Polo – The Sport of Kings

Dubbed the sport of kings, polo has a certain air of elitism. A blue-blooded sport the Royals enjoy. But as Bob Dylan once sung, the times they are a changin’. There is an ever-increasing number of people in the sport trying to change the image of polo with initiatives such as Scotch whisky brand Royal Salute’s polo clinic. I attended once such clinic in Dubai last month and was instantly sold on the sport.

This was in part due to polo evangelist and Royal Salute polo ambassador Malcolm Borwick. His 20-year, international career and six-goal handicap makes him one of the UK’s best polo players. He also happens to be a genuinely decent human, so it was a pleasure to interview him and learn more about polo from an insiders perspective.

An Insider’s Guide with International Polo Star Malcolm Borwick

Ape: A bit about yourself. Where are you from? Where did you grow up and why did you start playing polo?

Malcolm: I’m from a Scottish-English family. My mother is Scottish, so there’s quite a lot of influence of that in my life. I grew up between Northamptonshire and Cheshire. Northamptonshire was where my father’s family were from. Mum’s family was actually from Edinburgh, but we had a family house over on the west coast of Scotland. I grew up primarily in a very rural environment up in Northamptonshire.

Malcolm Borwick, pictured left wearing the blue polo shirt

My grandfather competed in the Olympics in 1956 in Melbourne, and my grandmother played in the first ever ladies England Polo team in 1924. I’ve had this historic family connection with horses all my life. I started playing polo when I was 10. On a completely random basis, not planned. My father always swore that he would never let me play polo because he’d seen what it had done to various families of his mother’s generation.

Ape: In what respect?

Malcolm: Well that it’s just an extremely expensive sport. It’s the most addictive thing you’ll ever do. Which I can testify to. He swore he’d never let me play polo. Then I got a phone call, age 10 from a friend of mine asking if I would just have a go at. I didn’t even know what polo was when I was 10 years old. I’d literally never seen it. The next day I went off to this polo club to try it. I took my little pony and trotted off. Got given a stick, got told, “there hit that ball through that goal.”

“This is perfect, polo is the sum of all sports.”

I thought, “This is perfect, polo the sum of all sports.” It’s got team work, adrenaline, horses, complexity. From then it was a pretty slippery slope. I said to my parents “Look, I’d like to have a go.” We started this little circuit, that was only three or four weeks a year in the summer. It was a summer holiday affair rather than going abroad we just stayed and played pony club polo in England. And in the space of four years we had around 26 children from my local area all playing polo.

It then became this summer holiday activity. Age 14, I got given a scholarship by the sport’s governing body. Our equivalent of the FA called the Hurlingham Polo Association who selected me for a scholarship in Argentina. I think that’s when my eyes really opened to what this sport was. I remember walking through the main stadium in Buenos Aires. Bear in mind where Chelsea Football Club’s Stamford Bridge stadium is in London, that is a polo stadium in Argentina. Literally on the main road. It’s a 27,000 seater stadium in the middle of Buenos Aires. We got taken there. I remember walking into the middle of the field aged 14 and looking around going “One day I’m going to play for England on this field.”

Malcolm Borwick in action in Dubai

And because in Argentina polo really is a national sport – it makes the front and the back pages of the newspapers. To give you an idea, the British Sports Personality of the Year award equivalent in Argentina – a polo player has won the main award, which is just unfathomable for us here. We don’t even get it in the footnotes. It really is a national sport there. Fast forward really, from 14 to 18, I got funded and helped by the sport’s governing body. I left school at 18 after A-levels and headed to Argentina for my year abroad. Where I was sat down by an Argentine polo player who suggested, “there’s only two ways of playing polo.” he said, “Are you from a multimillionaire family where you can pay for the team or you’re a professional? What are you?” I said “There’s only one choice for me, it’s going to have to be the professional.” His response, “If you do what I tell you, I’ll give you your first job.” He signed me to a contract when I was 18 and that started my career.

Ape: Presumably because you were already pretty good at polo?

Malcolm: Yes. I was very lucky. We had already won the European Championships. We won the European Championships the year I got my A-levels. We went out and played a European Championships with four young guys and won that. That was the start of an international career really for me.

A Typical Day

Ape: Describe a typical day in terms of you training the horses. Then also for your own body, do you need to go to the gym? What’s your diet like? Is it a professional athlete-type existence?

Malcolm: Yes. Without a doubt. It’s ironic – I work and represent a whisky brand which you wouldn’t necessarily relate to sports. However, working for a household brand and working in professional sports is a very easy fit because obviously we’re looking for margins the whole time. But polo is, apart from being an extremely competitive sport, a very social sport. There’s strong lifestyle element to it because of the dynamic – I’ll put it in a context. In polo, our team owners play in the game. It’s like being Roman Abramovich, owning Chelsea and saying I’m going to play centre midfield.

They own the team and they play in the team. It’s their hobby, they don’t receive money for it. They spend what some people would regard to be obscene amounts of money playing polo, but they do it because they love the sport. The sport is all encapsulating. It’s one of the only two sports in the world where you could buy the best seat in the house. Yachting is the other.

Of course there’s an element of having fun and entertaining our fans. It’s a fine line, are we 100% dedicated to only eating the right thing, only doing the right thing. I would be lying to you if I said, “Yes.” Because in the same token after a match we will go out with our clients and have a really fun time. Introduce them to aged whiskies and 38 year old blended scotch whiskys, so they can drink that with their friends at home. That’s our dichotomy. Do we train and do we do look after ourselves? Absolutely. Our average morning would be up at half six, seven o’clock into the gym, warm up in the morning, a healthy protein rich breakfast.

Off the horse – whisky in moderation

We will then go to the stables at eight o’clock. Depending if it was a match day or a non-match day, we’d have some horses to ride. In England, I have 12 horses that I run and I also manage the team. I have responsibilities for other players horses and other parts of the team setup as well. At the stables the trainer would typically say, “We’ve got two or three horses that need riding.” I’d jump on and ride them for finesse schooling. That’s when you do your own training as well. You say “Okay, I hit penalties in the team.” It’s a bit like the Jonny Wilkinson effect to me. You have to go and train, and repeat. It’s practice, practice, practice.

After riding in the morning if it’s a match day, we would then either have a team meeting to make sure we’ve got everything lined up tactics-wise for the game in the afternoon. Lunch, diet-wise, proteins primarily. Lots of salad. carbs, when you need them, but not too much. A lot of players are gluten free because of the whole Djokovic phenomenon effect. Personally I’m not because it doesn’t affect me. I have a fast metabolism where I have to eat as much as I can because otherwise I’d waste away. Polo players lose about four kilo’s over a season. You have to try and start the season heavy. The calorie burn in a polo match in a hot country is absolutely phenomenal.

Afterwards, we have a trainer who stretches us off. In the evening, it would be at the will of the sponsor of the team, the client. We combine corporate sponsors with private sponsors. We try and add corporate sponsorship into the team and entertain them.

Getting Physical

Ape: It would be interesting to know how tough a polo match is, physically?

Malcolm: I wore a heart monitor for a game in South Africa. It was 36°C and I wore the heart monitor from game to the field to leaving. It was probably a two and a half hour period. Adrenaline spiked over 200, basically over Thoracic maximum. The average heart rate was 156 for two hours. Most of the time during the chukkas you’re at 180. So you’re basically working at maximum for the periods of play with rest periods. A polo match is six periods of seven minutes or seven and a half minutes. We’ve got three minutes to recover between chukkars, then five at a half-time.

Ape: I read you have a six-goal handicap. What does that mean?

Malcolm: I do. You get a subjective rating every year. From minus two, which is you today, you’ve never pick a polo stick to ten, who’s your Tiger Woods or your Roger Federer. There are eight tens in the world. There is one Uruguayan, and seven Argentines. You get rated on your performance over a year. You work your way up that ladder depending on how you play and how your results of your teams are.

Ape: Who rates you?

Malcolm: It’s a committee in every country. To give you a rough idea, three goals is already in the professional ranks. Four is challenger circuit. Five is let’s go tour. Six is PGA tour and regular PGA tour and, hopefully, playing at the Master’s. Seven is the Master’s and 8, 9, 10 is obviously your top 10 players in the world. To give you as much of a sporting analogy that I can, there’s currently just one English seven-goal player. There’s a bunch of us on six.

The winning British Exiles team at British Polo Day – Dubai, 2018. Taking home the plate after the closest of matches against Al Habtoor

Career Highlights

Ape: What are your career highlights thus far?

Malcolm: There’s two that really stick out in my mind. I went to Durham University and I spent my time there playing polo to earn money to pay to go to Durham, thinking I was doing it the right way around. I was going to work by playing polo to get a good degree to go and get a proper job.

After Durham I got a job at a private bank. Had the suit and tie on. But the very same day I got a phone call saying, “We’re going to put you up to six goals. Would you like to be on England team?” I was literally like, “Oh, God.” My decision was easy and made by my wife. She just looked at me and said, “You’re not ready to go to work, so get polo out of your system.” Look, you go into sport for one or two reasons. Either you’re monetary-driven, in which case you don’t go into playing polo. You go and play tennis or golf or another sport, or you do it because of the passion for the sport.

For me, as a young man and as a kid growing, as I said to you, I walked out onto that polo field in Argentina, I was 14-years-old, and said, “One day, I’ll play for England on this field.” The day you pull on that shirt for your first ever full test match, I don’t care what sport it is, if it’s cricket, or rugby, that first shirt is the really symbolic one. It’s like the end of the journey, even though it’s the beginning of a next one. I had one of those dream debuts where everything went right. Got MVP, won this match in front of 5,500 against South Africa, away. That sticks in my mind. That was a highlight.

The other would be the Coronation Cup, which is our major home test match of the year. We played against Australia in 2010 in front of 25,000 people. Wall to wall people down the grandstand the whole way down both sides of the field. And we won the game in the last chukka on a brilliant match against a lot of really good friends of mine. It was that Ashes mentality, for me. That was the first Coronation Cup I won. My grandparents or my grandmother’s family competed for that trophy in 1908. For me to go back and win it just over 100 years later was special, and against the Australians at home.

On Your Horse

Ape: You said you had 12 horses? Do you not need to get to know one particular horse and have a relationship with it?

Malcolm: Yes. It’s like having 12 children. You know them all and you love them all differently. You may have a favourite, but you never tell it it’s your favourite. Horses are trained to a model, a basic set of instructions, a bit like driving a car. “Left, right accelerator, brake.” We have the same model for the horses but every single one has a different feel.

One accelerates better than another, one stops better than another, one goes left better than it goes right, one goes right better than it goes left. We have to work out which horse does what well. We train the horses to try and make them as parallel, as balanced and as simple as possible, but they’re just not all the same – you have to work out how to get the best out of each horse. Probably the biggest part of our job is actually the training and the selection of horses.

Ape: Would you choose a different horse for a different event?

Malcolm: When we go to a match, we take up to eight horses, or maybe more. Eight would be a minimum to a premier league game because a chukka or a period of play, is seven and a half minutes. A horse will run further in that seven and a half minutes than a horse will run in the Grand National. You can’t play the same horse sequentially. Every chukka you start a new horse.

You will have what we call spare horses, probably one at either end. You don’t want to get caught on a tired horse. The moment you’re caught on a tired horse, the opposition work it out, they’ll take that horse on and they’ll score. Jumping from horse to horse trying to make sure that you don’t get caught, as I said, on that tired horse. We have to have multiples which is why polo becomes a very complicated game.

Ape: Is that number of horses per player?

Malcolm: Per player, trying to get a squad of 40-odd horses to each game, so that you know you’ve got enough back up to be competitive. There’s a lot of logistical issues that go into it, hence polo’s reputation for being this super exclusive, really hard sport to get into. At the top end, it is. At the recreational end, it doesn’t need to be like that at all.

“At the recreational end, you can go to your local polo club, rent a horse, turn up, play, give the horse back. Have a lovely afternoon for no more than a round of golf.”

Polo is Accessible to All

Ape: It’s a shame that that isn’t widely known isn’t it?

Malcolm: We spent a lot of time in the last couple of years trying to go and make polo more accessible. In fact, there’s part of a park in London where we are trying to bring polo to a wider audience and say “Look, it is more accessible than you imagine.” From the corporate days to polo clinic lessons. I know you can’t be all things to all people. But take here for example – an amazing resort privately built because of the owner’s passion for polo. He wanted to bring everybody to his polo club. Not everyone is going to get to this level however, but there’s nothing wrong with going pitching up at your local club and playing as a weekend hobby.

Ape: What are the winning attributes for a good polo player. For instance, I’m too tall for my sport – hockey, what’s good for polo?

Malcolm: Tensile strength, you don’t want to be bulky. You want to have a lot of tensile strength. Shorter is better. I’m probably too tall because the further your centre of gravity is from the horse the more off balance you become. You have to be a better rider if you’re taller because you’re basically pulling the horse over. I would say 5 foot 11 is probably the sweet spot for polo. Short legs, long body would be ideal. And obviously, very, very good hand-eye coordination.

Ape’s very own Chris Beastall (editor) showing some tensile strength

You’re travelling at 45 miles an hour hitting a ball with a diameter of two and a half inches on with a thin a stick, trying to hit it through a yard wide goal post whilst you’ve got four other guys trying to knock your head off. You need to have a lot of hand-eye coordination. I would say the top polo players are – apart from being fuelled by adrenaline, are very brave. You’re putting yourself in a sport which is more dangerous than Formula One because we are super exposed. We don’t have protective gear, other than a helmet and that’s it. It’s a very dangerous sport – you have to be passionate. And you have to be passionate about horses.

The King of Whisky

Ape: A little bit about your role as Royal Salute whisky ambassador. It appears the brand are an all in committed enabler rather than just a sponsor known as the king of whisky. Polo is king of sports so I guess it’s a natural fit. How important are the sponsors you talked about in terms of facilitating?

Malcolm: I find a lot of relationships in sport are parasitic from a brands point of view. They actually go to suck out what they can out of the sport. Take those accrued values the sport might have and try and impose their brand upon them and say “We’re going to take those with us.” Actually, with polo it’s a little different – especially with Royal Salute because we’ve created this symbiotic relationship. Polo has benefited more from its relationship with Royal Salute than Royal Salute with polo.

We’ve taken polo with Royal Salute into countries where there wasn’t polo before. We started in 2008 in China. Royal Salute were our first traveling partner where I consulted with the brand to help get the game off the ground and to identify what was good and what wasn’t. Since then we’ve developed partnerships around the world which have been seriously beneficial for polo and the brand. The brand has obviously so many natural ties to the sport. The royal heritage, Queen Elizabeth, the reason they made Royal Salute originally for the Queen’s 1953 coronation.

Royal Salute 21 Years Old whisky – a superb blended whisky

Royal Salute have provided nearly $5 million worth of sponsorship and we have raised similar for Prince Harry’s Sentebale charity. I don’t believe that Royal Salute has gone into polo and thought we can extract value, I think they’ve considered – how can we develop this partnership? There’s got so many natural ties anyway, we don’t want to force it on anybody. It’s really organic the way the relationship has developed. If you go to any polo player around the world and ask, “What’s the whisky of polo player’s or what’s the whisky of the polo family?” they’d answer Royal Salute – because it is, a big family.

To analogise, Royal Salute 21-year-old is a blend of whisky with 38 to 40 21-year-old single malts and grains in a bottle. It’s a ridiculously special luxury. What polo is to sport. Royal Salute is to whisky. Let’s amp everything up to make the perfect sport – that’s polo, and Royal Salute 21 is the same.

Ape: How do you like to drink your whisky?

Malcolm: The thing is, inside the Royal Salute family you have whiskies for different occasions. I’m a whisky and water man, it’s my favourite, that’s the way I drink it. If I drink a cocktail, I drink it old fashioned. If I’m feeling really luxurious, I will add a Royal Salute 21 to my old fashioned. Then you’ve got things like the 38-year-old Stone of Destiny – a 38-year-old blended whiskey. During the casting process we use 50 litre casks, which after 40 years are pretty much empty. The 38-year-old is the sediment at the bottom – it’s delicious. That’s a kind of celebratory whisky, for a baptism or christening or wedding day.

Royal Salute Polo Limited Edition is sociable, fun, accessible and lighter drink

Last year Royal Salute did a limited edition named the Polo Limited Edition. It’s sold out actually, already. The idea was to have a whisky that was accessible for five o’clock drinking in the afternoon watching polo. They wanted to oust that old man at the bar, sat there in the corner drinking a quiet scotch. We wanted it to be a sociable, fun, accessible and lighter drink.

And Relax

Ape: What do you do when you’re not playing. How do you chill out? What do you do away from the polo field?

Malcolm: Having three kids doesn’t make chilling out easy. When I get home it’s, “Daddy, come and play LEGO. Daddy come and do this. Don’t play with her, play with me.” However, it’s a perfect disconnect. Because I do a lot of other stuff with brands outside polo. I diversed my career path about five or six years ago. I started 15 years ago writing to brands saying why they should invest in polo. It’s been very long, the process. I actually spent a little time chasing other brand, leads and doing other projects for a clothing brand named La Martina, with the car brand Maserati and other brands. If I could escape to play golf more, I would. I would love to. I played cricket again for the first time for a while, four days ago.

Ape: I guess it’s just a time thing. Do the family live back in the UK?

Malcolm: Well, they travel with me. Our circuit is October, November and December in Argentina. January, February, March and April is either the Middle East or America depending on which contracts we go for. The majority of July is in England and August is Sotogrande in Spain. September, I do a lot in Asia. Mostly brand related. China, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore. I do travel a lot. I’m very lucky. Downtime is family time. My family come with me everywhere we go unless I’m away for longer than three weeks.

Enjoying a thrilling polo clinic with Malcolm Borwick

Off the Horse

Ape: With Ape being a style and grooming resource mainly, are there any menswear brands that you tend wear?

Malcolm: I have had associations with La Martina for the last 18 years. It started as a very funny way, I basically went through the championships down in Argentina when I was 19. I walked into the stadium and there was a huge poster of me playing. We had been champions the previous year. I rolled up to the owner of La Martina and asked, “Who gave you the right to use my image?”. After a few jokes she said, “Here, have a wallet.”

I was like, “Okay, that’s fine. Give me your wallet. Great.” Next year back, another photograph, a different photograph again with me, I was like, “Okay. Right. What’s going on. Okay, I’ve been given a belt this year.” Third year I went down to Argentina and I was working on a project down there with a photographer, he said, “Would you mind doing a portfolio shoot for us, we need to do some promotion.” I went to the brand and said, “Look, can you lend me some clothes for the photo shoot because I’ve got to help promote this photographer, he wants to do a portfolio. I need something for the shoot.” We did the photo shoot which I showed to La Martina and they said, “Come in the office tomorrow, we’re going to do a deal.”

That started it off. Brand ambassadors didn’t exist back then. It was literally like something we created as we went on. 19 years later, basically my entire wardrobe is La Martina clothing because they’ve been really kind to me. For me, it’s a really happy fit because it’s a brand that is authentically polo. They make a classic range which I love and they make a lot of clothes which are not for me, but for other people.

Ape: And finally, one piece of advice for anyone, doesn’t have to be Polo related. What would it be?

“Never let fear get in the way.”

Malcolm: Never let fear get in the way. Most people are scared of Polo. They’re scared of trying it. It’s the most brilliant sport you’ll ever play. Polo makes you feel alive so don’t let fear get in the way.

Ape Recommended Reading: Why Blended Scotch Whisky is as Good as Single Malt.