Marco … Polo!

Since our friends Marco and Barbara graciously took us to the peña, we decided to respond in kind with a trip to a polo (one l – two ll’s would make it pollo -which is chicken!) match since the Argentine Open (Campeonato Argentino Abierto de Polo) was starting. The polo grounds are smack in the middle of Buenos Aires and about a 30-minutes walk from our apartment. Because we have such a deep knowledge of the sport, which is very popular in Argentina, we decided we should definitely invite our Argentinian friends. They also had extensive polo knowledge (equal to our, which was zero).

A few days before the match, I looked up the rules, which seemed to be: There are four players on horses and they try to hit the ball between the sticks using a mallet (called a taco here). Wow, we were so confused. That’s it???? As baseball fans, we knew it had to be way more complicated. The rest of the rules were thus:

  • You can’t ride the same horse for too long (Yay!)
  • There are four or six or eight chukkers of 6 1/2 minutes and then the bell rings and they play 30 seconds more.
  • The pitch is 300 yards long and 200 yards wide unless it is boarded (which these were) and then it is 160 yards wide.
  • You can’t put the mallet in your left hand (although you can hit from the left side using your right hand)
  • You can nudge a horse and rider away from the ball if you are parallel
  • Every time a team scores they switch sides of the pitch.

Most of the penalties involve actions that would endanger horse and rider, so the angle of approach to another horse is very important. You cannot intersect the imaginary line of the ball unless you’re so far away that it doesn’t really matter. The worse infractions are basically a free goal for the offended team because they put the ball right in front of the sticks and no one can defend. Other penalties may mean a free pass at various field positions. It’s also forbidden to hit another player’s taco above the horse’s height or underneath the horse.

Two referees ride on the pitch, and a third acts as the final word.

Simple! We figured we would absolutely know what was going on.

We didn’t realize that there were two matches, so we arrived in time for the first, which was played on the smaller of the two pitches. We were very confused, because we were told we could sit anywhere except a special middle section (which was mostly empty and stayed that way) and we had numbered seats. OK, it’s Argentina, said Marco and Barbara.

I chose a side, which immediately was down by a goal. We could see well enough, but it took a little time to acclimate. By then, Las Esquinas, my guys (yes, they were all guys), were down by several goals. The basics were simple to follow, but penalties or play setup — not so much. We cheered with the crowd and decided that we definitely loved polo AND that our tickets allowed us to watch the second match on the nicer pitch (we got a polo twofer).

La Esquina lost to Cria la Dolfina, 9-5 (this is why we don’t let Sue bet on sports).

Lunchtime! The polo stadium (arena, whatever?) was really nice. I guess the rich folks who enjoy polo also enjoy decent food (including veggie options), pleasant seating and clean surroundings. I couldn’t resist the pepas, which are shortbread cookies with a jelly center, except Marco said these were gourmet style. The jelly was fresh, not congealed like you would get if you bought packaged pepas. Well worth it. (Marco, Tamar and I all had the traditional choripan – a sandwich made from chopped sirloin steak – Yum!)

After eating, it was off to the second match (but be warned that if you want to take your beer to your seat, you will have to hide it somewhere). This time, our seats were up high (sorry Steven, although you were a great sport)(for those of you who are familiar with the stadium that White Sox play in – this grandstand was steeper than the third deck) and we could really see the plays developing — or maybe the teams were better. We let Marco pick who to root for, and he chose Ellerstina over La Irenita. If I were you, I would follow Marco’s picks.

We were totally into it and even were able to pick up on why penalties were happened. Score one for us! Perhaps the best part of the second match was that Marco and Barbara broke out the mate(a traditional Argentine warm drink – a little like herbal tea). I was a little afraid it was going to taste like dirt because I have had it before and it tasted like dirt, but there’s was very good and we learned all about the ritual of mate. (If you say “gracias” you’re not getting any more. That’s the signal that you are done.) I’ll save the full mate lecture for another blog.

As we sat, the shadows from the apartment building next door grew diagonally across the pitch and the wind kicked up. By the time the seventh chukker came around, we were chilly, but we knew we could last another 15 minutes, so we stuck it out to the end of this incredibly close match. Marco’s Ellerstina won by the slim margin of 16-8. At one point, we were trying to describe the slaughter rule in Spanish to Marco and Barbara.

We think since it was the beginning of the tourney, we were watching low seeds against high seeds, but what do we know. Maybe the scores are always lopsided. At any rate, we had a blast! If you’re so inclined, there’s an Argentina Polo Channel on YouTube.

(The finals are on December 2nd – so maybe we will see another round.)