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November 3, 2009

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Scene at the polo - fast track to social climbing

SIPPING champagne in heels and diamonds °?- it doesn't sound like a sport. But glamour and finery are the backbone of the game polo.

A game for the elite, you need more than 40.5 hectares of land, four horses and at least a spare 500,000 yuan (US$73,209) a year to play.

Not an easy task in China you would think, but for a small sector of society it has become yet another luxury their money can buy.

Coined the game of kings, it is a popular game with royalty and those involved in the sport are expected to act and dress like monarchs, and have a similar-sized bank account to really get the most out of it.

The team sport is actually thought to have originated in China over 2,000 years ago.

It consists of teams of four players, riding on horseback and trying to score goals against the opposing team.

Points are scored by driving a small ball into the opposing team's goal using a long-handled mallet. But the real points are scored off the field.

Polo is about status.

Those watching the game use it as an opportunity to dress in high fashion, drink the best food and wine and mingle with the elite. To be able to play the game, or watch it from the VIP section, represents success and wealth.

But Chinese polo player Liu Shilai wants the game to be accessible to anyone in China.

He began playing polo in 2005 in Beijing and soon decided to dedicate himself to the sport.

He regularly travels to play internationally and in China, and hopes to become the leading polo player in China and to lead Chinese players into the world polo circuit.

He believes the most important asset for playing the game is having a love of horses, competition and teamwork.

"All people who play polo have that in common.''

But when asked if he believes a Chinese farmer could play polo, he said they would first need a 40-hectare field and at least five or six horses.

He estimates it costs about 300,000 yuan a year to play, as well as 2,000 yuan to 3,000 yuan to take a horse to a club, 5,000 yuan a month to rent a stable and to look after the horse.

"You can pay less and still be involved but the more you put into it the more you will get out of it.''

For those wanting to get into the sport, Nine Dragons Hill Polo Club, about two hours from Shanghai, is one of the only places in China to learn the game, and has an international-standard sized field, and horses that meet safety requirements by being trained to play the game.

It costs 8,700 yuan for 10 sessions to learn the basics of playing polo.

Currently 50 people belong to the club, paying 500,000 yuan to join.

Membership includes land and stables for the horses, but members are encouraged to buy their own horses rather than borrow the club's animals.

General Manager Rachel Wyatt sees the polo atmosphere as wholesome, not superior.

"The characteristics needed to play the game inevitably attract people who are successful in life.''

But the 13th Duke of Argyll Torquhil Ian Campbell who sponsors polo matches in China says when attending the recent 2009 Royal Salute Polo Gold Cup: "The game is all about the image and the lifestyle.

"It's for people who enjoy the very best in life. It is very much a part of the British social calendar.''


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