By Bruce Curran
Polo originated in Persia some 2,500 years ago, initially spreading out to India and China. The first official polo club in the world was established in 1834 in Assam, India. The British set up the Calcutta Polo Club in 1862, and it was this nation that was largely responsible for the spread of the game worldwide in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
These days it is an active sport in 77 countries, played professionally in 18 across five continents, and even claimed its place as an official Olympic sport between the years 1900-1939. Polo was played at the 2007 South East Asian Games, represented by the nations of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. Polo was introduced in the Philippines during the American occupation and was regularly played in Manila by the US Cavalry units so that the men could exercise and practice their horsemanship and hone their skills like a small-scale battle for supremacy and victory.
The United States Governor General in the Philippines, William Cameron Forbes, founded the Manila Polo Club on August 8th in 1909 for ‘gentlemen of a certain class’. It began as an outright colonial institution. It became the home away from home for foreigners in the business of colonization in a country where they felt themselves strangers and exiles.
Today, the Manila Polo Club flourishes in the heart of Makati and the ‘Game of Kings’ maintains an exclusive place in the playgrounds of high society. It has been thriving and going from strength to strength at its present location along McKinley Drive in Forbes Park since 1949, having formally been in operation since 1909 in Pasay along what is now Roxas Boulevard and inclusive of the area currently occupied by the Cuneta Astrodome. The Manila Polo Club, with its all-encompassing modern developments, is a whole different animal in its current guise. Originally exclusively for horseplay and social events related to polo, it has now become the mother of all clubs in Manila, and offers a host of activities and facilities well beyond the grass polo field. It currently has a burgeoning membership of some 2,600, and offers its own comprehensive range of facilities for use by an array of other upmarket clubs, societies, and respected organizers of a variety of social events. An Olympic sized swimming pool is well maintained and is a favorite of members of all ages. Two other pools cover playtime and relaxation for those looking to relax. Badminton, tennis, and squash courts, along with a fully automated bowling center are available. The roots of this class of games can be traced to the Greek and other ancient cultures. It all somehow meanders and intermingles in the ball park with polo, which continues to rule at the Manila Polo Club.
Original polo balls used to be made from the willow tree, but modern plastic has interjected as the ball to be struck by the mallet held by the polo player atop his polo pony. There are traditionally six chuckers or time slots at play on the field. The polo ponies get tired and a player will normally keep three to four ponies for use during the normal two-hour game, with four players on each team attempting to defend their goal and score between the two posts at their opponent’s end. Polo is not played exclusively on horseback. Such polo variants are mostly played for recreational purposes – they include canoe polo, cycle polo, camel polo, elephant polo, yak polo, golf cart polo, and Segway polo. In the US in the early 1900s, automobiles were used instead of horses in the sport of auto polo.
The third chucker is about to begin on the field, the players mounted on their ponies, the club is active yet again with its foundation sport, played in Manila for more than a century, and as the mallet strikes the polo ball full on, the sound of wood upon wood can be heard far and wide around the vast grounds of the club. The ‘Game of Kings’ thrives, and is the symbol of continuity for the exclusive, well respected, and proud facility –The Manila Polo Club.
This is all irrelevant because at the Manila Polo Club, traditional polo is king and the playing season gets into a trot in January with games on Sundays until the end of March at the Enrique Zobel Field during the heart of the so-called ‘dry season’. Throughout the season there are various cups sponsored by top-notch corporations and organizations. Mercedes-Benz is just one of several class acts supporting polo competitions.
Around the world, the game of polo undeniably exuded an aura of high-class living, so it is not surprising that other famous luxury brands such as Cartier and Rolex are regular sponsors of polo tournaments. These happenings are the perfect excuse for exclusive social events where celebrities rub shoulders with blue-blooded guests under the grand umbrella of a magnificent architectural palace.
As it states in the commemorative book, The Manila Polo Club 1909-2009, 100 Years and Beyond: “The Manila Polo Club is a landmark of Philippine modern architecture. The sprawling complex, designed by an architect who would eventually be honored as a National Artist, is a symbol of the optimism of post-war Manila and a solid example of the advancement of Filipino architecture.” The architect Pablo Antonio, Sr. was versed in the Art Deco movement of the 1930s and wove this style into a Philippine version of the then upcoming international post-war style. He has been compared to the world-renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and his University of London architectural training was blended with the expertise of Louis P. Croft who was an American-trained landscape architect and planner. The Manila Polo Club is their outstanding collaborative masterpiece and still in many ways serves as a template for all country clubs in the Philippines.
The airiness of the open-sided club seating areas overlooking the polo field is efficiently supported by fine dining kitchens, features that are greatly appreciated by members. The food ranges from casual to elegant served in a wide range of outlets around the club such as the Willow Root Bar and the popular open-air Sports Lounge.
The Manila Polo Club is the highly regarded preserve for the movers and shakers of modern Filipino society, with all the long-standing successful, vibrant, and dynamic local families happy to be members. It’s the place where they can eat, drink, be merry, and play a host of cherished sports under the watch of the ancient and royal game of Polo.