If you build it, will they come? The polo club that hopes to lure Tianjin's 'new aristocracy'
The ponies bash into one another, muscling each other off the line of the ball, snorting and kicking up snow. The riders lean low off their saddles, mallets clacking. One player gets control and gallops forward, whacking the ball through the goalposts. The commentators erupt in excited shouts - not in German or French as at St Moritz or Courchevel, but in English and Putonghua: we are in Tianjin municipality in the north watching Asia's first snow polo competition.
The six-day Snow Polo Challenge at the 1.6 billion yuan (HK$1.9 billion) Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club last month was designed to raise awareness of the sport.
The club, the mainland's biggest polo venue, opened late last year and is located in Binhai Hi-tech Park, west of Tianjin.
The 898,000 square metre polo club includes two polo fields and stabling and facilities for 150 horses, plus a 167-room hotel with 10 restaurants, conference rooms, business centre, swimming pool, gymnasium and spa.
The polo club is part of the Goldin Metropolitan mega development, which will also comprise a central business district with 117-storey tower, a residential area, theme park and retail zone, all set for completion in 2015. The development is backed by Hong Kong-listed Goldin Properties Holdings.
The polo club will be strictly members only, with memberships starting at 380,000 yuan, and going up to 10 million yuan for patron level, which offers the opportunity of forming a polo team. Tickets will not be available to the public even for the international polo events. So far, no one has signed up for membership.
'This event is part of our vision to draw and create a community that showcases international lifestyle to China's new aristocracy in Tianjin, which saw a GDP growth of 16.5 per cent, one of the highest in China,' says Pan Sutong, chairman of Goldin Properties.
And nothing says 'international lifestyle' and 'aristocracy' quite like polo, according to Rowland Wong, president of the club and hotel.
'Twenty years ago, playing golf meant you were someone, but now for a few hundred yuan anyone can play golf,' Wong says. 'Golf has no princes, no models, but in polo you put your boots and helmet on and everyone is the same, Prince Harry comes up and shakes your hand.'
While the club is aiming for about 3,000 members in three to five years' time, Wong expects only 200 or so members at most to be playing polo. The maximum number of patron members is to be 10. The rest of the members, he expects, will use the club for business and social networking and relaxing with friends and family.
'Snow polo is more of a spectators' sport than field polo, with the audience so close to the field,' Wong said. 'The excitement we saw I think exceeds the popularity of field polo.'
Teams from Argentina, England, France, New Zealand and Australia took part, as well as the Hong Kong Goldin team, comprising Malaysian-Chinese Chevy Beh, Englishman John Fisher, who is director of stable operations at the Tianjin club, and Chilean Jose Donoso. The Hong Kong Polo Association helped put the team together.
It was the first time that six countries had competed against each other with national professionals in a snow polo event. England took home the cup.
Beh, whose father, two brothers and sister also play polo, was the only Asian player in the competition. There is no China polo team, as a sport needs to have mass appeal and be registered to be represented by a national squad.
There is also no organisation to manage polo in China, but this is now being developed, according to Derek Reid, head polo professional of the Metropolitan Polo Club and manager of the Hong Kong Goldin team.
To further develop the polo scene on the mainland, the Tianjin club is planning a junior polo club that will be open to non-members. The club hosts riding classes and arranges polo demonstrations so that members can learn more about the sport.
Two other clubs being planned in Shanghai and Shenzhen should further expand knowledge of the sport. The Shanghai club will be four times the size of the Tianjin venue, according to Paul Stevens, former facilities manager at Guards Polo Club in Windsor, England, now general manager of the Tianjin club.
But while polo is still a novelty on the mainland, people are starting to learn, says Paul Chow of the Hong Kong Polo Association: 'I definitely think there is a future for polo in China. Things in China are always unpredictable, but there's a lot of wealth. But it's a unique sport and it takes more effort to get into it - it's not like tennis or football.'
Many of the players and horses taking part in last week's competition had not played on snow before, and the smaller field took some getting used to.
'It's a small arena, so play is condensed and it's difficult to play tidy,' says Oliver Hipwood of the England team. 'It's a big ball, but players can miss it. Even though there are only three players, the field could've been bigger so horses can operate better.' He added that as polo was still in its infancy in China, it would be a case of trial and error to see what worked.
In snow polo, rules of play are more malleable than field polo and are fitted to each competition and venue. The games in Tianjin were divided into shorter chukkas and played off the stick (player and team handicaps were ignored). Umpires were forgiving, and while most in the audience had not watched snow polo before, there were mutterings in the crowd from those who had and thought more fouls should have been called. But participants took it in their stride.
'The rules for this event are quite different, even lax,' says Australian team manager Glen Gilmore.
'But if you are too strict with the rules, it's not fun to watch. You have to bear in mind this is a spectator sport.'
The condition of the field, however, did raise comments. The club had been blowing fake snow on the field for more than a month trying to get the right balance between snow and ice. 'The field wasn't perfect but it's the first time this club has done it, so it was good considering,' says Juan Casero of team Argentina. 'It was a bit dangerous at times as the ponies haven't had much experience on snow, but they were very fit and well kept.'
While a team's patron usually provides the horses, all players were mounted on ponies from the club's stables. The club has 60 horses, all bred in Australia, most of which are thoroughbreds.
Donoso was impressed with the ponies: 'the people, the atmosphere and the horses have all been up to international standard,' he says. 'It's a good surprise seeing as the sport is so new in China. It's great being here.'
Five things you never knew about snow polo
1 First introduced in St Moritz, Switzerland in 1960. Whereas grass field polo has four players, snow polo teams consist of three players. Grass fields are 300 by 160 yards, while snow polo fields vary but are usually less than 100 yards long. The Tianjin Club's field is 100 by 50 yards.
2 Jose Donoso of the Hong Kong Goldin team said playing on snow is quite different. 'The pace is slower but as the field is smaller there is closer contact with other players,' he says.
3 The ball is bigger - a brightly coloured inflated sphere - and the mallets are of composite fibre with a lighter (190-200 gram) wood head.
4 Every polo game is divided into chukkas, or timed rounds of play, and players are assessed each year and awarded a handicap ranging from minus two to the highest level of 10. Grass polo has four to six 7-minute chukkas, while snow polo has four chukkas, usually of shorter duration.
5 Snow polo can be played on a frozen lake, such as at St Moritz, or on any flat snowy surface. Polo can also be played indoors, referred to as arena polo, and on the beach.