The Long Journey to Reach The Polo Finals of The Rao Raja Hanut Singh Open (8 Goal with Handicap)
Before I embark on my personal polo experience, I would like to share with the reader, some of the more memorable quotations on this sport. “ Rocky”, Sylvester Stallone said of it “Playing polo is like trying to play golf during an earthquake” Bryan Miller: “The Polo Lounge is like a fine old mink coat: opulent, dignified and warm”
Charlotte Curtis : “The new, young, chic and acquisitive rich, the restless young Europeans and the beautiful people still flit from Palm Beach's polo fields to Newport's yachts with refueling stops at Gucci, Yves Saint
Laurent and Tiffany”- AND then some: Sir, “Polo has a good deal to answer for”
“ These are lies, damned lies and polo handicaps”
“All polo player think they are Alpha males”
“Size dose matter in polo that is the size of your bank balance”
“The playing field in polo is not level”
Of course, one of the most famous quotes with regards to Polo is another anonymous one found on an ancient plaque in Kashmir “Other men play at other things, but the king of sports is the sport of kings”.
It is with this background that I decided 6 years ago, at the young age of 47 to actively take up the sport with which I had merely dabbled over the years not having played more than a handful of games
until that time.
The reasons for not being able to pursue the sport with any seriousness are partly attributable to some of the aforesaid quotes especially
“Size does matter in polo, that is the size of your bank balance”
“The playing field in polo is not level
And “ There are lies, damned lies and polo handicaps” !
And of course the fact that the white water rafting operation I ran for many years on the Ganges, clashed in its operating season directly with that of the polo season, which runs September to March. Nevertheless as an army brat with early exposure to riding, I had joined the Army Polo and Riding Club located at the President’s Body guard Parade Ground in circa 1985.
But, paying for ones pleasures is not easy. It was at the age of 38 after having set up a company in Canada that I thought of creating a commercially viable option for pursuing another of my childhood interests, riding,
and started www.poloholidays.com and www.horsebackholidays.com .This included starting a program called “Riding Into History”, in Canada, as well as, turning around a failed equestrian centre in British Columbia.
Unfortunately, while these unique platforms allowed me the opportunity to send many international clients to places like Argentina, Mexico, South Africa, and of course India, to name a few, I was only able to pick up
the mallet five years after my return to India in 2000 whence my daughter,Samira, now 8 was born, and buy a couple of playing polo ponies. Buying ready to play ponies was an operating principle I had used earlier
to make up for lost time, and shorten long gestation periods. When I left Kashmir in 1985, I similiarly started a white water rafting operation by inviting a Canadian company to send its guides and equipment, to start
commercial operations in India, as their season ended September, and ours commenced September. And so it was, that I decided to buy trained polo ponies and improve and commence my own polo.
The Army Polo and Riding Club which was just about the only polo facility at the time, had been moved from the President Estate’s grounds to the Nicholson ranges, past the WW2 Commonwealth War Graves, on what was the equestrian cross country grounds during the 1982 Asiad Games and again part of military lands.Nicholson was the fearful and larger than life, British General who recaptured the famous Ridge after the First War of Independence (What the British called the “Mutiny”)with Skih and Gurkha troops.
Being a game of horsepower, and horses being singularly the most expensive domesticated animal to train and maintain, along with aspects that ail many sports and areas of governance in the country, (such as nepotism, cronyism, sycophancy, sometimes called “networking or entertainment”, lack of transparency,control,vested interests,monopoly, bureaucratic inefficiency, intentional bureaucracy and over governance or babudom ,which in turn leads to poor ethical practices and in some cases plain cheating,) I saw many examples of this up close.
Besides geographic and other reasons which conspired to prevent me, this was another reason, why I did not make more effort at getting involved in polo earlier. But the love for the horse and equestrian pursuit, ensured that with all the handicaps I faced, I decided to enter headlong, three years shy of fifty, purely on my own resources and abilities unlike many others I can confidently state.
Having bought the best possible horseflesh from Jaipur’s Kr Lokendra Singh, a true blue polo player, and Pritam Singh who runs the well known chain store, Anokhi, I got off to a good start, not dependent on anyone really. Business and management especially of outdoor staff for my adventure travel company, and running team building and leadership programs for the Vice President and Senior Managers of such corporate as
HSBC, Amex, Philip Morris and others, had given me a good insight into selecting the right man for the job, and I found a good trainer for improving my own riding, as well as for the schooling of my horses. Unfortunately,while India is one of the cheapest venues to maintain horses and play polo, it also has amongst the harshest conditions for keeping horseflesh, except for the extremely wealthy. The camping conditions at
the Army Polo& Riding Club which for the seven months of the polo season, were under temporary canvas, were tough enough, but with the added constraint of having to move out one’s ponies in the summer (to avoid claiming squatting rights on military land), most owners moved out to another temporary facility. In the second year, in order to avoid the blazing sun of the plains, I decided to move the horses to the north of the Doon Valley near the Yamuna, on an estate owned by (the late Lt Gen RK Jasbir Singh,Colonel Commandant of the Jat Regiment,) a close family friend. While the horses enjoyed wonderful cool weather from May to early July, the rains in the hills in late July and August, contaminated the water in the inlet streams coming into the estate, and I lost my finest mare to colic. Damyanti was amongst the fastest of her time, and remarked upon for her speed by the likes of 4 goaler Simran Shergill, the young polo pro. The second summer, in trying to avoid the same mistake and keeping the horses close to home, I lost a second mare of colic, again while camping in primitive to difficult and blazing heat conditions. Unfortunately in India good vetinerary support is just not available, and one largely has to go by external symptoms which can be very misleading. Also, horse feed is largely ‘fresh”, which can occasionally go foul if there is dampness about.
One of the most disgusting experiences as a new owner of polo ponies, was seeing the utter callousness of the insurance company, and its investigator when I tried to file for a claim. I had had my horses insured the first year by a leading insurance company. They were most efficient when it came to collecting the premium and details of the horses. When Monsoon died, I sent my man to collect a claim form, after having immediately faxed them, to inform them of the horse’s death. Well they could not produce a claim form. After some days and with
many visits my man was able to get a poor photocopy.The first observation they made was “why was the horse moved in the summer”. While there was no stricture mentioned prior, against this, and while they knew that the horses were temporarily camped on military land, this was the second hurdle they threw at me.
Amongst other information, their form then asked for
1: Our vet’s report and details of death
2. A death certificate including time of death, from a Government vet.
This innocent pair of requirements became a nightmare for close to two years before the claim was settled and
even then, shy of 20,000 Rs.
It should be pointed out to the innocent that one cannot expect to be
(A) conveniently located so that the carcass
of a dead horse is in the vicinity of a “Government vet”.
(B) that a Government vet is available at the beck
and call of a private horse owner, to come and make an examination at the latter’s request.
This is just one example amongst many in bureaucratic India, that paves the way for corruption because as in this case, the Government vet will not come simply on a mere request from the common man and thereby has an opportunity to ask for graft.
Coincidentally however, we were not that far from a Government vetinerary hospital and Kalaan Farms where
we stabled was known in the area, so the vet did agree to come. However, he took his time and only came the
next day. Therefore he insisted on putting the time of death to coincide with the day and time of his visit. One
would expect a trained vet to be able to validate and put the time of death as being the previous day, but the
bureaucratic nature of Indian governmental factors prevented him from being rational.This naturally led to an
anomaly between what our own vet, and what the Government vet inked in. Also the Government vet had only
dealt with buffaloes and cattle, and knew next to nothing of horses!
Anyway I wrote a covering note to explain the anomaly and submitted my claim. This was followed by the
visit of a most odius and greasy character . I noticed that he bore extra long and slightly twisted fingernails
much like the demented will often be seen to bear. This was the PI or private investigator of the Underwriters.
Trying to pave the way for his pockets being greased, he first began by saying that he was there to “help” me
ensure that my documentation was correct, so that the claim was passed. He then began to imply that I had
intentionally caused the death of my horse, in order to file the claim from the underwriters. This was typical
of the callous disregard and cynicism that we in India are guilty of. He was typical of the babu who could not
believe that there were genuine horse and animal lovers, and that merely because I owned a horse, hardly
implied that I represented the ursurious. Rather it was his ilk and breed who made up this parasitic lot. Neither
could he understand when I told him that it took years to train a polo pony, that a good polo pony was a rare
commodity, and that what he was suggesting was something that no one in the polo or equestrian world would
ever do, as an owner, especially one who was an active participant in the sport.
After fourteen months of back and forth correspondence, finally the underwriters became victim to their own
web of bureaucratic distortions which I was quick to point out, and they were forced to shell out the claim. They
however refused to pay the full amount and would not reimburse the money spent on the medication. The agony
of my staff and me standing for hours walking the horse up and down, staying up nights, racing from Delhi to
Pataudi innumerable times, holding up drips, giving injections or stomach washes, to save the horse, were all
immaterial to the PI and the underwriters.
Needless to say that I did not renew my insurance policy and most people in the polo and riding fraternity do
not either! This is separate to racehorse owners whose steeds participate in the betting industry.
The callousness and insensitivity to the horse that is endemic in India, typified by this example, another being
the manner in which trucks, buses, and cars use high pressure horns to pave their way, not realizing that an
animals hearing is seven times more acute than man’s,and that it cannot move with the same alacrity of a
vehicle, is one reason I feel very strongly that successive President’s of India who ultimately command the
Indian Army’s horse regiments such as the 61st Cavalry, and the President’s Body Guard have done nothing
to use these units and their personal unique positions, to sensitize the common man on respect for this noble
beast. This is a huge opportunity lost. Infact the current incumbent Pratibha Devi Patel, has under her watch
allowed a large swathe of the President’s Bodyguard Estate to be sacrificed to the metro. Because after all, the
horse is an animal that cannot speak, and therefore the voice of the human is more important. In civilized and
developed countries, the horse has first right of way on a road but in our distorted attempt at bringing equality
to the people, the horse is seen as a representative of past exploitation, which is entirely untrue. It was the beast
of burden of the past era and as has been pointed out, is an expensive animal to maintain. No fault of the horse
Playing the 2 or 4 goal club games, getting variously criticized or occasionally encouraged,and fighting the
gradual commercialization of the sport yet, encrusted in not being freed up to its full potential, all meant one
need to work through the hazing type ritual! With many an officer playing, and the military style of training
being to first ‘breakdown’, the individual before building up his confidence, to ensure he worked to undertake
orders in the field,meant that there was often a great degree of shouting on the ground. Some players were
given to shouting excessively to their junior players often to cover up for their own foibles and weaknesses. As
captain you had the prerogative to give flak to your team mates, but did not get any for the most fundamental
flaws inspite of decades of playing experience!
It was with this background that I pursued the sport inspite of everything I saw wrong with it. With other ills
prevailing such as lack of proper coaching facilities, but again, with an eye for good human resource, I was
able to get coached briefly by Manupal Godara, a second generation polo player who, along with his brother
Dhruvpal, had learnt the skills at the hands of one of the finest teachers of the sport modern India has produced,
their father, Col Godara, a one time Equestrian Instructor of the Indian Military Academy. While the question
was begged of it all being too little too late, nevertheless it was tremendous to be able to have Satya Bagla
the man who brought Bentley cars to India, agree in a flash to sponsor us. I told him later, that he had the
right instant decision making ability, just as the sport of polo warranted!. 8 teams entered the tournament
including the famous Jindal (Jindal Action) featuring the 4 goal Simran Shergill (whose father also commanded
the President’s Bodyguard) reach the finals of the Rao Raja Hanut Singh Open Tournament. This did have
a handicap limit of 8 goals and we were fortunate to form a strong team comprising at back Lt Col Navjit S
Sandhu, the second in command of the famous 61st Cavalry and also a second generation polo player, (his
father, Maj Gen MS Sandhu once commanding the President’s Bodyguard),and Manupal Godara, both of
handicap 4 goals, and Madhav Buchi Prakash Rao, a veteran of decades of high quality polo around the world,
and once a 4 goaler himself, and lastly myself of -1. At 59 Buchi is a good example of “age no bar”, and how
even a sport like polo can be played if one maintains a reasonable degree of fitness. We fought the winners of
the other knockouts, the first being the President’s BodyGuard led by the dynamic young 4 goal army player
Maj Vishal Chauhan. In the semis we played the ASC(Army Service Corps)-Navy combine led by Cdr Akhil
Sirohi. In passing, and to share a little more about polo in India, I should say that the Sirohi clan named after
the village of the same name, has produced other well know polo personalities, one of these of yesteryear being
the formidable Col Prem Sirohi, who had the ability to hit toward goal from the centre of the polo field, no
mean feat. Needless to say, his son, Col Tarun Sirohi a chip of the old block and was commanding the 61st Cav.
During the semi final game, while executing a sharp turn, my horse slipped and I went flying landing first on
my shoulder, then on my rear end. Manupal Godara’s wife described it later as a “bounce”!. After the umpires
enquired as to my state, while on the ground, and if a replacement was needed, I said “nothing doing!” It was
not everyday that one got to reach the finals of a tournament, such as the Rao Raja Hanut Open! Amongst the
polo fraternity there are always willing volunteers waiting in the wings, vulture like, ready to be called as a
replacement,for games are hard to come by for one reason or another! I played on to complete the next two
chukkas…In agony at home, the pinched nerve would make me yelp in pain whenever it was affected…with
medication and more importantly a lucky find in the form of a fantastic English physiotherapist Adam Rawle,
who I happened to meet socially and who volunteered to help, I recovered over the 10 day gap created by the
awkward scheduling of this polo season.
It was also interesting to introspect at a personal goof up I made in the semi finals. I had hit the ball up to
the goal in a couple of consecutive shots. However, for some reason I stopped from pursuit an inch short
and Cdr Akhil Sirohi of the opposition, managed to save it. I did not pay heed to my captain Navjit Sandhu,
in “push”, “follow!”. I missed what was a certain goal. I later attributed this reaction of mine, to two reasons,
(a) partly I had been slowed down as a result of my hard landingl in the previous chukka. The other reason
was (b) because of not having played much polo really, and being a highly independent minded entrepreneur
who had never answered to anyone in three decades of running my own business, meant that I had not learnt
to fully to be a team player! This was inspite of having run numerous team and leadership programs for
multinationals!. But as a client of mine, the one time Green Jackets soldier , and ex head of De beer Mines, the
6 ft 6 Richard Hume Rothery, who I took on a journey into remote Arunachal, said of me and to me, “Inder Jit ,
you are” highly independent minded and do not like working to others diktats”. In the finals therefore I had to
tell myself to ensure that I “listened” to the command of my team captain.
Largely on account of rain, our finals became the most elusive event of the 2011 spring polo season. With
players from one team or another going off to play other tournaments in South Africa, or Mumbai which had
been scheduled earlier, it became a challenge to fit our finals in. With much liason the finals of Team Bentley’s
game with APRC comprising the professional 5 goaler Samir Suhag (another second generation player, and
son of Maj Gen Bhim Suhag),Rajesh Sahgal+,1 and his son Gaurav Sahgal a fiery +2, along with the scratch
(0)Rohan Sarahan the pilot (Capt) from Indian Airline who was also in excellent nick whether airborne or
horseborne!, were scheduled after many a false start for the 11th of March. This was the last day possible and
when all players were in station. We were handicapped however that day as Manupal Godara had already
moved his horses to Mumbai for the season there. As such we were constrained to arrange a poor string.Just
three days before the finals, while practicing on the small strip of field at the end of the main polo ground of
the Army Polo Club, and having fully recovered, my horse slipped on a turn. The grass not being watered here
due to a paucity, and being recently cut and very dry, there was little purchase when I tried to make a sharp
turn. Once again, I was tender in all the wrong places and once again I had to put myself in the hands of Adam
Rawle. For this was a match I was not going to pass up, nor give up for a replacement! The journey had been
rather too long! And this included, in the distant past, lack of facility and instruction, good horseflesh had been
responsible for a broken clavicle, and before that a hairline fracture to the L3 vertabrae which put me on a flat
bed for two months, preventing me from even getting up for the toilet. So I was here inspite of!
A funny thing happened in the third chukka. Amongst others, a sign of a good polo player is when, Argentine
style, one mounts from one pony to another at the end of a chukka, by swinging over and leaping from
one mount to the other. It is also something, older players like myself resort to! As it is much easier than
dismounting and then trying to stretch up into the shortened polo stirrups. I was pretty good at it these past
couple of years, and used to feel quite pleased with myself. Until this occasion when, because of one of the
ponies suddenly moving forward, I found I had leapt onto its butt rather than fall plonk in the saddle. I felt
pretty silly and laughed out loud saying “ Ab kay karoon?!” (what the hell do I do now!) to my grooms! Lt Col
Navjit Sandhu our young back was a taciturn and strict bloke on the ground, not brooking any slackness. “Jump
Sir!”, he shouted in his stricted yet polite voice! It aint easy to jump from the rump of a horse, onto the saddle
when one has nothing to stand on! Even so, I managed to perform this rare acrobatic maneuver for fear of
upsetting my sa’rnt major! In this case Lt Col Sandhu. Known as “Navo”, I muttered James Bond style “Navo
say Navo Again”!!! In the end the game finally ended with us losing 2 goals to 5..inspite of having first
equalized in the second chukka to 2 all (one scored by Navjit Sandhu who led us brilliantly in all our matches
along with Manupal Godara, and the other a fine angular one scored by Buchi Prakash, while tried to do my bit
to mark my opposing player). Nevertheless it was sporting of the opposing team to have agreed to play that day
inspite of having played so many games previously, with tired horses and players. Their victory therefore was
With having made it to these finals with Team Bentley I can consequently claim a reasonable performance
in my own personal six season polo career, at age 53! Besides the regimens to maintain physical fitness and
riding fitness, there were two prayers that were elevating and helped me along. One was a prayer I made up
and uttered each time I passed the War Cemetry enroute to the Polo club,for this beautiful Cemetery bore
testimony to the youth, gallantry,physical prowess, and bravery of the officers and men during World War
2, largely from the Burma campaign. I figured that this collective Spirit should be appealed to, for all those
qualities that I needed a dose of on the field! “ Warriors Brave, inject me with thy spirit, from beyond thy
grave”. The other was Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th Sikh Guru’s famous verse quoted below, with its English
translation, and with which I end this article.
That after losing two other horse early, and being left with two, I was able to reach this final with just two
ponies(as polo horses are also called),for a four chukka game,( having to double up between chukkas, each
pony getting a one chukka rest after its first chukka) was a bit of an achievement . Good human resource in the
form of my trainer, and an eye on my part to his keeping his grooms in check, and ensuring my two horses got
the best in terms of vetinerary cover, food, nutrition and supplies, in order to give me their best, ensured that,
to the surprise of many, I was able to play my polo to a satisfactory level on just two horses. Good management
practice inspite of my being a relative newcomer to horse ownership, allowed for this day.
Dey Shiva var mo eeh i hai
Shubh kur man tey, kubh hoon nuh turoon
Nuh duroon aur so jub jaey lurhun
Nischai kur upni jeeth kuroon
Har sikh ho upney gee munn ko
eh lalach hon gun tau unchroon
Jub aav kee odh nidhan baney,
Uuthh heen runnh mey tub jhooj muroon
Grant me O Lord this boon that I may not falter in doing good.
That I may entertain no fear of the enemy when engaged with him in battle.
May every sikh’s mind lust for righteousness.
And that I may always be sure of my victory.
May my mind be trained in the desire to dwell upon thy goodness.
And when the last moment of my life should arrive, may I die in the thick of battle.