There’s a moment when the day turns. The sun has gone down, the clonk of mallet on ball has fallen silent, and the wicker hampers have been packed away, back into the boots of the SUVs and 4x4s from which they were taken earlier in the afternoon. All around the Guards Polo Club at Windsor, people are calling their chauffeurs, piling back into their cars and snaking out of the park, towards the motorway — east to Chelsea or west back towards the Cotswolds. Polo’s daytime set is going home.
The traffic is moving, however, in both directions. As dark descends over Windsor, a new crowd is arriving for whom the night has nothing to do with polo and everything to do with partying. The rumble of bass has replaced the thunder of hooves. In the huge Chinawhite tent the most raucous shindig in the polo calendar is about to begin. Corks are popped; shots are served; tanked-up flopsies from Fulham get their thighs out and dance on tables, sweaty hair plastered on their foreheads. These are the two faces of what used to be known — until this summer — as the Cartier International Polo.
The polo season runs from May to September. On pretty much any weekend during the summer you can sniff out a match, mostly in the corridor between the river Thames and the M4. Polo is one of the more agreeable spectator sports imaginable. It’s exciting, demanding supreme physical fitness and bravery from its contestants (both ponies and men). But unlike an afternoon at, say, the football, your fellow spectator is not likely to be a puce-faced bald man with halitosis and a pie gut.
Rather, polo attracts the well-heeled and well-groomed. As John Zammett, head of PR at Audi UK, who sponsor a number of the highest-profile polo events in the calendar, puts it, polo attracts ‘very high-end individuals’.
The greatest concentration of those high-end individuals has traditionally been at the International. The event attracts crowds of up to 25,000, including actors, pop-stars, socialites, journalists, royals, models and the broader set of the internationally wealthy. Chuck a polo ball and you’d be unlucky not to hit someone like Prince Harry, Emma Watson, Freddie Windsor, Angelina Jolie or Piers Morgan. Some come for the sport, but many more come for the larks afterwards.
This year, however, Cartier has dropped its sponsorship of the International, and switched focus to another event, at the same ground but on a different day. After several years of trying to weed out the trashier elements of the crowd who came to the International to table-dance — most years since 2008 there has been a story about the glamour model Katie Price, a.k.a. Jordan, being ‘banned’ from the event — Cartier has finally abandoned ship. It has switched to the smaller, more exclusive Queens Cup, held at Guards a month earlier, long before the Chinawhite tent has gone up.
‘When we started our association, polo was associated with the kind of clientele that we knew: the elite, the kings, the queens, the maharajas — all these people were associated with the sport of polo,’ says Arnaud M. Bamberger, executive chairman of Cartier. ‘But there was also something very exciting about the sport: the uniqueness, the beauty, the danger.’
Over the past three decades, Cartier has sponsored polo all over the world, from ice polo in St Moritz to elephant polo in India, to demonstrate that, as Baumberger puts it, the sport ‘can be diverse, but it is still elite’.
Over the 27 years of its sponsorship, Cartier’s hospitality at the International was legendary: a lunch for up to 800 guests put on by Mosimann’s, lubricated with plenty of the best wines and champagne.
This year, however, they needed a change of direction. ‘The International became a big thing,’ says Baumberger. ‘It became so big that the element of sport started to become less important. We wanted to re-centre a bit more to the sport itself.
‘People were more looking at Chinawhite with the girls from Essex coming, who were not that interested in polo. They were more interested in having fun than watching polo — and that was OK. We’re not against people having fun! But we just said that before it becomes too big, too… a tiny bit out of control towards the image of Cartier, we decided to re-centre and come back to where we began. Which is the sport of polo. The beauty of it.’
Into Cartier’s place have stepped Audi, who have long been partners with Cartier, chauffeuring guests to their events. The event in July is now called the Audi International, and serves as part of the brand’s summer-long series of polo events, in which carefully chosen celebrities and high-spending customers are entertained, 200 or so at a time.
To the Chinawhite-goer, not much will appear to have changed; to those who land Audi hospitality, the day is still likely to be a combination of great sport and agreeable gluttony.
Zammett is rather less worried that Audi’s brand could be tainted by the Chinawhite crowd. ‘We don’t feel so sensitive about it,’ he says. ‘[The party] is the other side of the field from the clubhouse and it’s not going on during the polo match. The Chinawhite bit only becomes noticeable in the evening, so no, I’m not so sensitive.’
We’ll see what he says when Jordan’s Lucozade-coloured buttocks hove into view, of course — but one wishes them all the best, nevertheless.
PICK OF THE POLO
THE CARTIER QUEEN’S CUP
The new jewel in the calendar; historically, the trophy is presented by the Queen.
Guards Polo Club, Windsor Finals day 17 June
Tickets £40-£170 | guardspoloclub.com
AUDI INTERNATIONAL SERIES
Besides the former Cartier day Audi host the St Regis International Cup (England v USA) at Cowdray Park Polo Club, Midhurst; and internationals at Beaufort Polo Club, Tetbury (England v Commonwealth); and Chester racecourse (England v South America)
VEUVE CLICQUOT GOLD CUP
Final of the British Open Championship, held on the lawns at Cowdray Park in Sussex.
Cowdray Park, Midhurst | Finals Day 15 July £19.50-£420 | cowdraypolo.co.uk
GAUCHO O2 POLO
The world’s largest indoor polo competition concentrates on fans rather than socialites.
O2, Greenwich | gauchopolo.com