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New Zealand "The Polo" Open: Summer's Pinnacle Event

The good traveler inside all of us knows that picking up local monikers and phrases is key to successfully engaging in conversation when abroad.

Even before our arrival in Auckland, we were hearing the phrase “The Polo” in reference to the New Zealand Polo Open – rather than, say, The Open, or The Polo Open.

Interesting, we thought. We need to know more about this.

“It’s similar to how people say ‘The Classic’ to refer to the Veuve Clicquot polo events,” said Lucy Ainsley, event director of The Polo. It’s also extremely flattering, I added, in talking with Lucy.

“Yes, it’s very flattering to have our event, the Land Rover New Zealand Polo Open, be known across the country as The Polo. As in, ‘Are you going to The Polo?’ or ‘Which VIP ticket are you buying for The Polo?’ As it is the premium polo event for New Zealand and nationally discussed on media platforms, it is fitting,” she said.

The Polo, as the Land Rover New Zealand Polo Open shall be known hereafter in our pages, attracted 6,000 attendees this year for the final on Saturday, February 23, who filled 20 VIP tents to watch a savage game played on a soggy field that had been sanded for player and pony safety. International players joined national – Kiwi – players on six teams: Tiger, Semco PDL, Peroni, Lone Bee, Veuve Clicquot and Rodd & Gunn.

The victorious team, Tiger Polo, prevailed over Semco PDL in six chukkers with a 10-8 win. The lead changed multiple times back-and-forth, creating a game of mental strength as much as raw talent. “It’s rare to play a match with the lead changing so many times,” said Tiger Polo teammate Nina Clarkin, who played with her husband JP Clarkin and 17-year old Ethan Wade. “ You must have a belief in your game plan and just carry on.” For 17-year old Wade, whose father Johnny Wade coached Team Tiger, it was an awesome experience.

“This is a big tournament that I’ve watched for years,” he said. “Having the chance to play, I just had to give it all to win.”

Johnny, a polo player himself, couldn’t have been prouder. “I can’t think of anything better,” he said field-side, squeezed between Clarkin and his son as he beamed with pride. “He had great support from his teammates (the Clarkins).”

South African Chris MacKenzie, who played for Semco PDL in the final, played The Polo for the first time four years ago and actually spent a season living and playing in New Zealand with his family. “We just love New Zealand, and even though we didn’t win today, we played with heart.” The forecast for rain plagued organizers, players and attendees, but in the end, the sun shone over the three final matches, which saw Team Peroni beat Lone Been for third place and Veuve Clicquot knock out Rodd & Gunn for fifth place.

Lone Bee Mead patron Oren Dalton was undeterred by his team’s fourth place finish. “There’s nothing like The Polo,” he said in reference to the association with luxury and prestige. “Putting our name on a team jersey at The Polo, which is long synonymous with Veuve (Clicquot) and Peroni, is just beyond what any other marketing initiative can accomplish.”

The creator and chief brewer for Lone Bee Mead recognizes quality when he sees it. “Our sparkling mead uses the best honey – Manuka honey – in the world to make the best mead in the world.” Manuka honey, which is native to New Zealand, is a long-sought-after honey with naturally occurring antibacterial elements that fight the common cold. Dalton, who grew up around race horses and used to exercise and ride with his grandfather, is also known to pick up a polo mallet on occasion. “It’s a deep-rooted appreciation for horses,” he explained. “Like The Polo and polo ponies, quality for Lone Bee is paramount – it’s the essence of our product.”

Quality and The Polo go hand-in-hand. This is a prestigious event both for the country of New Zealand as well as the local club and sponsors. A double-decker, tricked-out VIP grandstand, a half-time fashion show paired with Best Dressed competition and awards, suspended Range Rover Velars, specialty cocktails, bubbly, and sparkling mead along with the iconic-yellow of Veuve Clicquot umbrellas for anyone feeling the lingering of rain clouds created a spectacular event worthy of the national moniker, The Polo.

How will Ainsley up-the-ante for The Polo 2020? “This year was about restoring faith in The Polo (after the 2018 cancellation due to weather); next year is about making The Polo bigger and better. We will have more synergy between sponsors in elevated activations and interactive experiences for attendees. We will have more teams, including teams from the south island of New Zealand, as well as some big-name players whom I can’t disclose – yet,” she said. With nation-wide media coverage firmly in her grasp, Ainsley is exploring international coverage options for streaming and broadcasting. “The Polo is the pinnacle of polo in New Zealand, played at the peak of summer,” she said. “The eight-day format brings in the international players, doing wonders for the local equestrian economy as it gives players time to see local horses.”

And in case you thought The Polo 2019 was already perfectly balanced? Ainsley assured, “All of our partners from 2019 will be involved in The Polo in 2020 – in bigger and better ways.”

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