Polo open hopes to inspire resurgence for 'sport of kings'

It is not just BMWs and Range Rovers that will rub shoulders in Clevedon’s countryside for the final of the BMW NZ Polo Open this Sunday.

Polo ponies themselves are often the overlooked talent amidst the glamorous blur of fashion and socialising behind the picket-fenced corporate marquees.

Auckland Polo Club president Tony van den Brink says the display of New Zealand polo ponies at Fisher Field this weekend is among the best in the world.

“The best-mounted teams in the world over the last 20 years have had a sold base of New Zealand polo ponies and our original mares form some of the most successful breeding programmes,” he says.

Each year the week-long tournament provides the best opportunity for New Zealand’s polo pony "makers" to tout their stock to some of the sport’s top players.

The term pony is purely traditional, as they are actually full-sized horses, Mr van den Brink says.

Most are thoroughbred and may have been too small to wind up on the track and are turned into polo ponies.

It takes three to four years to “make” a pony, starting off as a three year old then break them in before selling them.

A superstar polo pony from New Zealand can sell for up to $150,000.

No register

Unlike thoroughbreds, New Zealand has no register for polo ponies. And because they are sold privately, Mr van den Brink says it is difficult to say how much money is returned to breeders’ pockets.

Last year, 76  polo ponies left New Zealand in one jumbo jet, having been bought by a Chinese millionaire with 200 or so horses.

“If there’s a thoroughbred that can’t be raced it’s not worth much, but if we turn it into a polo pony then it can be worth anywhere from $20,000,” Mr van den Brink says.

“You are turning a low-cost raw material into a high value one.”

New Zealand’s distance from major polo-playing countries is a barrier for pony sales, so this week’s open is one of the main opportunities for "makers" to get in front of the international players.

South African star player and eight-goaler Ignatius du Plessis has been on the hunt for polo ponies this week, having been flown out by Veuve Clicquot to join its team.

The 24-year-old winner of the British Open Polo Championship in 2011 says he would be prepared to pay up to $100,000 for a top, proven pony and there is no fixed number he would buy while he is here.

“Good horses are very scarce. If I get two very good horses that’s quite a lot,” Mr du Plessis says.

“Your fields are unbelievable and your horses are good – those two things make you very competitive.

“New Zealand horses are calm and well-trained and also fast and agile. What I’m looking for is one that’s calm and does what you ask it to do. Some horses do things you ask and use too much energy."

Mr du Plessis says it is always a bit of a gamble for players buying horses from New Zealand.

“In the UK or Argentina the best horses are already proven because they are playing the best polo in the world already. You have very good polo [in New Zealand], but not the best.”

The cost to ship a horse from New Zealand at about $10,000, is another downside for their appeal.

As a result, only one of Mr du Plessis’ 13 UK-based ponies are from here. He also owns eight in the US and nine in Argentina.

The showdown between Mr du Plessis (playing for Veuve Clicquot) and local champion John Paul Clarkin (BMW) is anticipated to be a highlight of the tournament.

Event manager breathes new life into event

This year the BMW NZ Polo Open Is expecting larger crowds, and profits, following the first year of a professional management team.

Event manager Amy Calway, who previously worked for NZ Fashion Week, pitched for the job after managing the event’s official cocktail party last year.

Having just moved from Auckland to live in Clevedon, she discovered among the wealthy residents an “untapped market of people who want to be entertained”.

Ms Calway has developed the fashion aspect of the tournament, introducing celebrity judges for ‘Summer Fashion at the Polo’ and a new fashion area showcasing top New Zealand brands.

“The polo has its own look as far as fashion, hats and flats … it’s very classy and under-the-radar elegant.”

Last year’s event drew the biggest crowd to date – at 5000 spectators. Ms Calway is expecting to top that with at least 7000 through the gates this year.

Sponsorship has also doubled from last year, with Westpac, Orsini and Servilles adding their support, alongside major sponsors BMW, Veuve Clicquot, Heineken, Verifone, Bayleys, Rodd & Gunn and Mitavite.

Resurgence for “sport of kings”

Historically known as the “sport of kings”, polo has perhaps suffered a perception problem – it is seen as expensive to play and own the horse.

“But we don’t have a social hierarchy like England does. Anyone can hire a horse,” Ms Calway says " – and for the same price as a personal training session at Les Mills."

Despite this, the sport remains tightknit and it is largely Clevedon parents putting their kids into polo. Then there are the lawyers, doctors and plastic surgeons who pick it up as part of their networking, Ms Calway says.

This week’s open is an important event to help get more people interested in polo, which doesn’t receive any funding or promotional support from the government’s Sport New Zealand.

It is also the main revenue earner for the Auckland Polo Club – the largest polo club in New Zealand with nearly 200 members.