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Last Updated: Monday, 14 May 2007, 05:56 GMT 06:56 UK
Pushing boundaries to pay to play polo
By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News, Berkshire

Jack Kidd
If polo is addictive, Jack is one of its most willing victims

They say there are just two ways to quit playing polo: death or bankruptcy.

For Jack Kidd, this is particularly apt since all his business interests and his entire life are tied up with the sport.

"This is what I'm good at," he says as he spurs on his pony, takes aim at a small white ball and sends it flying in a graceful arch across the polo field.

Keeping up with Jack - brother of model Jodie Kidd and great-grandson of the first Lord Beaverbrook - is not easy, whether on the pitch or off it.

It seems the 33-year-old professional polo player is constantly doing several things at once, whether making arrangements for giant parties for the polo set while simultaneously barking instructions to one of his pupils, or riding along with one of his small children in front of him in the saddle while discussing business on his mobile.

"I do everything I can to create business," Jack declares.

"But I don't really do it for the money. I do it to pay for my polo."

Risky and costly

If polo is addictive, Jack is one of its most willing victims.

He is also one of its most active ones.

Jack Kidd's horses and house
Jack stayed on in this house after the farm was sold

"Out of all the pros in this country, I create more polo-related business than anyone else," he grins.

At the heart of Jack's business is his home on a polo farm in Berkshire.

This is where he gives polo lessons and where he keeps his more than 30 ponies.

Bringing on a 1,000 pony can make it worth 20,000, so there is money to be made here, Jack explains.

"I pick 'em and crack on with it," he says.

"Basically, I play on horses that I make. I can't afford to buy a horse at 20,000."

But when the risks, the costs and the time it takes to bring on a pony are taken into account, it is far less lucrative than it might seem.

So Jack has branched out into other areas.

Private pitches

One is equestrian property management.

Jack Kidd plays a polo match
If you want to play competitively in outdoor polo, you'll spend at least 100,000 a year

Jack bought the Berkshire farm a few years ago, then transformed it from a run-down farm to a high-level equestrian operation.

He had a polo pitch, a bore hole and a polo arena installed, then sold it to hedge fund manager Louis Bacon of Moore Capital.

And here is the crux - proof that Jack is thinking like a businessman.

It was important, he says, to "downshift from high cost, low output to low cost, high output".

But Jack has negotiated the right to continue using the polo field, and he is still living in a rambling farm house on the estate.

Expensive sport

Jack says it is no longer rare for wealthy polo enthusiasts to construct private pitches in their grounds.

"They cost about 450,000 to put in," he says.

"Within a 10-mile radius of this part of Berkshire, there are 20 private fields, maybe more."

"Outdoor polo on grass is a financial and logistical nightmare, though," he says as he slows down his pony to walk.

Band playing at the Players' Marquee at Guards Polo Club
I started by doing raves in barns. I've always been putting on parties

Maintenance costs run to 50,000 per year, he explains.

"And every time you play, you get a van-full of people to fill the divots."

As a sport, it makes other equestrian sports like three-day eventing look positively cheap, Jack explains.

"In polo, you'll need 10 times as many horses, 10 times as many staff and so on."

Snow and show

Crossing the vast polo field, Jack rides up alongside a bland-looking timber arena, 100m by 50m, with a sandy base.

"This is the future of polo," Jack declares, referring to arena polo, a fast and furious form of polo, where each team has three players and where a larger, orange ball is bounced off the arena walls.

Jack Kidd playing polo on snow
Arena polo, snow polo and beach polo are all on the rise

"You can ride older horses with leg problems because they stay sound. It is much gentler on the horse."

Best of all, arena polo is much, much cheaper than grass polo.

"You can play competitively for 20,000 a year, whereas if you want to play competitively in outdoor polo, you'll spend at least 100,000 a year," Jack says.

Building an indoor arena could cost as little as 200-300,000, and amateurs could take part using ponies costing 1,000 each.

The attraction of the budget version of polo is not lost on the punters. During the winter, Jack worked on the launch of an arena polo club at the Hickstead equestrian centre in Sussex.

"Within three months, we had already gathered 65 members," he says.

But it is as a spectator sport that he sees arena polo's greatest potential.

"It's so good to watch," he enthuses. "It's condensed polo. It's just pure entertainment. It's theatre."

Jack is keen to take arena polo to city centres across the UK, by erecting temporary arenas.

"I want to drop the arena down, dump the surface down and then do polo in the city," he says. "You can make it happen for about 100,000."

"Another future of polo is using alternative venues," Jack continues.

Last summer he took a string of polo ponies to St Tropez to play on the beach, and every winter he takes part in the arrangement of a winter tournament in Klosters in the Swiss Alps, where "we build an arena out of snow and play at night under lights".

"I'm being paid as an entertainer," Jack muses.

In addition, the potential for sponsorship is huge, not least since such events are ideal for after-match parties.

Players' Marquee, Guards
Jack arranges spectacular after-match parties

Already, Jack arranges parties with budgets of up to 250,000 following major matches on grass, including the Players' Marquee at the Cartier International tournament at Guards Polo Club in Windsor Great Park.

And he has just started a broader events and party firm, Polofashionmusic.com, which doubles as an online lifestyle magazine, with DJ Alain-Marcos Basurto de Castillon of Ibiza fame and Jamie Morrison of the Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club.

"I started by doing raves in barns. I've always been putting on parties," Jack says.

As yet, he has not made much from his parties, though this could soon change, he hopes.

"After three years of losing money, I nearly broke even last year," he says. "After a few years of doing it, it is going to be a pretty good business."

Problematic patrons

So Jack is forever the showman.

Jack Kidd
On reflection, perhaps Jack is more horseman than polo set?

But he is also a professional polo player - one of just two or three dozen English pros.

This is where polo gets particularly curious.

Polo pros are paid to play on the same team as their wealthy patrons.

As a rule, the pros are young from wealthy backgrounds, their parents having paid for their training, while most patrons are successful financiers or hedge fund managers, lawyers or entrepreneurs.

This has the curious effect of creating a meeting between old and new money, which creates volatile relationships at the best of times, not least since not all patrons manage to hang on to their cash.

Jack's latest patron was forced to withdraw from the sport, at least temporarily, after having been banged up in a Polish prison on bribery, money-laundering and corruption charges, so Jack is on the lookout for a new financial backer.

"I'm really waiting for Mr Safe, a safe patron, but I really have a habit of attracting the wild ones," quips Jack as he dismounts.

Back in the house, Jack swings by his chaotic home office, furnished with two massive antique desks where equestrian magazines are piled high, supported by match trophies.

He has a quick chat with his secretary and fires off a couple of e-mails, mobile phone glued to his ear, before retreating to the kitchen for a hearty lunch of ham, egg and chips.

And suddenly it seems that Jack is really a country boy at heart, more horseman than sportsman, more farmer than party animal. Only he never sits still long enough to find out.

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