For 12 years, one man has worked tirelessly - and sometimes madly - to bring polo - the sport of kings -to the masses in mainstream Australian households, businesses and media. The concept of “urban polo” in 2005 was met with such resistance that one critic likened the concept of bringing 60 horses into Centennial Park in Sydney as “pie in the sky.” Janek Gazecki, a Sydney lawyer and polo player, is the force behind Urban Polo. His chic series – there are now three – Polo in the City, Polo by the Sea and Polo in the Vines - span the entire continent and garner 25,000+ fans per series. This year, Gazecki launched the World Series Polo in Australia by inviting Haiti Polo Team, transforming urban polo from a national pastime into a global tournament.
Offering exclusive, glamorous daytime experiences on the sidelines of the smaller-than-regulation polo field facilitating an intimate view of the match. Paired by incredible afterparties, Urban Polo’s popularity in Australia has grown wildly. Gazecki and the Urban Polo Association (UPA) throw “the best party of the year” says the Adelaide Advertiser. “Official kick-off to the summer party season,” raves the Sun Herald. Spectators at Urban Polo are much closer to the players, horses and balls than usual, given the smaller size the field. Reaching out and high-fiving the players after a match is a tradition dating back to the first years of Urban Polo. To accommodate the proximity to fans, the ball is also larger and lighter than a regulation ball. It doesn’t shoot as far, posing less of a risk of contact with spectators, but, unlike an arena polo ball, it shoots straight.
To pull off the incredible series, as well as play in the matches each weekend, the logistics and coordinating require tremendous vision. Never far from his mobile phone, he works constantly, rearranging details and make last-minute changes to schedules. The early summer weather always poses challenges for the matches, and this year, Gazecki was forced to cancel the Melbourne event and refund tickets to spectators due to torrential rains. Since the tournaments are played in public parks, a production team sets up the entire field and sidelines for each location, part of the massive logistics undertaking of a five-week-five-city series. Tents, parking, toilets, back-up power sources, on-site kitchens, bars, lounges, selfie-stations, and red carpets are all laid out to uniquely suit each city’s site and regulations, as well as expected crowd capacity.
Regulations and differing codes from city to city often play a challenging role in the execution of tournaments. Once, local police officers ticketing cars on UPA-rented grounds found themselves in an awkward confrontation with Gazecki and his private security concerning the interpretation of the city’s contract with the UPA.
Ponies, vital to the game, pose another challenge to Urban Polo. Horses and the city don’t exactly go hand-in-hand. The UPA coordinates horses for players from city to city. Horses must be sourced from outlying ranches and stables, checked, approved, and leased. As international players are involved, practice are needed and required. In some cities, players traveled 1-2 hours by car for practices between weekend matches.
Behind Gazecki is UPA member and his partner, Natalie Decorte, who directs the publication associated with Urban Polo. The Polo Project is an annual printed piece that coordinates with the official event program. Taking a definite editorial approach to polo, The Polo Project covers equestrian fashion and art, but more importantly, explains the intricacies of polo in a smart and humorous manner that resonates with the young audience. On-site for the matches, Decorte directs the fashion competitions, the supermodels and Miss Australia representatives who are present to throw in balls, marking the start of chukkers with style and panache. Often with their three children in tow, she smiles for the cameras and poses with fans for selfies. She’s an unofficial polo ambassador for the UPA, giving her a platform to promote the family business.
Gazecki and Decorte rely on social media, and Gazecki favors the sky-is-falling approach to garner attention and likes online. “After 12 years of a perfect record, this year arrest rates at Sydney's Land Rover Polo in the City inexplicably went up, primarily among the male demographic. Pictured above is Ric McCarthy, one of many casualties (who) fell afoul of the law that day,” he posted on Facebook along with a photo of McCarthy, seemingly handcuffed and surrounded by two female police officers. That’s not his only social media tactic; there are plenty of beautiful-people photos: sipping champagne or cider, cheering from the sidelines, divot-stomping, running down the field barefoot for prizes, or clinging to each other after consuming quantities of champagne. The official program references “an international clash between Haiti Polo Team and Team Australia; “ the two teams had never faced each other prior to the Urban Polo series. While a clash created reality-tv-style drama between Haiti and Australia on the field and sidelines, the UPA quietly organized silent auctions to benefit the charity Project St. Anne in Camp-Perrin, Haiti, in support of their 2017 Christmas Toy Drive for schoolchildren whose Christmas celebrations might otherwise be grim. Over $1,500 was raised to support the deserving charity’s initiative.
As World Polo Series grows from its infancy and looks to mature in Australia, attention to fine-tuned details and complicated logistics will become more demanding; not less. Urban polo, now a global tournament, must make the adjustments to meet global expectations and standards in accommodations and transportation. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.
The future of polo has arrived. It is smaller, faster, and every bit as modern as the world we live in.