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Beyond London: International Day at the Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club

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Far from being mired down by tradition and image, Jamie Morrison is on a mission to revitalise the sport of kings. Tilly Berendt visits his Berkshire club to experience the new International Day – in which the pitch-side parties are as sleek and sexy as the sport unfolding on the grass

Forget everything you think you know – Jamie Morrison is making polo cool again. The spritely chairman of the Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club may be the son of a music-industry mogul, but he inherited more than just a creative mind and business acumen from his late father, Bryan Morrison. It’s through his sire-line that an unshakable passion for polo was inherited, too.

All photos: RBC International / Sam Churchill

Beyond London, Culture
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The senior Morrison first acquired the club in 1985, after learning to play at London’s Ham Polo Club. Polo’s reputation in those days was one of army-major fustiness, a stolid sidekick to the sort of stiff-upper-lip Britishness that had fallen widely out of favour by that point. But Morrison had a different vision for the sport: inclusivity, rather than a closing of doors; fun and friendly charm, rather than staid sensibility. His son took over the running of the club in 2008, after an accident while playing his favourite game led to Bryan’s untimely death – and, buoyed by the family spirit of derring-do, and his own considerable successes on the pitch, he has sought to make good on that vision.

The International Day is polo’s most prestigious day of sport, and under its former Cartier sponsorship, when the match was held at Guards Polo Club, it attracted tens of thousands of keen spectators. From around 2010 onwards, however, interest dipped and declined but when the opportunity came along to move the showcase day of sport to the Berkshire, Morrison leapt at it.

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Just a stone’s throw from Windsor, the polo club seamlessly blends a wide spectrum of user experiences into one swish, sleek day of sport. Nestled together along one side of the immaculate grass pitch are the royal boxes, those bastions of quiet enjoyment and subdued spectatorship, while on the other side, the party rages on from the middle of the day until late into the night. One of the primary benefactors of The International Day is couture collectiveFlannels, whose home for the day feels rather like walking into a Kings Road nightclub, but for the fact that the endless caviar and champagne top-ups spill out from the darkened interior onto the sun-splashed lawn. It’s the place to see, be seen, and, of course, to take selfies. However you feel about influencer culture, there’s no denying that the Flannels hub is full of some beautiful, bright young things.

If Flannels is a Balmain leather jacket, the VIP marquee next door to it is the floral silk dress you might throw it over. Light and airy, it’s in here – after a long and lavish lunch, during the prerequisite pre-match mingling – that you can fill your coffers with a signature Chukka cocktail, courtesy of the club’s official drinks partners, British Polo Gin. The verdict? Fresh, sweet, and taking inspiration from Australia’s spin on gin, it tastes like summer in a glass and goes down almost too easily. Best taken in moderation – this isn’t a Jilly Cooper novel, and you’ll need to keep your composure for the divot-treading.

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An air of exclusivity can put an event like the International Day at risk of feeling snobbish, self-satisfied, or stuffy – but Morrison masterfully circumvents any such issues. There’s plenty to do even if you don’t hold a VIP or hospitality ticket, with myriad bars and food offerings, stalls offering country-luxe jewellery and equestrian stylings, cheerful young women in Ralph Lauren handing out the star-spangled banner for those who – dare we say it? – bet against the home team. There’s a double-decker bar in a bus, offering a top-floor viewing platform for when the game kicks off, there’s pre-chukka escapades from the local hunt and the Pony Club, and this year, there was even a masterclass from gold medal dressage supremo Charlotte Dujardin, who brought back the marvellous Valegro to the delight of the gathered crowds. The event, separately ticketed from the polo, brought in a welcome boost of funds to the title charity, the Brooke, which works to better the lives of horses, ponies, and donkeys abroad. Combining this with a tribute to the horses of the Great War, the International Day, for all its society stylings, began to build itself up as a tribute to the horse.

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Because, lest we forget, at the heart of International Day is the animals that make the great game happen. When Shakespeare quipped, ‘and though she be but little, she is fierce,’ he might as well have been dreaming of a high-goal polo pony. (You might scoff, but polo has bewitched its fans since at least the 6th century BC, when it was developed as a training exercise for Persian cavalry units; by Shakespeare’s time, it hadn’t yet gained in popularity with the landed English gentry, but it wouldn’t take long.) The ponies – usually not ponies at all, but more commonly between 15.2hh and 16hh – are often purpose-bred, with Argentinian Criollo lines, but increasingly common is the retrained racehorse, whose turn of speed and incredible intelligence and bravery make it a popular choice for the intensity of the sport.

Somehow both primal and brimming with poise, to the untrained eye, a polo match is a cacophony of brutish speed, horse and man and stick and ball somehow moulded together in frenzied fight or flight. With just a modicum of knowledge, however, it becomes something much more nuanced, based in a secret synergy each rider shares with his or her mount. Often, the ponies seem to read the plays before the riders do, and they dart in and out of impossible gaps in pursuit of their prey.

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Though those who simply want a jolly day out will always frequent the polo, Morrison hopes that some of them may be inspired to pick up a mallet themselves. The Berkshire has plenty of provisions in place for those who do find themselves bitten by the bug; with 220 acres, six pristine polo fields, the UK’s first all-weather polo arena, and one of the top polo academies in the world, it boasts everything that the aspiring or experienced player could possibly need. In season and out, from sunrise until long after the sun sets, Morrison has created a microcosm that provides sport, socialising, and his own inimitable silver linings, free from the shackles of polite antiquity.

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