Argentina is obsessed with soccer but visitors sometimes don’t realize that the sport the country truly dominates is polo.
The ‘sport of kings’ is played professionally only in 18 countries. Argentina is universally recognized as polo’s mecca, with several thousand active players.
Polo was an on-again off-again Olympic sport from 1900-1936. Argentina’s national team won the gold the last two times.
Over half of the sport’s top pro players hail from Argentina, including Adolfo Cambiaso of La Dolfina and Facundo Pieres of Ellerstina (his brothers, Gonzolo and Nicolás are also pro players).
Nacho Figueras, Ralph Lauren model, celebrity schmoozer and founder of the Cria Yatay polo team has been dubbed the ‘David Beckham of Polo’ by the New York Times.
Polo, Pato & the Pampas
Originating in ancient Persia, polo was introduced to the British in India in the late 19th century, who soon brought it to the estancias (ranches) around Buenos Aires.
Polo and Argentina were a perfect fit – Argentina has a strong equestrian tradition, a temperate climate and the grassy expanse of the pampas on which to play.
This game also shares some similarities to the more brutish native sport of pato. Pato (meaning ‘duck’) was also played on horseback, but the ‘ball’ was a live duck in a basket. The precolonial-era game was the gauchos’ favorite sport. It was more violent — not just for the poor duck — but also the cowboys who sometimes got trampled or stabbed in heated post-game duels.
Today a more civilized version of pato is played with a leather ball fitted with six handles instead of a live duck. Like polo, pato consists of two four-person teams, requires mastery to handle the horse with one hand and uses a handicap system to rate players. To the chagrin of the Argentine Football and Polo Associations, pato was declared Argentina’s national sport in 1953 by President Juan Domingo Perón.
If pato represents Argentina’s rough game of working ranch hands, polo is the game of the aristocracy, highlighting the legacy of the country’s wealthiest settlers.
Pricey Polo Ponies
Today, professional polo players usually begin to train as children. In order to play each player usually has at least four ponies on hand, each equal to the cost of a fancy car.
The Argentine polo pony is a cross of strong native criollo horses with graceful English thoroughbreds. These days champion horses are cloned and breeders use surrogate mares so that the best ponies are not kept out of play.
Just to transplant the equine embryo costs about US$4000. Once they are born the horses have to be trained for four years.
It takes a whole stable of world-class horses for a polo game – not hard to see why this is one of the world’s most expensive sports.
Polo also requires a lot of land and its constant maintenance. In Argentina, the elite nature of polo contrasts with the country’s pathological focus on the plight of ‘the working man.‘
Although the price to view a polo match is accessible in Argentina, most of the population’s only contact with the game is seeing it broadcast on TV.
Polo: Basics of the Game
Polo is played on a 300X160 yard field, an expanse that equals the size of five soccer fields. Two teams of four players mounted on horses gallop up and down the field during seven-minute chukkers (periods) trying to hit the ball with a mallet to get the ball down the field and between the opponent’s goal posts.
Once a player has a control of the ball, opponents cannot cross the ‘line of play’ although they can push players off course with a ‘ride-off’ or hook the opponent’s mallet as a form of defense. The matches are overseen by a standing referee at midfield and two umpires, who are also on horseback.
A bell rings at the end of each chukker and continues until there is a goal, foul, out of play ball or a second bell which ends play at 30 seconds, whichever comes first.
Between each chuckker, players have three minutes to hop on another pony. During the Argentine Open and other top tournaments players are able to switch out ponies during play as well.
After a team scores a goal, the teams switch sides to ensure neither team has a wind or turf advantage.
See a Polo Match in Buenos Aires
Polo season runs from then October to early December in Argentina and the three most important polo championships, collectively known as the ‘Triple Crown’ are played in Buenos Aires. Two are the opens that take place in the leafy suburbs of Hurlingham and Tortugas.
The most celebrated tournament is the Abierto Argentino (Argentine Open) set in Palermo’s Campo Argentina de Polo (commonly known as the ‘Cathedral of Polo,’ ). The tournament pits eight teams against each other and provides the best opportunity for visitors to witness the high-speed drama of a match, while also getting a glimpse into the lives of Argentina’s botoxed bourgeoisie.
Visitors who find themselves in Argentina during polo season can check out the list of upcoming matches on our soccer and polo list. Also ask about our day-long polo tours with an asado lunch to get a chance to learn how to play the ‘sport of kings’ yourself.