Breathing new life into an age-old game
The Hong Kong polo scene has been largely dormant for the past three decades, but that is about to change. So says the non-profit Hong Kong Polo Development and Promotion Federation (HKPDPF) that was set up in November to promote it as a spectator and competitive lifestyle sport.
The problems facing polo's development in Hong Kong are myriad, and HKPDPF vice-chairman Harvey Lee Chi-chung said the federation's agenda was 'long, and something to be rolled out one step at a time'. Polo was played in the 1980s and up until the handover in Shek O, but the site is now military land. Lee says the HKPDPF will approach the government to set aside land for a polo club.
Earmarking Lantau Island at the top of his 'wish list', Lee said the island had the space, and the tourist attractions and facilities, including Disneyland, beaches, hotels, hiking trails and the airport, so it would be an ideal location for a polo club.
He likened his vision of how a public polo course could be developed with the public golf course run by the Hong Kong Jockey Club at Kau Sai Chau in Sai Kung.
While he said that one public polo ground plus one or two private clubs would be enough for a healthy polo scene, he pointed out that land for a public or private club was not guaranteed. 'No land would mean no polo clubs,' he said.
Is the demand for polo in Hong Kong strong enough to warrant the government assigning land? Lee said that was difficult to assess.
'There are probably fewer than 30 people in Hong Kong who can play polo, and they mainly learned overseas. This is a very small percentage of our population,' he said. 'Anyone interested in learning to play polo would need horses, and owning one's own horses is very costly. Most players rely on horses from whichever polo club they are a member of.'
In Hong Kong, these horses would need to be imported. Lee said former racehorses could be used as polo ponies only at an amateur level.
'It would be very difficult to use thoroughbreds for polo as good polo ponies are smaller, have quick acceleration, and are not afraid of contact with other horses,' he says. 'Any Hong Kong polo clubs or Hong Kong patrons with their own polo teams would need to import horses.
'The demand for watching polo is there, but it does not have the status it deserves, such as that enjoyed by horse racing or show jumping. We're trying to create excitement about the sport; it's hard to tell how big it will grow. We're hopeful, though, as those with experience of the sport know it's exciting. It's a team sport as well as very much a spectator sport.'
The HKPDPF is trying to create excitement through the Federation of International Polo (FIP) Snow Polo World Cup 2012, to be held at the Tianjin Metropolitan Goldin Polo Club from February 2-12. Twelve international teams (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, England, France, Hong Kong, India, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa and the US) of four players will be vying for the trophy. The Snow Polo World Cup is the first major event endorsed by the HKPDPF, and Lee says they expect 3,000 people to watch the final, which will also be shown live on TVB.
As a co-ordinating body, the HKPDPF accepts memberships from clubs rather than individuals, and the Tianjin club is the federation's only present member. They will accept applications from other mainland polo clubs, says Lee.
Lee runs the polo club in Tianjin while electronics mogul Pan Sutong, chairman of the HKPDPF, is also chairman of Goldin Properties, the real estate company behind the Tianjin club. Goldin Properties also plans to open clubs in Shanghai and Shenzhen.
The Tianjin club now has more than 200 polo horses and aims to stable 300. It hosted Asia's first snow polo tournament in February last year.
Lee says it endorsed a snow polo tournament over a field polo event as snow polo is more dramatic.
'It's easier for people new to the sport to follow snow polo. There is a smaller field, it's very fast and dramatic, and strenuous for the horses and players. We are bringing in some of the world's best players for the Snow Polo World Cup,' he says. 'We want to increase awareness of the sport, and have more people watching, especially younger people so they can learn about it and feel compelled to participate, and this event makes a good showcase.'