Living and breathing polo

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With hundreds of clubs set up amongst the perfectly flat pampas, a capital city which uniquely houses a 30,000-capacity polo stadium, more ten-goal players than you can shake a mallet at, and the world’s most important club level tournament, it’s no wonder Argentina breeds and attracts polo’s best and most obsessed.

Originating in Persia around 5 BC – making it the oldest team sport in the world – polo found its way to Argentina via English settlers in the 1870s. Due to the extremely high quality of ponies, the perfectly flat farmland in Buenos Aires province, and a strong gaucho tradition, the nation galloped ahead to became polo’s international playground.

In a daring, aggressive, and sexy sport in which man and horse unite on a four-strong team, it’s little wonder that Adolfo Cambiaso, Bartolomé ‘Lolo’ Castagnola, and Nacho Figueras are the pin-ups of polo, the names to be dropped if they deigned to drip sweat on you at Palermo’s Open Championship.

But the Argentine credited with turning polo from a multi-million dollar sport into a multi-million dollar business over the past two decades is Gonzalo Pieres Sr. Riding since the age of three, alongside Australian business partner, the late Kerry Packer, Gonzalo is the creator and driving force behind the Ellerstina team; the Gold Cup (Copa de Oro) which takes places from November 1 to 16 at Ellerstina Polo Club; La Zeta breeding and embryo centre; the Polo Week clinic for aspiring players; and an annual pony sale, also held in November.

Recognised as the best player of his generation and a member of the White Birch and La Espada?a teams, Gonzalo won England’s Gold Cup four times, the US Gold Cup ten times, and the Argentine Open an undefeated four times. Never mind Hurlingham, Tortugas, and Deauville, Gonzalo has claimed them all – and his trophy room at Haras estancia is the proof, brimming with cups, pewter, and glassware, the Coronation Cup stealing the show – a glorious prize he picked up aged 19 on his first trip abroad.

Aged 54, and talking from Haras where the Ellerstina team is based, 60km from Buenos Aires in Pilar, Gonzalo now only practises polo because his main occupation revolves around breeding, selling, and providing the best ponies to sons Facundo and Gonzalito, respectively the world’s number two and three polo players. Polo could only have been Gonzalo’s destiny. “Polo is very strong on both sides of the family, who came from Spain and Ireland. My maternal uncle played the Open 50 years ago. He was the first to reach it in my family and he was a seven-goal player,” he says. His paternal grandfather also co-founded Tortugas Country Club in 1927, home to a respected tournament that Ellerstina has won for the past three years.

Talking about the game’s origins, he says: “A lot of people living on farms outside Buenos Aires used to play at the weekends, and of course there are a lot of horses to choose from. Polo has a big advantage here as it’s a lot easier to play here than in Europe or in Asia as we have so much space and good grass to play on. It might cost a fortune in your own country, but you can play for a tenth of the cost as you don’t need to play your own horses – we have a cross between thoroughbreds and criollo local breeds which are very fast and perfect for polo.”

Argentina’s game has a reputation for glamour and glitz; who wouldn’t gasp at the handsomest of men wowing all and sundry on horseback, swinging a mallet in a controlled fashion to score goals with a cricket-size ball when many of us fail to remember which is the kicking end Polo is macho, violent, skilled, intelligent, and on a pony. And so the obsession begins. Although his own compulsion with winning has diminished as he has matured, Gonzalo fondly remembers the early days of his career. “The most amazing thing was the trip I took when I was 19 and left Argentina for the first time. I wanted to become a professional, and we played the Coronation Cup in England. We won it and that was the beginning – from then on I never looked back. But it took me a long time to win the Open here – it took six years!”

He retired from the game several years ago to make way for his three sons, but Gonzalo remains a seven-goal player. “I don’t miss playing much. I played 11 months a year for 25 years and I don’t like the competition any more. I used to get nervous, and when you get a bit older and lose your nerve, then you get frustrated.

I used to know how to win, and now I can’t beat anyone!”

That’s not entirely true. Gonzalo won Argentina’s Jockey Club Open with Facundo, Gonzalito, and youngest son, seven-goaler Nicol?s, in 2006. Two years later he became the first foreigner to be inducted into the US Polo Hall of Fame.

But the obsession has now moved down a generation with his elder two sons taking on more experienced players such as Cambiaso, a former Ellerstina player, and his team La Dolfina. “The best day of my life was when my sons won the Argentine Open in 2008 – they like playing golf a lot but being in this place…what can they do ” he jokes.

In fact, it is breeding that keeps him extremely busy these days, and with 1,000 horses to keep tabs on, Gonzalo calls Ellerstina “both a business and a hobby. Fifty years ago we had a lot of horses thanks to the farms, but Argentina then started to run out of good-quality horses. Horses were playing until they were 16 or 17, then had a short breeding career, or the good ones went to Europe or the USA. But today, we can play them and also keep breeding from the best broodmares, which is a big advantage. That means the quality has improved a lot. Around 1,000 professionals are also always travelling abroad for business and that makes breeding more interesting again.”

Although running Ellerstina costs US$600,000 a year, it is more economical than a team would be in other parts of the world, he says it is an exorbitant sport to play. Did patrons stop investing due to the global economic downturn Gonzalo reveals: “We had two terrible years, to be honest, in 2008 and 2009. The world is big but even in pure recession it is picking up again. It must be fun to come here to buy ponies – like going to a shopping centre. Horses aren’t for sale in other countries, but here, you buy it and it’s yours to take home!”

But the upshot is that business is good. Polo continues to grow in popularity in Argentina. Indicating the 92 hectares at Haras, he says: “All this, all these country clubs, give people the chance to live alongside polo. A ground is 12 acres in size, which makes it a nice area to build around, so more places to play are being built every day.”

Before Kerry Packer, who, according to Gonzalo, loved horses and bought the best of everything for their team, before Ellerstina, before Facundo and Gonzalito took on and beat Cambiaso, the Haras estancia was just another slice of flat farmland in the province of Buenos Aires.

Polo-founding father Gonzalo Pieres opened the gates for a further 80 clubs to be built on 1,500 hectares in the Pilar outskirts, but in this vast country, where the obsession to watch hunks on horses continues to grow, there’s room for everyone to play the field.

Buenos Aires, Argentina
Distance: 13,319 km
Flight Time: 18 hours, 50 minutes
Frequency: Daily via São Paulo

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