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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 August 2006, 05:58 GMT 06:58 UK
Making a mint out of polo ponies
By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Fifield Polo Club, Berkshire

Player at Fifield Polo Club
This wouldn't have worked 10, or maybe even five, years ago
Tony Bennett
Fifield Polo Club

Looking relaxed behind the bar, Tony Bennett is enjoying a frosty glass of his own as he pulls pints for thirsty riders.

He has every reason to cheer.

Two years ago, Mr Bennett was running a struggling equestrian business, buying and selling imported cars on the side to make ends meet.

Now he is on top of the world, having transformed his farm into perhaps the fastest growing polo club in the land.

New players

Halfway through its second season, jeans-clad members are milling around Fifield's relaxed yard.

Mr Bennett is convinced the club's down-to-earth atmosphere has done a great deal to attract its 105 players, a members' list that makes it the UK's fourth or fifth largest polo club.

Affiliated polo clubs

Fifield, with its 130 polo ponies on site, is one of a string of new clubs that have been established in recent years by farmers, business people or enthusiasts, all of them eager to live the dream and to tap into the rapid growth of the "sport of kings".

Since 2000, the number of polo clubs has risen from fewer than 40 to almost 60, and more are still being built, according to the sport's governing body, the Hurlingham Polo Association.

During the same period, the number of registered players in the UK has also soared, from fewer than 2,000 to almost 2,500, and the numbers are still growing strongly.

"This wouldn't have worked 10, or maybe even five, years ago," says Mr Bennett, as he shows off his immaculate yard, with its three-and-a-half polo pitches and an outdoor arena that makes winter games possible.

High finance, low margins

Indeed, it may not even work that well these days.

Ellie Bennett, club secretary, Fifield Polo Club
Many join Fifield Polo Club because of the relaxed atmosphere

In the words of Charles Stisted, chief executive of the venerable Guards Polo Club, one of the oldest and most prestigious polo establishments in the UK: "Clubs are all self-financing, as it were, but I don't know of a club that's profitable as such."

Money is a constant worry for Mr Bennett as he wanders around the yard, checking the horses, chatting to members.

"There's a bit of passion and a bit of business here," acknowledges Mr Bennett, who has invested a couple of million pounds in the business.

"But I went into this with my eyes open. I knew I wouldn't be Bill Gates in 10 years."

Mr Bennett believes he has spotted a gap in the market.

"We seem to get the younger London person," he says.

"Most of them work for the likes of UBS, JP Morgan or Citigroup. They're traders and that, or they work for hedge funds."

Budget polo

Having wealthy clients helps, says Mr Bennett, pointing to how one of the club's members, Man Financial executive John Wentzell, has both paid for the club's grandstand and digital scoreboard, as well as convinced his company to sponsor tournaments.

Yet, in spite of such cash injections from the world of finance, Fifield and Guards are worlds apart.

Henrique Novaes and Tony Bennett behind the bar at Fifield Polo Club
In our first years of polo, we needed someone who perhaps knew a bit more about the game than we did
Tony Bennett, on hiring Brazilian polo pro Henrique Novaes

Guards is famous for its high-goal (that is, top-level professional) tournaments, its links with the Royal Family and its glamorous parties.

Fifield is more of a spit-and-sawdust sort of place.

"We're no competition to them," says Mr Bennett. "It's like Formula One and go-karting. If a member leaves us to go to Guards, it is natural progression."

Whereas playing members at Guards might have a string of polo ponies worth tens of thousands of pounds each, Fifield members often rent theirs at 50-70 a chukka, thus bringing the cost of playing a match down to just a few hundred pounds.

Add the club's 1,250 summer membership fee and it still adds up to what most people would consider a lot of money.

Yet it is much cheaper than high-goal polo, where a season can cost a professional player in excess of 100,000, says professional polo player Jack Kidd.

Close links

The links between high-goal clubs like Guards and low-goal clubs like Fifield are nevertheless close, not least because of the way the latter "feeds patrons into the sport", according to Mr Kidd.

He reckons that about one in 10 newcomers to polo ends up as a patron who pays to play on the same team as the pros.

Groom at Fifield Polo Club
Many polo grooms come to the UK from Brazil or Argentina

"Everyone who wants to play and wants to have fun needs at least one pro per team," according to Brazilian polo pro Henrique Novaes.

But the patrons do more than that.

They also often end up employing a lot of people.

For every wealthy patron, there will be a queue of people waiting to receive his or her cash, including grooms and farriers, horse box drivers and mechanics, vets and ambulance drivers, to name but a few.

Many of the sport's professional support staff come to the UK from Argentina or Brazil to work during the summer season.

Take Mr Novaes, who was asked by Mr Bennett to come and manage Fifield Polo Club.

"In our first years of polo, we needed someone who perhaps knew a bit more about the game than we did," quips Mr Bennett.

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