champagne ponies

Champagne and Ponies

Spectators visit the Austrian Polo Open to witness the breakneck game and get a glimpse of the fanciful hats that make up the sport’s international style

It was a hot day, one of those humid July Sundays that beg an afternoon of lounging and sipping something bubbly. Schloss Ebreichsdorf, the venue of the Austrian Polo Open seemed like just the place to do it, alongside the tight-knit community celebrating the club’s 25th anniversary.

Christian Prandl
Spectators from all generations line up to see The Austrian Polo Open. // © Christian Prandl

We sidled past fresh haircuts, blazers with crested pockets, flowery dresses and hat pins. Every group seemed to have at least two children, all spiffed up and chasing each other around their parents’ knees. Waiters whisked between tables and tent poles serving Pol Roger champagne and sparkling water.

Before the games began, my companion and I settled into the lounge area. As we finished our first glass of bubbly the announcer greeted the guests in English and German (with a New Zealand accent). As the teams lined up to parade across the field, it became clear just how international a sport polo is.

“Team Happy Horse, Team Heldwein, Team Glen Farcas,” the announcer listed them off to polite applause. “Team Tilman Kraus, Team Bentley Wien and Team Power Horse.”

The horses were beautiful and the riders clad in their team jerseys (a classier version of a rugby shirt) and white breeches. Prancing across the well-kept lawn two-by-two behind a Bentley you’d assume the sport looked more like dressage than the high-speed full-contact event we were about to witness. In a few hours those gleaming white trousers would be streaked with dirt and blood.

The “Sport of Kings” stems from the firstPersiann Empire. The well-heeled crowds that come to watch the “chukkers” belie the sport’s rugged reality. // © Christian Prandl

Rules of Entanglement

I have known the sport of polo existed ever since I asked someone about the little horseman embroidered on the left breast of his shirt. I also had been around equestrian sports like racing, jumping and dressage, not to mention having yawned through one too many Lipizzaner training exercises. But polo, I must say, is a different story entirely.

After trying to follow the first two chukkers (the term for a playing period, usually 7.5 minutes), I began google-ing “polo”. My first hits informed me that there were four players to a team (I could see that) and that next to ice hockey, polo is the fastest sport in the world, with ponies reaching speeds of 48 kmh.

As the players from teams Heldwein and Happy Horse thundered past, the latter shot a deserved winning goal and I decided to get some background. At the announcer’s “booth” (a folding table with a microphone and umbrella) sat Jan-Maria Kiesel, a New Zealand born polo legend and the first female polo player in Nigeria. She gave me a 10-minute intro to the sport.

“Every player has a number on his back,” she began. “The number 1 should be the goal getter. The number 2 is what we’d call the ‘ workhorse,’ he combines hits from the number 3 player to the number 1. The number 3 is the man with the overall vision. He’s usually the captain, or the most experienced one on the team. The number 4 is defense. His job is to have cool nerves in front of the opposition’s goal.”

The Sport of Kings

The game has its origins in the First Persian Empire (550-330 BC). In fact it was an Olympic sport from 1900-1936 and today it’s very international, with 70 countries competing professionally. 

“We’re a big international family,” explained Kiesel. “If you go to Singapore to a polo club, you’ll meet somebody you know. The passion is there, whether you’re looking at a game in Nigeria or Palm Beach.”

My companion and I almost felt guilty for not knowing the rules and thus not following the game more closely, but Kiesel reassured us that we were in the majority.

“Take the chance to experience this wonderful park and castle in the background, the game and a glass of champagne,” she smiled. “It’s simply fantastic.”

Women enjoying a glass of Pol Roger champagne. // © Christian Prandl

So we proceeded to do just that. Next up were the Glen Farclas and Tilman Kraus teams. Their game for 3rd and 4th place was exciting, even for clueless spectators like us. The number one on the Tilman Kraus team, Emil Kraus (at 17, the youngest player in the tournament) shot two goals, before Robert Kofler took back the lead with four goals in a row. Most players change horses between every chukker. We did the math and decided each player needed at least three “ponies.” “At this level – there are 12 goals and professionals playing – each player has an average of six ponies on the field.”

Ah, so that’s why it’s called the sport of kings. Not only are these thoroughbred ponies expensive to buy and train, they also have to be transported around the world.

A Family Affair

Everyone gets involved in stomping down the torn up turf. // © Christian Prandl

“It’s a family game,” Kiesel explained. There were kids running around everywhere, but she meant that the game gets passed down through generations.

The aforementioned Emil Kraus, who shot two goals,  is the grandson of the Poloclub Schloss Ebreichsdorf’s owner, “Baron” Richard Drasche-Wartinberg. “I remember Emil being born,” mused Kiesel. “And now I see him out on the field, so it’s fantastic.”

No one graduates to a different role in the team. “You are usually born something,” Kiesel said. She has two sons. “One is a born number 2 – he’s always goal orientated – and the other is a number 3 he’s very good at directing his players, more of a director.”

The battle for first place between Power Horse and Bentley ended with a champagne shower for the Bentley team. However, Power Horse’s player Walter Scherb was named Most Valuable Player and all the teams seemed to be celebrating.

So besides the 25-year-old Poloclub Schloss Ebreichsdorf, what does Kiesel think is special about the Austrian polo community? “People seem to have a little more time here,” Jan-Marie Kiesel laughed. “I’m not quite sure why.”

Next Tournaments

President’s Cup (Handicap 4 to 6)

Sep 2–4 & 9–11

Poloclub Schloss Ebreichsdorf

Schlossplatz 3, 2483 Ebreichsdorf

Closing Cup (Handicap 4 & 6)

Sep 16-18
Poloclub Niederweiden
Niederweiden 3, 2292 Engelhartstetten

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