Princely chukker

By Louise T. Gantress

Polo, along with horse racing, is often referred to as “the sport of kings” – no doubt owing to its use as a training game for the elite cavalry of the ancient Persian emperors.

So it’s perhaps fitting that sports fans in the region will be given a taste of this royal treatment when Prince Harry of Wales takes part in a charity match at the Greenwich Polo Club May 15.

The Greenwich Polo Club (GPC), which was established in 1981 by publisher and art collector Peter M. Brant as a high-goal venue, is one of the few clubs in the world that could host this type of event. The excellent condition of GPC’s regulation 10-acre field and spectator stands as well as its gracious facilities has earned GPC national and international recognition as one of the premier clubs. The GPC has previously hosted royalty, including Prince Harry’s father, Charles, Prince of Wales; and his uncle, Prince Andrew, Duke of York. This will be the first time the club will host Prince Harry.

GPC’s selection as the site for the Sentebale Royal Salute Polo Cup – named for the charity Prince Harry founded with Prince Seeiso of Lesotho – also acknowledges the club is no stranger to charity events, hosting several during its regular season. (It also presents regional competitions, such as the East Coast Open.)

Preparations for the royal visit began with normal scheduled renovations to the clubhouse and grounds. Security for the Sentebale Cup is being handled jointly by the U.S. and England. Food for the luncheon and an invitation list of a select 400 is also being handled by a separate agency not affiliated with the club.

The luncheon precedes the game, which will be a four-chukker (four-period) match. (In similar events, a table near the prince fetched $50,000.) The elite guest list includes Torquhil Ian Campbell, the 13th Duke of Argyll. Dress code is “smart casual” and women normally wear flat shoes, as by tradition spectators are invited onto the field during halftime to trample back the divots, as safety for ponies and riders is paramount.

The English discovered polo – which had spread to India – in the 1850s. It came to America in 1876. Participants play four to eight chukkers on horses – called ponies here – that gallop up to 40 mph over a playing field that is more than five times the size of a football field. When shot by a skilled player from a running pony, the 3½- inch hard plastic ball can reach speeds of more than 100 mph. So polo requires strength and determination plus a sense of strategy to be aware of your position and the opposition in rapidly shifting play. It is not a game for wimps. Call it hockey on horseback.

But polo’s also similar to golf in that it has handicaps, referred to as ratings. Tournaments match those of comparable ability or adjust based on players’ ratings, which begin at negative 2 and reach 10. A rank of 10 is very rare among the tens of thousands of players worldwide. Skill, knowledge of the game and playing time count, but as you move up in rank, the quality of the horse matters more. Prince Harry – whose playing time has been interrupted by military service – is a 1-rated player. Teams are made up of four players with four ponies each, which the players change between chukkers. It’s easy to understand why this is the sport of kings – be they of England or Wall Street.

But it is charity as well as sport that will be at the heart of the May event. Prince Harry, together with Prince Seeiso of Lesotho, founded Sentebale (“forget me not” in that country’s Sesotho language) in 2006 in memory of their mothers. Sentebale works with grassroots organizations to benefit the most vulnerable children in Lesotho. The cup site moves, having been held previously in the United Kingdom and Brazil. At the Brazil match, Prince Harry was first to leap off his pony to aid a fallen player, who suffered head trauma in a collision with another rider. (It is legal to bump another player’s pony with your horse to ride him off-course. Even the best riders can fall, as Prince Harry did in a match on Governor’s Island.)

Such concern demonstrates the compassion of a prince who is a complex young man. On this American visit, Prince Harry – who served three tours as an airman in Afghanistan – will focus on injured veterans in visits to the Warrior Games in Colorado and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. While there, he’ll go to the Capitol to promote The HALO Trust’s efforts to clear land mines – a cause dear to the heart of his late mother, Diana, Princess of Wales. Prince Harry will also visit Hurricane Sandy-ravaged parts of New Jersey, all before the event in Greenwich. The Prince has been honored with the Golden Heart Award for his work for children and the Atlantic Council Award for his work to benefit wounded soldiers.

At Greenwich Polo Club, Prince Harry will play either the No. 1 or No. 2 position for the Sentebale Land Rover Team. The first position is noted for accuracy in hitting the ball, while the second is the hardest-working. It’s not known whether the prince will have time to test the ponies he rides in the game. However, according to Leighton Jordan, the club’s managing director, the horses are “professionals” and are of “high-end quality” with “drive and ability,” while Prince Harry is “an accomplished polo player.” Riders and ponies are a “combined competitor” and it is “widely agreed the horse contributes up to 70 percent of the game, transporting the player to the ball with G-force speed and agility.”

Polo star Nacho Figueras, who is also a spokesmodel for Ralph Lauren, will captain the St. Regis team, which will include polo patron Peter Brant. Figueras previously played against Prince Harry in the Veuve Clicquot Manhattan Polo Cup on Governor’s Island in 2009. Then his Black Watch team defeated Prince Harry’s team.

The Greenwich Polo Club’s season begins June 2, with Sunday matches in June and July, resuming in September. The home teams are White Birch (Brant’s team) and AirStream (Peter Orthwein’s team). Admission is $40 per car. The gate opens at 1 p.m. and people often picnic before the match. Dogs on a leash are welcome. Games begin at 3 p.m. For more, visit greenwichpoloclub.com.

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