Polo on collision course with Government over plans to restart in defiance of lockdown

Sam Wallace
Polo has ambitions of restarting before even the football in Britain, despite not being classed an 'elite' sport - Getty Images

The sport of polo, played by the super-rich and royalty, is on collision course with the government over its attempts to classify itself as an elite sport and restart its competitive season even before the resumption of football’s Premier League.

There is such determination among the polo fraternity – which is bankrolled by multi-millionaire team patrons – that the sport has agreed to the arrival in London of 122 Argentinians including leading players and groom by charter flight on Saturday to compete in the prestigious summer tournaments.

The charter flight from Buenos Aires, via Sao Paulo, was arranged between the Argentina Polo Association (AAP) and the Argentinian embassy in London to beat the government’s 14-day quarantine rules which come into force on Monday.

The players due to arrive at Heathrow, many with their families, and the grooms have agreed contracts with British teams, to participate in the Gold Cup and the Queen’s Cup.

All commercial flights to or from Argentina have been suspended until Sept 1 but the charter bringing players and grooms is understood to have been organised between the Argentine government and the influential AAP.

The AAP has itself suspended all polo in Argentina until further notice. In a statement on its website announcing its decision, the AAP said: “We are living in an unprecedented moment where the world needs us all to work together.”

Asked whether the government agreed that polo qualified as an elite sport permitted to return to competition, David Woodd the chief executive of the British governing body, the Hurlingham Polo Association (HPA), conceded that he was unsure of the likely response.

“We may not be given express permission,” he told Clickpolo magazine, “asking the question risks that you might get a no”.

He added: “We are going from the government guidance. We kind of decided to let the other sports do the heavy lifting, like horse racing and football. After all, polo is a small sport. We hope this will be okay and that people can go on to play and start to get back their income. We are certainly not breaking any laws.”

There has been no contact between the HPA and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) which is responsible for the phased return of outdoor sport and it is understood DCMS will be contacting the governing body as a matter of urgency. Those outside of elite participants who participate in contact sport would be in breach of public health guidance.

In a statement to the Telegraph on Friday night DCMS said that the regulations were “absolutely clear”. A government spokesperson said: “All governing bodies must review and follow the guidance, consider whether they can meet its conditions and take full responsibility for participants' health and safety. If not, they may face enforcement powers, including possible fines or people being directed to return to their home or accommodation by the police."

In an email to members of the Cowdray Park Polo Club, it was announced that tournaments will begin next Friday, June 12, five days before the Premier League season resumes.

The Prince of Wales tournament at the Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club, a key-warm-up tournament for the Gold Cup and Queen’s Cup, is scheduled to start on June 12.

The sport of polo in Britain has no Covid-19 testing programme.

The HPA protocols are limited to all participants having their temperature taken and being asked to report symptoms.

A single game requires extensive contact during the play itself and in the changing of horses by the four players on either side - around 18 times over a 90-minute game, requiring a total of 48 different grooms.

All 20 Premier League football clubs have been testing players and staff for Covid-19 twice weekly for the last three weeks.

The government has permitted elite sport an exemption to social distancing rules, defining an elite athlete as someone who “derives a living from competing in a sport”.

In polo, all the six teams currently scheduled to compete in the Gold Cup include amateurs, often the wealthy individuals paying the wages of the professionals and the provision and upkeep of horses.

In a statement, the chairman of the HPA, Nicholas Wiles said that he believed that patrons paying for their teams conferred upon them the status of elite athletes.

He said: “In the government guidance elite sportsmen are defined as those who derive their living from playing sport and for the patron of the team under the same guidelines, they are responsible for entering the team and as such are also included under the same definition of elite.” 

“As a result, as the governing body of the sport we are clear that teams who comply in this way and who have taken the necessary steps we have laid out to progress to firstly step one preparation and then to the current step two should be allowed to prepare for competitive fixtures in the way set out in the government guidance.”

Mr Wiles added that he believed the sport complied with government guidelines.

Among the teams expected to play in the Gold Cup is La Bamba, bankrolled by Jean-Francois Decaux, the 61-year-old French chairman of advertising giant JC Decaux and a keen amateur polo player. So too the Monterosso team whose patron is Alessandro Bazzoni, an Italian businessman who is also an amateur polo player.