A different kind of horsepower

Promising a thrilling mix of high-goal polo and high-fashion, the Land Rover NZ Polo Open is on once again in February 2019. We caught up with the players and their ponies as the season’s ultimate event gallops into view.

Yes, the headline’s a low-hanging pun.

But actually, when you weigh up the long hours and logistics involved, the similarities between a motor racing team and a polo team are quite striking. 

Endless travel, huge days and equally large expenses. Heartbreak, frustration, sweat and glory: it’s all there, both in and on the paddock. 

The more whimsical will suggest machines have minds of their own; performing perfectly in one race, breaking down inexplicably in the next. Now map that adage across to polo where the ‘machines’ really do have minds of their own.  

The trick for grooms and riders alike is to get to know what makes these rather less-predictable machines tick. 

The skill of the polo player is akin to that of the racing driver too. There’s the speed, the quick turns, the necessity to be doing 12 things at once; riders have to hold two sets of reins in their left hand and the polo mallet in their right (this is not a southpaw-friendly sport). They have to gee-up their steeds from near-standstill to 50km/h at the drop of a hat and then turn on a dime in order to follow play.  

In pursuit of the ball, players will bring their horses careening alongside each other to try and gain the advantage for the next strike with the mallet; immovable and unstoppable muscle colliding at pace. Clashing ponies, clashing riders, sticks flying.  

It’s dramatic to say the least.  

Then there’s the mental challenge; the strategy, the knowing which horse to play in which part of the game (each period of play is known as a ‘chukka’), whether they’re going to have to switch horse’s mid-chukka – done in a hurry and often without the player’s feet touching the ground. 

You’ll also be relieved to hear that the polo pitch is nearly 300m long and 200m wide; when there are eight horses and riders moving at pace in pursuit of a ball that spends an unexpected amount of time airborne, you’d be glad of the six rugby fields’ worth of manoeuvring room too. The rugger reference is apt; polo has been referred to as essentially like “rugby on horseback” by more than a few observers over the years. 

And then there’s the sound. No, not the shrill, ear-splitting shriek of internal combustion revving at the limit. But something deeper and more primal; whether they’re coming towards you or moving away, the sound of performance-bred horses galloping at speed is a thunderous sensation as much felt in the chest as heard. It’s intimidating and awe-inspiring all at once. Pass the champagne, I think I need a sit-down. 

On Saturday, February 23rd, 2019, the crowds will gather at the scenic Auckland Polo Club grounds in the lush hills of Clevedon for the Land Rover NZ Polo Open.  

It’ll be a glorious day out for the thousands that will be there; the pinnacle event of the New Zealand polo calendar and something of a spectacle, no matter how closely you’ve been living and breathing the season. Players from around the world will be competing for New Zealand’s most sought-after polo trophies. 

As you’d expect, this is a prestige event. Land Rover sponsors it (hence our transport alongside that of the equine variety today) and let’s not beat about the bush; the NZ Polo Open is definitely a very Range Rover sort of event. Fun, fashion, a glass of fizz… 

But for the players and teams that have been fighting hard to get here, the road to Clevedon is a long trail carved with grit and determination. You’d need something decidedly utilitarian to travel it. Defender, perhaps? 

World-class players Glenn Sherriff and Nick Keyte know the road well; collectively they spend a lot of time on it. Glenn might be a down-to-earth Gisborne lad but when he’s not playing polo in New Zealand, you’ll find him playing for exclusive clubs in West Sussex and Windsor in the UK. Similarly, Nick divides his time between home and Australia and he’s never without a string of playing ponies. 

The two have played on the same team occasionally, but they’ll be on opposing sides of the pitch come the NZ Polo Open; Glenn playing for a well-respected family-run unit, while Nick has joined the prestigious Rodd & Gunn team for 2019. 

Both are hugely experienced and live and breathe the sport. They’re also of the opinion that both the game itself and the sport in New Zealand have evolved in recent years. 

“It’s interesting to come home from the UK and acclimatise to the New Zealand game,” says Glenn.  

“Kiwi horses and trainers are very well respected internationally and they stand apart from ponies from other regions. New Zealand-bred horses are real thoroughbreds and tend to be younger when competing, whereas horses from England or Argentina are perhaps more mature; often well into their teens. 

“The best horses instinctively know what to do; they learn the game in their own way. You’ll see differently-sized ponies across a team because mass isn’t as important as speed, agility and just general toughness. Bravery is handy too though, for both the pony and the rider,” he smiles.  

Lucy Ainsley, Executive Director of the Land Rover NZ Polo Open says that the 2019 event will debut a new format, with six teams each playing twice on Saturday, February 16th, Monday, February 18th and Tuesday, February 19th before the NZ Open finals on Saturday, February 23rd. This will be the first time in the competition’s 42-year history that the finals will be played on a Saturday. 

“The new format is designed to increase the ability for teams to strategise and gain knowledge about their rivals during a longer lead-in to the finals,” says Lucy, who will also help oversee the initial draw and launch event for the NZ Polo Open in late-January. 

“We’re very excited to see how the new format plays out during the week prior to the Land Rover NZ Polo Open. Suffice to say though, for the spectators coming along on February 23rd – many of whom won’t have attended championship polo before – the event will be enthralling and something they will remember for a long time. 

“And if we can get the crowd enthused by the sport and keen to attend other events during the season, then that’s a great result for us too. The game is faster, the crowds are bigger; there’s some amazing things happening in polo in New Zealand right now.” 

Visit www.nzpoloopen.com for further event and ticketing information.

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