons, earning them induction into the Florida Polo Hall of Fame: Guillermo in 1997 and his brother in 2012.
Among Carlos' accomplishments, he has won the British Open ten times, the US Open nine times, and the Argentine Open Polo Championship five times; combining the dates of the aforementioned tournaments, he achieved the Grand Slam of Polo three times (winning them in the same year), becoming the only player in the history of polo to do so (1987, 1988, 1994).
In 1994, Carlos won the Triple Crown of the Argentine Polo by sweeping the Tortugas Country Club and Hurlingham Open Championships, as well as the Argentine Open Polo Championship (also known as the Open Palermo). The latter two tournaments are celebrating their 130th editions this year, while the Tortugas is celebrating its 83rd.
Carlos has been named Player of the Year five times, and in 1988 he was the only foreign player to receive the Silver Olimpia Award, given by the Argentine press to the most valuable participants in the Argentine Polo League.
"Memo" Gracida, for his part, was named Player of the Centennial Era in 1990; he has 16 US Open championship trophies to his credit, in addition to the Argentine and Australian Opens, among dozens of other titles. He was named Golfer of the Year in 1990, 1991, 1996 and 1997.
Carlos and Guillermo Gracida devoted a significant portion of their lives to breeding polo horses that were a cross between jumping and quarter horses, chosen for their height and speed respectively. Later, the horses are trained to keep their composure while playing with other horses on the field. Initially referred to as "ponies," the horses must have their legs meticulously bandaged to prevent possible injuries during the match.
Admired by royalty, the Gracida brothers spend time with Queen Elizabeth (1926-2022), King Charles III and his sons, Prince Henry and Prince William, whom they trained. In 1993, a friendly duel took place at Campo Marte in Mexico City, where Prince Charles, then the Prince of Wales, participated while wearing a special helmet with a mask to protect his face in case of any incidents that might occur during the match in accordance with royal protocol.
The polo field is a large rectangle measuring 300x150 yards. To get an idea of its dimensions, six football fields (100x53 yards) can be enclosed within it. On the sidelines, there are vertical boards between 9 and 11 inches that mark the boundaries of the field.
On the baselines are the goals, marked by two flexible posts (to avoid possible accidents in case of collision against them), 10 feet high and 24 feet apart.
Each player is defined by a number worn on his jersey, where number 1 is usually the attacker, who also performs defensive duties; number 2 is also an attacker, but is the strongest in supporting the defense; number 3 has the best handicap and leads the attack and defense; and number 4 is the fullback and main defender.
Unlike other sports, substitution of players during a polo game is not allowed except in cases of injury. To prevent accidents during polo games, all players must play as right-handed.
Each player has a mallet or cue of varying size (50 to 53 inches), made of manna wood or composite materials, which has a handle at one end to hold it and a hammer-shaped head at the other to hit a plastic ball (originally made from the "heart" of bamboo) of 4 inches in diameter and weighing between 5.6 and 8.4 ounces.
Games are divided into chukkers, which can vary in number from four to eight, depending on the level of competition, with a long break in the middle of the game when fans are invited to "tread-in" the field. Each chukker lasts seven and a half minutes, with a four-minute break for changing horses; the end of each chukker is announced by the timekeeper with a bell.
There are two referees on horseback inside the field, and a third outside the field whose job is to make a final decision if the two referees disagree.
A goal is scored when the ball crosses the baseline between the posts, irrespective of the height at which it crosses. A flagman, positioned behind the posts, validates a goal by waving a flag. Following each goal, the teams alternate sides. Thus, those who were defending that side will now become the attacking team in the direction of that goal.
The referees are responsible for penalizing fouls, and awarding free kicks to the opposing team. The distance of penalties can vary, being 30, 40, 60, or 150 yards.
The total handicap of each foursome is added up before the matches, and the result represents the team's advantage. In order to make the matches more even, the team with the smaller advantage is given the difference in goals during handicap matches. For example, in a match between a foursome with a 26-stroke handicap and another with a 24-stroke handicap, the latter would have a two-stroke advantage.
Variations of Polo
Over time, new variations of Polo emerged, such as Indoor Polo (Polo Arena) and Snow Polo. Indoor Polo is played on a smaller field 100x50 yards) indoors, with three players per team. As the game is played indoors, the surface is covered with sand to prevent the 4.5-inch-diameter leather ball from hitting the spectators.
Snow Polo is similar to regular polo, but it is played on compacted snow or a frozen lake, with a red ball instead of a white ball. The most prestigious tournament in this variation is the Snow Polo World Cup St. Moritz Trophy, which has been taking place on the frozen bed of Lake St. Moritz every year since 1985.
Text: Ricardo Villanueva ± Photo: St Moritz, FMP, epico sports, le grand, flrexder