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Last Updated: Sunday, 30 July 2006, 17:27 GMT 18:27 UK
Polo offers City pros a level playing field
By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Chobham, Surrey

The idea that "the king of games, the game of kings" could be a social leveller is hard to swallow.

Jorn Madslien receiving instructions from Victoria Grace
Eighty-five per cent of newcomers have never sat on a horse before

Yet that is what I am told by my polo coach, Victoria Grace, as I mount the only moving wooden teaching horse in England.

"Unlike golf, in polo there's a level playing field," Ms Grace says as she flicks the switch that sets the mechanical beast in motion.

"Why?" I venture as I struggle to stay on without dropping my long, unwieldy polo mallet.

"Because hardly anyone has done it before," grins Ms Grace.

Corporate clients

Ms Grace is a member of a growing army of polo professionals who make a living from introducing others to the sport.

Victoria Grace demonstrates a polo swing from a wooden teaching horse
Competitive City professionals tend to enjoy a challenge
Victoria Grace, Ascot Park

She is one of four daughters of Peter Grace, the founder of Ascot Park Polo Club and Academy, which is still run as a small family firm.

Much of her work is done through corporate events, where leading City institutions - such as the consultancy KPMG or the law firm Norton Rose - entertain clients or arrange team-building days for their staff.

"We pioneered the corporate learn-to-play day in 1994 and have actively marketed them for about five years," says Ms Grace.

"Before that, if you were going to learn to play it would be through a friend or family, who would lend you a pony."

Such introductions have led to a sharp rise in the number of City professionals taking up the sport, according to Ascot Park's Lucy Northmore.

Earlier this year, she launched the City Polo Club, which enables folks from the world of finance to network, and the City Polo League - which allows them to compete.

"I've had more than 100 approaches in the last month alone from people who want to play," Ms Northmore says. Many of them are in their 20s and ready for action, but there are also plenty of older players.

"They're in their late 30s, they've got themselves on a relatively decent salary, and that's where they want to put their energy."

Obedient ponies

Make no mistake; this is a sport where plenty of energy is required.

Yet, to my surprise I find that my polo pony is much easier to handle than his mechanical wooden cousin.

Getting kitted out
Polo equipment for sale at the Guards Polo Club shop
Protective hat - 85-155
Kneepads - 50
White polo jeans - 35
Polo shirt - 30
Gloves - 17-35
Leather boots - 100 to 400
Mallets - 70-80 each

Loosen the reins and he canters. Sit back in the saddle and he stops. Steering him is a bit like driving a car. And no, it is not because I possess some form of hidden equestrian talent.

"Polo ponies are incredibly obedient horses and they know when they have a beginner on them," Ms Grace grins.

"Eighty-five per cent of newcomers have never sat on a horse before."

I soon find myself in the middle of a large polo ground, facing a ball that is just cruising for a bruising.

My gladiatorial attack has little impact on the ball, though, so the pony has to help out by kicking it in the direction we are heading.

Humiliation is complete, yet I am hungry for more.

Polo match
City players will compete in a tournament next month

After all, how hard can it be?

"The biggest response we get is 'I didn't know how easy it was to get involved'," insists Ms Grace, as she encourages me to swing the stick in rhythm with the horse's movement.

This is hard enough.

Actually hitting the ball, which is only marginally larger than a tennis ball, without hurting my friendly pony, seems like a challenge of incomprehensible magnitude.

Which is good, according to Ms Grace, since "competitive City professionals tend to enjoy a challenge".

Beginners welcome

The Pro-Am City Polo Championship proves the point.

Some 30 firms - including several leading banks and asset managers, law firms and consultancies - are due to take part in a tournament on 9 September.

Ascot Park's Lucy Northmore
Ms Northmore says polo is opening up for ordinary people

Some of the players are absolute beginners who came onboard in May, when they were "issued with the ultimate challenge to learn to play polo over the summer and play competitive chukkas in the autumn".

Many of them have spent much time at Ascot Park this summer, taking lessons and playing chukkas, paying their way just as you do at a municipal pay-as-you-play golf course.

And there is still time to learn to play before the tournament. At times, as little as three weeks of training has been enough to get people playing in the tournament, Ms Northmore says.

"We've opened up polo in terms of moving beyond the stiffness of it," says Ms Northmore.

"You don't need to own a pony, you don't need to be a millionaire."

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