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August 2009
Polo-Risation of a Sport
Gyan Marwah
he blue blooded sport has come a long way from those halcyon days and is keenly pursued by leading corporates now.

India has been familiar with the game of polo for centuries - a royal sport played by kings and princes and watched by queens and princesses. In fact, in 1210, the first Muslim ruler of Delhi, Qutbud- din Aibak—builder of the Qutub Minar—died after falling off a horse while playing polo!

The game was popularised in India in the sixteenth century by Emperor Babar and it flourished during much of the Mughal empire. Babar was one of the best polo players of his time and his team was virtually unbeatable. In Agra he is said to have built the world's largest stable of specially trained ponies for polo. Many Mughal emperors like Humayun, Akbar and Shahjehan who followed Babar were keen polo players and the sport prospered during their time. One of the reasons for its immense popularity was that it promoted equestrian skills and was a test of speed and strength - all of which were vital in warfare.

Indian Version
But with the decline of the Mughal empire, the game virtually disappeared. However, in mountainous regions which were not effected by the political upheaval, the game survived from where it was picked up by the British. In Manipur, there has never been a dip in the popularity of the sport and is still played with the same passion and enthusiasm. In fact, Manipur is considered the birthplace of polo and the state's traditional game called Sagol Kangjei is said to be the sport from which polo originated.

The revival of polo in India was quite by accident. In 1859 Major General Joe Sherer and Captain Robert Stewart who were posted in Manipur in the British army decided to while away a boring afternoon by watching natives play some 'silly' game on horseback. What they saw left them stunned. Sagol Kangjei was nothing but an Indian version of polo. They both began actively popularising the game and were responsible for the setting up of the Calcutta Polo Club, the oldest active polo venue in the world today.

Corporate Polo
Ever since then the blue blooded sport has come a long way from those halcyon days. A couple of decades ago only the Indian army could boast of half a dozen worthwhile polo teams. That, of course, was before the corporates got into the act and turned the game on its head. Today, many companies pursue polo as passionately as their boardroom games.

It is not uncommon to see the army pitted against the private sector in a game of polo - it could be the Oberoi Blues versus the Army Reds, or the Jindal Team versus the Army Greens.

These days polo is patronised by CEOs, corporate high-fliers and socialites. But in the present times, polo is not just about the game or the ponies as it is about who is wearing what, who is going around with whom, and of course, the mandatory high society gossip.

Carnival Sport
These days you get to hear about German, Arabian and hybrid ponies, even as the high echelons of society in their Swarovskis and Cartiers talk about handicaps and goalers. However, with the coming in of big money, the sport sometimes assumes the hue of a carnival.

A tournament is usually accompanied by a royal ball at a five star hotel, top designers rushing in to make special ensembles for the participants, well known pop bands belting out popular numbers to entertain the gatherings during matches. Models are pressed into service to give a touch of glamour to a tournament. It is not uncommon to see pom pom girls - as in Twenty-20s cricket - liven up things whenever a goal is cocked.

Which all must make the truly blue blooded polo enthusiast squirm. But, says Vikram 'Freddie' Singh a Delhibased modern-day polo enthusiast, "It may have degenerated into a masala sport but at least it is getting popularised. That's a positive sign. In some years it will get back the glory of the old times. So let polo become a spectator sport first and let it have its own set of poster boys whom people come to see."

High Profile Tournaments
Today polo, once a blue blooded pastime, is the new sunrise sport among corporates. Many top of the line business houses are shifting away from the fading charms of cricket to sponsor high profile polo tournaments. Suddenly, the sport is everywhere. Filling up newspaper pages, grabbing airtime on sports channels and spilling over to the internet where aficionados have set up special sites to report on matches and players. And leading organisations like the Oberoi Group of Hotels, ABN Amro Bank, LG Electronics, Akai, Seagrams, Merrill Lynch, Radico Khaitan, Eveready and many more have suddenly become supporters of the sport. Many, like the Oberoi Group and the Jindals, have their own teams. Others are organising tournaments and some are setting up camps to underwrite the high costs of training talented players.

Clearly, the game has never had it so good. Polo grounds in big cities - till a few years back, confined to leisurely training of people from affluent families - are now the venues for a slew of high profile events like the ABN Amro Nawab of Bhopal and Pataudi Cup, and the Chivas Regal Championship.

Celebrity Polo
Besides cash rich sponsors, these events have started attracting hordes of polo enthusiasts and celebrities ranging from Vivek Burman [Dabur], Ravi Jaipuria [Pepsi], Ramesh Chauhan [Bisleri], Bhawani Singh and Gayatri Devi, the erstwhile king and queen of Jaipur and a host of other CEOs, top diplomats and socialites. "The Oberoi group is committed to preserving the history and tradition of this age old sport and takes a keen interest in promoting polo," says P.R.S. Oberoi, chairman and managing director of East India Hotels. Himself a keen polo player, Oberoi has his own polo ground in his 16-acre Kapashera farmhouse near Delhi. Even for Naveen Jindal, polo has been a childhood passion. When he was a kid he would see his father riding and was very fascinated. The young industrialist and Member of Parliament soon learnt the skill of both riding and playing polo. The childhood infatuation turned serious when he enrolled himself in Delhi's President Estate Polo Club where he was finally hooked to the sport. Soon enough, he acquired top quality horses and built up the Jindal Polo team.

Expensive Sport
Polo is an expensive sport. Even now it remains out of reach of the common man simply because a sturdy top quality polo pony can cost upwards of rupees seven lakhs. Then there is the cost of training, feeding and grooming and above all, transporting it to various venues where the tournaments are held.

That is where the blue chip companies are now stepping in. They are underwriting these huge costs, building up their own teams and setting up tournaments. Players can hope to make over a lakh per tournament. Some companies are even flying overseas players and reportedly paying them up to 20,000 dollars per goal handicap. "A polo handicap is your passport to the world", Winston Churchill once told the Oxford University team. The same seems to hold true for the emerging Indian polo players.

The High Costs
A royal sport needs a royal fortune to run it. Teams have to buy six Indian horses each worth around Rs. 1.5 lakh. Besides, they also have to buy eight imported horses each worth rupees seven lakh each A foreign player for the season costs around Rs. 10 lakhs. Top Indian players charge six lakhs each per year and a team has to have a minimum of two. Players with less handicap get around three lakhs each

Transportation costs: of players and horses around Rs. 7 lakhs

Injuries to horses: can cost upto two lakhs a year. Add to that miscellaneous expensesfo four lakhs a year

Venue cost: around five lakhs a week. The polo season usually lasts four weeks, which means venue expenses come around to Rs.20 lakhs

Sum total: well over a crore. Tidy sum!

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