A polo handicap is a passport to the world – a phrase that the Royal Air Force Polo association has tried and tested in recent years, with players journeying to New Zealand, South Africa and the USA to train and compete in the Game of Kings.
One place has always eluded us however, the spiritual home of polo, home to the highest level tournaments in the world; Argentina. But that all changed this year, and after a huge amount of work behind the scenes by the Argentine Ambassador, his Embassy staff in London and our partners at Grob Aircraft we were honoured to receive an official invitation to visit. Our destination was to be La Tarde Polo Club in the Mercedes area to the west of Buenos Aires, well provisioned with fantastic facilities, friendly hosts and beautiful ponies. Eight RAF Polo association members were selected to attend, a mix of senior team and developing players between 0 and -2 goals from across the RAF. Four pilots, one navigator, two operations officers and a retired RAF Regiment officer – a very broad mix, but despite our very different backgrounds we are all united in our love for this fantastic game.
We were also honoured by an invite to the official residence of the Argentine Ambassador to the UK before our departure, where we were treated to our first taste of empañadas along with some very kind words from Ambassador di Cerisano to spur us along our way. Our next obstacle was the long flight down to BA, and despite the hopes of some players of a bit of a rest, after a warm welcome from our host Juan we were led to the yard to mount our horses for the first chukkas of the trip! Unfortunately two players were a bit slow to remember their riding skills after the long flight and were dismounted within twenty seconds of the first line out, but they found themselves much more stable thereafter.
The next couple of days were filled with chukkas, stick and ball and practise under the watchful eyes of Juan and the two Nachos, the resident coaches at La Tarde. We spent time in between practise nursing our aching riding muscles, chatting with the coaches about team tactics, and enjoying some of the superb food prepared by Monica and her excellent team. The weekend brought the competitive matches, against our sponsors at H3 Polo Passion (the Grob Aircraft team) and the Argentine Military.
We were honoured once again with an invite to play at the beautiful San Jorge polo club on Saturday, where the RAF Spitfires took on the Argentine military team of 1st Lt Edgar Echezarreta (2), Capt Emilio Bertolone (2), Lt Col Horacio Henry (2) and Col Guillermo Venier (2). The Spitfires, made up of Sqn Ldr Ed Whitechurch (0), Sqn Ldr Vicky Woodhead (0), Flt Lt Ellie Hoogewerf (-1) and Ignacio Boronat (3) from La Tarde enjoyed a fast paced match in a fantastic setting at the home of Argentine military polo. The action was end to end, with each team fighting hard on the field, however after 4 chukkas the final score was 8-5 to the home team.
Next up was the RAF Hurricanes, made up of Flt Lt Mark Lynch (-1) and Flt Lt Georgie Harwood (-2) sharing a spot at 1, Flt Lt Andy Waldron (0) at 2, Flt Lt (Ret’d) Dave Black (-1) at 3 and our host Juan Martin Sarli (3) playing at 4 taking on our sponsors, H3 Polo Passion, made up of Ishan Sahgal, Julia Hiebeler, Andre Hiebeler, and Tommy Ussher. This was another fast paced match, with H3 taking an early lead in the first chukka and finishing at 3-1 ahead. The second half of the game was swinging back to the RAF, however the final bell came just too quickly and the game finished 5-3 to H3. We spent the afternoon of Saturday at the Hurlingham club, watching the real professionals playing in the final of the Hurlingham open. After an 8 chukka epic, with highs of incredible plays on beautiful horses and lows of a nasty fall for Facundo Pieres (we wish him a speedy recovery!), the match finished with Ellerstina in the lead over Alegria at 16 goals to 13.
After the excitement of Saturday we were on a huge high, but there was still more to come! Sunday saw the teams invited to play at Pilar, a world renowned ground and one of the best in Argentina. We were to be the first match ever on their number 11 pitch, with the Spitfires now taking on the H3 team and the Hurricanes taking on the Argentine military. In the spirit of the tour, with international co-operation at it’s heart, the Argentine military and the Hurricanes were mixed together to allow us to play alongside each other, further fostering the friendship between our two nations through the medium of sport. The Spitfires fared slightly better against H3, in a match that could have gone to either team, but it was H3 that won the day at 5 goals to 4. In the second match, some superb plays and teamwork between the players saw the Hurricanes ahead after the third chukka by 4 goals to 3, however in the final chukka the Argentine military team managed to take the lead and win the day by 6 goals to 4.
After the match we were bundled onto a bus without being told our destination – H3 had organised a surprise for us, the downside being we would have to skip lunch. As we journeyed across Buenos Aires our minds were racing, were we visiting a tack shop, another meet and greet, or perhaps another high goal tournament? You can imagine our shock collectively when we were told that we were on our way to visit La Dolfina, where we would be able to see the legend that is Adolfo Cambiaso play, meet his ponies and the man himself – what a fantastic experience! Along with Cuartetera and Lapa, two of his best horses, we also met their extremely well presented clones, and the other ponies that have sealed his reputation as the top player in the sport.
After the busy weekend we spent some time visiting a stick maker, enjoyed some more time in the hitting cage working on the various shots on the (stationary) wooden horse, and practising our riding. We were clearly thrilled when we arrived at the pony lines one morning to see the ponies of La Tarde lined up with bridles but no saddles – we were in for a fun but somewhat painful morning of bareback riding to practise our pure riding ability. Galloping around barrels and running relay races against each other made for some exciting moments for a few players, but worked wonders for our riding ability, and we all felt much more secure on our horses thereafter!
All good things must come to an end though, and as the sun began to set on Thursday we dismounted for the final time on the tour, with a weekend of receptions and some more high goal polo to look forward to at the first day of the Argentine open at Palermo. Watching the pros making it look particularly easy is a very humbling experience, and gave us all a huge amount of respect for the skill and commitment required to succeed at the Game of Kings. However, it was particularly pleasing to see that even 10 goal players occasionally miss the ball!
We would like to give our sincere thanks to all the staff at La Tarde Polo Club, along with the staff at the Argentine Embassy to the UK, and all the support from the various tiers of the military who have helped so much with the organisation of this amazing tour. Our biggest thanks go to our partners at Grob Aircraft and H3 Polo Passion, without whom this trip would simply not have been possible. We look forward to putting some of our new found skills into practise in the coming UK season, and of course to visiting the beautiful nation of Argentina again in the future. RAF Polo is open to all serving members of the RAF, and is the only representative sport featuring mixed teams of male and females. If you want to find out more about RAF Polo, you can find us on Twitter @RAFPoloOfficial, or on Facebook, facebook.com/RAFPoloOfficial.