Argentina's love affair with polo
- 26 February 2015
- From the section Business
In the action-packed world of professional polo, such are the renowned skills of Argentine players that those who play for overseas clubs are called "hired assassins".
The assassins go to Europe and the US for summer in the northern hemisphere, before returning to Argentina for the main spring polo season in their home country, which runs from the end of September to early December.
The men are in high demand because the standard of polo in Argentina is widely regarded as the best in the world. Indeed, in the current world rankings nine of the top 10 players are Argentine, as are 15 of the top 20.
The country leads the way in polo because people there are obsessed with the game.
"There's a culture of horses in this country," says Bill Buchanan, manager of the Argentine Association of Polo Pony Breeders. "That's why polo became so popular."
He adds that polo could have been invented for Argentina's vast, fertile, lowland grass plains, known as the Pampas or Pampa.
"The natural conditions of the land makes breeding polo horses easy," he says. "Our Pampa is ideal territory for polo."
Industry of small firms
While polo in the UK may have an elitist image, in Argentina it is a populist sport, with big matches attracting crowds of more than 30,000 people, and being broadcast live on television.
There are more than 3,000 active polo players nationwide, more than any other country.
Yet unlike other sports such as football and rugby, which are dominated by global sportswear brands, most of the businesses that keep polo going in Argentina are small, often family-run companies.
The plethora of these companies again stems from the country's strong horse culture, says Bill Buchanan. These small firms do everything from provide the horses, to train the riders, and make the polo mallets, or sticks as they are also known.
- The game is said to have originated in Persia, which is present day Iran
- The British were introduced to the sport in India in the late 19th Century, and went on to establish the rules of the modern game. British settlers introduced the game in Argentina in the 1870s
- A polo team is made up of four riders and their horses, with the aim being to drive a small white wooden or plastic ball into the opposition's goal
- A game consists of four to eight periods called chukkas. Each chukka lasts seven minutes
- Polo was an Olympic sport from 1900 to 1936. Argentina are the reigning Olympic champions
- The game is played professionally in 16 countries
Polo was enthusiastically adopted by Argentines after the British began playing it in the country in the 1870s, and its popularity has never waned.
To try to create the best horse for the sport, the native Argentine Criollo horses, known for their endurance, were crossed with English Thoroughbreds, for their speed and grace, to produce the Argentine polo pony.
At the La Superba stud farm near the city of Lujan, 70km (43 miles) west of the capital Buenos Aires, they have been breeding, taming and trading Argentine polo ponies for the past six years.
"By the age of two the horse has been tamed. From that moment on it's trained to learn the game," says co-founder Fernando Monteverde.
"First you start little by little, and then you introduce more advanced techniques. Just like in football there are precocious horses, and others are slow learners."
Mr Monteverde, 59, adds: "By the age of five a horse can play in competitions and be sold."
'Matter of tradition'
To breed the horses, La Superba and other centres are increasingly using embryonic transplantation - when a prize mare is newly pregnant the embryo is quickly transferred to the womb of another female horse.
This ensures that the best mares can continue to play polo without being sidelined by pregnancy. Champion horses have also in recent years started to be cloned.
"Technology has advanced a lot in this business, but breeding [and training] a polo horse is still a matter of tradition," adds Mr Monteverde.
La Superba now sells between 20 and 30 horses per year, with most going to the US and UK, and a growing trade to the United Arab Emirates.
Mr Monteverde says that, depending upon a horse's ability, their prices range from $5,000 (£3,225) up to $200,000 (£130,000).
'Eye of the maker'
But if you have just bought your first polo horse, then you also need a polo mallet.
Hector Zappala has been making handcrafted wooden mallets for 33 years at his small factory in Buenos Aires.
He travels three or four times a year to Indonesia to pick the canes used to make the mallets.
The canes are produced from a wood called rattan, which is a type of palm tree.
"I select the canes one by one," says the 59-year-old. "They show me 20,000, and I bring back about 3,000 to Argentina.
"That selection process defines the quality of the product. That's what I call 'the eye of the maker'."
Back in Argentina the rattan canes are baked at a low heat to strengthen them, before being attached to their mallet heads. The mallets are made from a hardwood called tipa that comes from the Tipuana tree, which is native to Argentina.
Mr Zappala's business, Casa Zappala e Hijos, employs 14 people, and makes 10,000 mallets a year. The price ranges from $80 to $120, and he supplies the majority of Argentina's top players.
"I can make a million mallets, but there are no two exactly alike," he says.
For any new polo player hoping to end up as a professional, former player Leonardo Rossolini warns that unless you are still in junior school you have likely left it too late.
"Good players usually start in this sport when they are about six or seven years old," says Mr Rossolini, 37, who runs the Palo Alto Polo training school on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
One-hour beginner classes at Palo Alto Polo cost $100 per person, rising to $400 per hour for more experienced polo players who wish to boost their polo handicap. The handicap system is based on a scale that starts at -2 for novices, rising up to 10 for the very best players.
The school attracts players from around the world, with 70% of its clients coming from England.
Today the school has 30 permanent students of all ages and abilities, some of whom could end up being the next "hired assassins".