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Chukka Pony

I love going to the polo. It’s a day of champagne, oysters and watching eight fellows play the equivalent of rugby on horseback with deadly weapons in their hands. I particularly love kicking the divots about on the polo field at half time – an eccentric, social polo tradition called divot stomping, where you replace the sod that is kicked up by the horses and catch up on any celebrity skinny, champagne glass in hand. But play the game and miss out on the bubbly? Not in my lifetime.

So when Gaston Carrozzo, polo coach at Puesto Viejo Estancia and Polo Club in Cañuelas, Buenos Aires said he’ll teach me, in an afternoon, to ride a horse and at least poke at the ball with my polo bat, I got quite excited. He was serious and encouragement came from the staff at the boutique hotel as we sat around a shaded communal lunch table and talked about the sport of kings.

Opinions on the game came from five different nationalities enjoying Argentinian beef washed down with a fine Malbec. Eirin, the Norwegian hotel manager and Raul, her Spanish friend on a day’s visit, were the most encouraging of me making a fool of myself on a horse. Raul seemed to have a peripheral interest in the sport and Eirin, a horse lover, was there to run a boutique hotel. Polo comes with the job.

The four Chinese polo enthusiasts were the guests of honour, among them Victor Wang of the China-Argentina Polo Association who was adamant that polo originated in China rather than the generally accepted Persia/Iran. He also disputed the origin of the name, regarded as the anglicised version of the Indian name Pulu, and said it was Nepalese. I was waiting for him to tell me China was justified in occupying Tibet.

The Britons at the table were owner of Puesto Viejo, Jeremy Baker, a former Goldman Sachs executive who settled here with his Argentinian wife Lilliana and developed the 250 hectare estancia, with its four polo fields, club house, luxury boutique hotel, stables for 200 horses, and lavish Georgian homestead. Then there was Arthur who retired here from London and, whenever asked whether he played polo, replied with a drier than gin martini, “I try”.

We South Africans at the table were unified in our belief that polo was an occasion for drinking as much champagne as possible and admiring the beautiful people who did this every weekend.
Completing the multi-national discussion were the Argentinians. Raconteur Thomas de Estrada held court; an elderly former banker turned horse dealer with a wicked sense of humour and whose attention never left the women at the table. He showed us his shattered knee sustained from years plummeting off an animal I was about to try and ride.

Thomas’s son is Puesto Viejo’s star player Santiago de Estrada, aka “Chino” in polo circles. Imagine a dark and strikingly good-looking Argentinian polo player with a chiselled frame and you’ll have a picture of this guy in your head. He has a six goal handicap and his endearingly arrogant view of polo in Argentina is as passionate as his love of the game. He naturally had his gorgeous wife Mercedes at his side – the typically beautiful people of the polo set.

As it turned out, the Malbec at lunch was just too good and my ambitions of becoming the next best thing to the “Chino”, washed away with about a bottle and a half. Like I said, not in my lifetime.

I thought I would chat to Jeremy instead and learn more about his vision for polo tourism in Argentina, after all it is the most popular equestrian sport in the country and, as I was reminded several times by Santiago, if Argentina played its best players, not those who were well connected, no other polo playing nation in the world would stand a chance.

But this is a sport for society’s wealthy, which is counter-intuitive to Jeremy’s quest for finding potential among Argentina’s less fortunate. His search for local talent has produced a sixteen year-old local lad with a five goal handicap but I gathered that this was rare and he’ll need a good benefactor to sustain the expense of the horses, travel and polo kit.

Jeremy hopes Puesto Viejo will become a magnet for locals and international tourists who are polo enthusiasts, or who would like to experience all that is polo for the first time on fields regenerated from fallow agricultural land to champion this sport of kings.

The communal lunch was an absolute delight, the polo exhibition match in the afternoon proved my point about rugby on horseback and dangerous weapons, and the Malbec was of the best I enjoyed in Argentina. Thanks again for the offer Gaston but I’ll take my chances stomping divots between chukkas, glass of champagne in hand and my own delusions of polo grandeur.

Puesto Viejo is 40 minutes from the centre of Buenos Aires in Cañuelas.
Rates range from 150 US Dollars for a polo day – including lessons from Gaston, lunch and Malbec (if you prefer to watch) – to 450 US Dollars a night all inclusive, depending on the room and the package.

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