PHOTO: Polo to Argentinians is like football to Americans. (Photo via Thinkstock)
Some would say that to be Argentinian is to love polo. The two are that inextricably linked.
The game is such an intrinsic part of Argentinian life that each weekend, the polo-obsessed head en masse to the pitch to play or watch or be seen … or some combination thereof. This, despite the fact that polo originated in the wide open plains of Central Asia some 2,500 years ago as fur-clad men thundered across the grass in hot pursuit.
From the Asian steppes, the game made its way to Persia, where it became the sport of kings and princes. Such was its popularity and association with nobility that it was taken up by the Maharajas of India and eventually by the British during Colonial times. The rest, they say, is history once British ex-pats brought the game to Argentina.
Argentinians love polo, and it could be argued that polo loves Argentina. Its year-round mild climate, where the sun shines nine to 10 months of the year, is ideally suited to endless matches. In fact, it’s not surprising to know that many fans and players travel on Aerolineas Argentinas to go from match to match in the country.
Vast, lowland plains known as pampas make for the perfect polo pitch, and the country’s love affair with the gaucho and ranching make it the perfect breeding ground for the world’s best polo ponies.
Players are revered here, and much-wanted elsewhere thanks to their skill on the field. Argentinian players who head overseas during the off-season are called hired assassins (we’ll leave you to guess why). So great are their talents that of the world’s top 20 polo players, 15 of them hail from Argentina, with nine of them landing in the coveted top 10 spot.
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What’s more, the country is the reigning Olympic polo champion (it was an Olympic sport from 1900 to 1936) and boasts 3,000 active players (more than any other country).
Despite the fervor that surrounds this sport, backers of the teams tend to be smaller businesses, unlike the conglomerates that back pro football and soccer teams elsewhere in the world. These boutique, often family-run firms do everything from breed and train prize ponies to producing polo sticks by hand.
Given the competition, not to mention the skill required, unless you start as a child it’s unlikely that polo will ever be anything more than an obsession. Still, for those who want to pursue their dreams or just experience the thrill of the mallet hitting the ball as they gallop over the grass, polo schools abound. Depending on one’s abilities—and wallet—classes can set an aspiring polo-player back anywhere from $100 an hour to upwards of $400.
Some clubs welcome members for long stretches during the season, which typically runs from September to May, and offer intensive programs designed to immerse lovers (as well as complete novices) of the sport in all things polo. Some students stay on year-round, no doubt honing their abilities with the idea of becoming the next top player.