Urban Polo, once the bane of polo purists and traditional tournament organizers, keeps finding its way into conversations from West Palm to West Africa.
Other celebrated variations of polo – Snow, Beach and Arena – haven’t suffered from the initial nose-snubbing and eye-rolling casualness with which Urban Polo was written off. But it can’t be written off, and all around the world, particularly in Australia and Singapore, Urban Polo is almost the new norm, if not the fans’ favorite.
Australia’s five-week, five-city Urban Polo series was met with such resistance in 2005 that one critic likened the concept of bringing 60 horses into Sydney’s Centennial Park as “pie in the sky,” according to Urban Polo Association (UPA) President Janek Gazecki. Eventually Gazecki convinced city officials in five major Australian capitols: Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide. None of these cities had polo fields in urban centers, so parks and green spaces were retrofitted, with installations of VIP tents, grand stands, tailgating areas, and a playing field – reduced in size from regulation (990 x 330 feet) to 460 x 180 feet, bring spectators much closer to the players, horses and action than usual.
To accommodate the proximity to fans, the Urban Polo 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, although it flies straight, unlike arena polo balls.
In veritable defiance of critics, people show up to party and watch Urban Polo. During each of his five weekends in Australia, thousands of fans packed lounges, elaborate VIP marquees and bars; it is a hands-on learning experience and introduction to the game for the majority. Fans come for the champagne, but leave having stomped divots, witnessed the athleticism of players and ponies and gained a new perspective on the Sport of Kings.
Singapore’s version of Urban Polo kicks off at 4 p.m. to capitalize on the Marina Bay’s dramatic cityscape and silhouette it provides as the sun sinks to dusk, then dark. As well as witnessing the skill and pace of some of the world’s best polo players, Singapore’s Urban Polo also features a musical line-up, that has included the likes of Kilter and Miami Horror in years past.
In this sense, Urban Polo is bringing polo to the people.
But like all movements, there is continued resistance. The reduced field size and party-over-polo aspect are Urban Polo’s most vulnerable traits. “Why would you want to play polo on a tiny field in the middle of the city when you can play on a regulation size field at a polo club just outside of town?” a polo circuit governor asked me when the topic came up recently. “Parks aren’t watered, the grass isn’t sanded; there’s so much field prep that must be done prior to putting ponies and players on it. The costs would be enormous… you’re going to throw tens of thousands of dollars at a temporary set up? Just support your local polo club.”
Polo clubs and equestrian centers; however, remain largely out of reach of ticket holders who come to drink champagne at Urban Polo. When questioned, most of them couldn’t name a polo club in the immediate vicinity.
Beyond the perception issues of Urban Polo, an equally large challenge exists: ponies. Vital to the matches, ponies and urban settings no longer go hand-in-hand in the developed world. In Australia and Singapore, their respective UPAs coordinate horses from city to city and location to location from outlying ranches and stables. Temporary structures, at least those allowed within zoning regulations, must be built on-site to house ponies for the duration of the weekend.
“Having a really thorough production and installation team who knows how to work with permitting is key,” said Gazecki. “You don’t want to be in a stand-off with city officials on Friday afternoon.”
The question remains, is Urban Polo the future of polo? If it is, then it is smaller, faster and every bit as modern as the world we live in.
By Josh Jakobitz Editor-in-Chief Polo Lifestyles 2020 •