Not so pukka chukka
A new breed of spectator has joined the polo crowd. Spray-tanned girls in stripper heels are rubbing shoulders with the Tatler brigade
Colin Roy, a former cruise-ship singer, starts his set with That’s Why the Lady Is a Tramp. It oozes over the VIP lawns of the Gaynes Park Estate and across a scene that could be Jordan’s hen night. Women with St Tropez fake tans, plastic hair extensions and Day-Glo teeth are tripping across the lawn in stripper heels. At the bar behind them, bald men in suits are waving wads of twenties, hollering for more champagne.
The stars of The Only Way Is Essex are arriving by helicopter, Peter Andre is being mobbed by fans, the ex-Dollar singer David Van Day is posing by the Portaloos.
Shortly we’ll all be herded in for lunch, three courses, unlimited wine, a fashion show, an auction — for a pair of the D&G model David Gandy’s pants — and then a funk disco ending some time past sunset with a woman dancing on a table with a champagne bucket on her head.
We are all here for the polo, although nobody is going to watch it. “We came to get drunk!” beams Natasha, 22. It is the first time she’s attended the Duke of Essex polo, the highlight of the Essex social calendar. Her friends “come for the glamour”, she says. “Every girl here’s got her hair and nails done, we’ve had our spray tans. It’s all about showing off.”
Every girl here’s got her hair and nails done, we’ve had our spray tans. It’s all about showing off“It’s polo for the orange people,” wails one of the organisers as we stand together on the manicured grass of the estate in Epping, watching My Big Fat Gypsy Polo Match unfold. Polo has always been a byword for a certain kind of posh — the flashy kind. Originating as the pastime of Persian royalty, dubbed “the sport of kings”, it was adopted by the British military, who brought it to the aristocratic estates of Britain in the 19th century. Today, its association with nobility, royalty and raffishness continues. In a season that runs from April to September, its biggest tournaments are the Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup, at Lord Cowdray’s West Sussex estate, and Cartier International Day, at the Guards Club in Windsor, founded by the Queen in 1955.
“It was always rajahs and royals,” says Jilly Cooper. In the 1990s, when she wrote her classic bonkbuster Polo, Cooper summed up the sport’s potent appeal: it’s ritzy, royal, social-climbing and promiscuous. “Prince Charles was a brilliant player — Diana always went. And now, because royalty have come roaring back into fashion, polo is suddenly back again in a way it wasn’t five or six years ago.”
Princes William and Harry are keen players. Harry is said to have bagged his latest bird, Florence Brudenell-Bruce, with the polo-based chat-up line, “Fancy a spot of stick and balling with me?” But like everything associated with royalty here, polo also has the common touch. It’s always straddled the world of posh and, well, Posh ’n’ Becks. It’s a game that prefers fast cars, Rolexes and Aspinal handbags to afternoon tea and strawberries and cream; one that laughs in the face of the middle-class discretion, quiet accomplishment and good taste preferred by a nice sport like tennis, in favour of getting straight to first class in a pair of muddy Louboutin heels. So perhaps it’s no wonder that, with the global recession squeezing the middle, polo has come into its own.
Polo has always been a social-climbing sport. It remains the only game where you can buy your way to the top. It costs a few million to front a world-class team: 40-plus ponies worthan average of £61,000 each, up to 20 grooms, a manager, a vet, a farrier, a trainer, fitness experts, sports psychologists, not to mention club fees and the wages of a few champion players, who can command £1m a season each.
The pay-off is the chance to cosy up to the sporting and social elite. “Part of the attraction for a businessman is that, as a patron, they have a front-row seat,” says Iain Forbes-Cockell of Coworth Park in Berkshire, the only British club based on a hotel with its own polo fields. “He gets to take part in the action himself.”