Learning to play polo in Palm Beach
A holiday in the US resort is given extra clout with polo lessons
There’s a world of difference between swinging a polo mallet atop an upturned bucket and attempting the same thing astride a real horse. On the bucket I swing with aplomb, hitting the ball, mostly, with strong, confident strokes. Once poor Hollywood is introduced – an elegant mare who’s delightfully obedient – I almost take her head off with my poorly angled swing.
My tutor is patient and encouraging but soon spots I’d fare better if he guided Hollywood while I concentrated on the ball. Steering a horse with one hand while swinging a mallet is a lot harder than it looks.
Clearly I’m a polo virgin, which means I’m unaware that my dashing t eacher is an international player of some repute. Not only has Malcolm Borwick been on the Audi England team for a decade but he’s also played regularly with and against Princes Harry and William in charity matches.
Currently a member of the Royal Salute team, with a home base in the UK and horses in Argentina, Malcolm will play in 13 countries over four continents this year. I quite fancy this idea of following the sun for a living but have clearly come to the sport a bit late. “We lead a bit of a gypsy lifestyle,” he admits. “The professional circuit runs all-year round, with a 20-day break from mid-December. Our year starts in Palm Beach, then moves from May, June and July to the UK. August is spent in Sotogrande in Spain, and then September to December in Argentina. This all depends on securing contracts in each location.”
My knowledge of polo begins and ends with the Ralph Lauren logo, so I’m in dire need of a crash course. I’m off to the International Polo Club Palm Beach later to see one of the world’s greatest players in action, Argentinian Gonzalito Pieres, so I’m in desperate need of a polo crash course.
First I practise the four basic shots a player will use in a game, and have a brief intro to the rules and jargon. I’m told that a chukka is a seven-minute period of play and that matches are six chukkas long on the professional tour. It sounds pretty short to me so I’m astonished that each player will have eight horses with them at a match. That’s 64 horses for one game!
Malcolm explains that a polo pony will run further than a horse in the Melbourne Cup, with stops and turns, so each player starts with a fresh horse every chukka, with a couple of spares in case one gets tired.
Polo differs from country to country. “Weather and grass conditions alter the way you have to play the game. Argentina has the most expansive style of polo, where risk is rewarded, and the UK has the most tactical polo. The game and strategies change according to location.”
Post-lesson, I arrive at the International Polo Club dishevelled in dusty jeans and slip into a low-key sundress. I have a large blister on my thumb from gripping the mallet over-zealously and within a few hours, can feel the muscles in my forearm aching. My brief flirtation with the sport has shown me that, behind the jet-set social scene, are a bunch of professionals (Malcolm estimates around 250 worldwide) with serious strength, fitness and equestrian skills.
The glamorous set is out in force today but there’s a surprising amount of casual gear too. At half time the spectators, a mix of day-trippers and club members, spill out onto the grass clutching champagne flutes as they giddily stamp the divots into the ground. Seasoned locals sport wedges – there’s nothing dignified about sinking into the grass in a stiletto, I discover.
Malcolm reckons the Argentinians are the most stylish spectators, but says each country has its own look. Based on the showy beachfront houses I’ve seen I was expecting more bling and bigger hats, but a stroll down Worth Avenue, second only to Rodeo Drive in terms of designer-shopping manna, is an eye-opener. Palm Beach may be one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the US but the local look is low key: well groomed but disappointingly light on bling (a sighting of residents Ivana Trump or Rod Stewart would surely change that.)
Synonymous with high society since 1896, when oil and railroad tycoon Henry Flager created America’s first winter resort, the pretty barrier island is second home to many of America’s richest. From business billionaires to old money and sports stars – Rory McIlroy bought here recently and with the PGA’s slick headquarters and resort nearby there’s plenty of business for the 160 golf courses in the area – the population swells between January and April; accommodation rates swell too.
My digs are the none-too-shabby Colony Hotel, a historic property patronised by presidents, celebrities and one-time residents, the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson. An old-world property with modern appeal, its chintzy cosiness is a charming hat-tip to Palm Beach’s old-money set.
While taking a guided tour of swanky Worth Avenue (designed Addison Mizner, who created the area’s signature Moorish-Mediterranean architecture) we’re discreetly told that Stephen Spielberg is “on the Avenue”. We’ve no time to find out if he’s the reason for the burly bodyguard opposite Ta-Boo restaurant and locals, many in their retirement years, seem indifferent to the sight of personal security. While the expensive cars, designer stores and mega-mansions remind me of the vast wealth here I’m surprised that the people I meet are so down to earth. Maybe I need to wangle an invitation to a charity benefit or society wedding to get the inside scoop on the Chanel and Cartier set.
I suspect my polo teacher has good connections but he’d be far too well-mannered to drop names. Staking out Ta-Boo is another option but I don’t fancy my chances against that bodyguard. Seems my sighting of Mario Testino at the airport is the closest I’m going to get to the jet set on this trip.