Riding on tradition

Updated: 2011-08-26 12:02

By Mike Peters (China Daily European Weekly)

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In the 1860s British military officers "reinvented" the game after seeing an exhibition in India and took it to England. It was played at several Olympic Games until 1936 and has developed a patina of noble sportsmanship ever since.

A stone table near a polo ground in Gilgit, Pakistan reads: "Let others play at other things. The king of games is still the game of kings."

Like many polo clubs, Tianjin's Metropolitan celebrates its staff's brushes with royalty - a recent match program breathlessly relates that Branch once worked at England's Cirencester County Polo Club, the home club of British Princes William and Harry, and fun facts about Prince Charles and Prince Phillip are slipped in elsewhere.

But Branch and Reid like to bring the game down to earth a little. A fourth-generation rider, Reid says playing with his father and two brothers was a highlight of his life, and polo has taken him to England, the United States, South Africa, Dubai and beyond. "It is the passport to the world," he says, and that's one reason he's as eager to coach summer-camp teenagers as he is to work with touring pros.

Branch says she began riding competitively at the age of 2 when she appeared in local shows on the family pony. She got her own mount, a pony named "True Blue", when she was 4. She won the Pony Club National Evening Championships at 14, and was on her way to a life of equestrian sports and training.

After a stint at the Auckland Polo Club in New Zealand, she returned to England to work at the Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club before heading to China.

Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club recently hosted its first international tournament for under-18s, and Young England captain William Batchelor said: "We're here to show Chinese people that this isn't a game just for kings or old rich guys."

Of course, it's not for poor folks, either. The nine-day juniors' camp costs 30,000 yuan (3240 euros) per student (two students sharing one twin room); or 40,000 per student (single room). When they grow up, club membership in Tianjin is by invitation and will cost from 200,000 yuan for "social members" to 10 million yuan if you own a polo team.

Goldin sports two international-sized polo fields, a neo-classically designed luxury hotel, a wine museum, seven restaurants and clubs, and stables for 150 horses. Harvey Lee, Goldin's vice-chairman, says the goal is to deliver "a lifestyle concept: Food, wine, entertainment, sports - all in one package, here in China."

Down the road, the club hopes to host an internationally sanctioned tournament, with a national team challenging the world's best players for the winner's cup. For now, Isabel Branch and her colleagues are eager to show a Chinese audience how to enjoy polo - starting with three smiling groups of young summer campers.

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