After discovering polo, a British businessman is working to take the sport into the living rooms of the world.
Bringing the sport of kings to the masses
The idea that could turn polo into a major sport came to Daniel Fox-Davies three years ago. He was lying in bed at his home in Chelsea, west London, recovering from an operation to repair damaged discs in his back, lucky that he had not been paralysed, or killed, after one of his beloved polo ponies had thrown him during a vigorous training session. "All I could do was watch television," he says. "So much of the sport was rubbish. One station had rodeo riding. I ask you. There was no polo anywhere.
"I thought, 'Why not? Why can't polo be shown on television?' It's fast, full-contact, glamorous, exciting. It's simple. There's a ball. There are strikers, midfielders and defenders. There's a goal. Players barge into each other at speed. It has everything." Three years later and Mr Fox-Davies, the 34-year-old founder of Fox-Davies Capital, a corporate finance brokerage in London specialising in oil, gas and mining, is hoping to launch a tele-friendly series of polo matches around the world, modelled on Formula One racing and Twenty20 cricket. He envisages polo teams of top professionals representing major cities, such as London, New York, Paris, Mumbai and Buenos Aires, and hopes particularly that Abu Dhabi will be one of them; it is important, he says, to include the Middle East, where horses are integral to the cultures of so many countries.
The game's rules would be amended to make it more dramatic, much as cricket has evolved in a succession of limited-overs formats. The polo field - currently the size of four football pitches - would shrink and players would wear brightly coloured shirts and be allowed to touch the ball only a couple of times before passing. But, Mr Fox-Davies insists, purists would not be offended: it would still be polo as they know it.
The biggest change he envisages would be in the venues - with games played in public parks or existing sports venues, instead of on exclusive country estates - so that more people could attend matches. Most important of all, he says, matches would be televised, using the studio and presentation techniques that are routine today in other sports, and this would attract sponsors. It would revolutionise polo, he says. Today, the sport depends on a wealthy individual, known as the patron, who is usually also one of the four members of a team. This, says Mr Fox-Davies, is like the owner of a Premiership football team picking himself as a striker, simply because he can.
As he talks, he looks as if he will explode with excitement. Through the glass of his office, his team of Fox-Davies Capital traders are staring at computer screens displaying the rise and fall of prices in the energy and mining sectors. As Polo in the Park has attracted the attention of the world's media, Mr Fox-Davies has found himself characterised as a flashy tycoon. In fact, he is engaging, modest and rumpled; he neither looks nor sounds like a man out to transform a sport that, traditionally, has epitomised monied elitism.
It is still early days, he says, but the signs are encouraging. The first matches - involving at least six teams - will definitely take place next June at Hurlingham Park in Fulham, west London, where England won a gold medal in polo at the 1908 Olympics. "We are seeding the grass now," he says. "It will be great for the public. The park will be much better. In June we will take it over for three days for polo. Imagine the opportunities for sponsors."
His enthusiasm almost runs away with him: "It is," he declares, "more interesting than motor racing." Two years ago he hired a team of three, including a world-class polo player, to see if his dream of democratising polo with style was feasible. Now he has recruited IMG, the entertainment-sports management company, and its consultants are touring the world selling the idea. One of their first stops was Abu Dhabi. Mr Fox-Davies has already spoken to the authorities in New York about using Central Park as a venue.
He says he is not trying to turn polo into a mass sport, like football or cricket. This is neither possible nor desirable. However, he believes that polo is such a fantastic sport that it deserves better than to be caricatured as a recreation for the over-sexed, super-wealthy. He came from an ordinary middle-class family in the West Country. He hoped to study economics at Oxford but was only offered a place by Durham University and the LSE. So he decided to spend a gap year in the City. He planned to reapply to Oxford if business did not suit him. But he was a natural. He did so well in London that he was soon posted abroad, to Vienna, Moscow, then New York.
Eight years ago, still in his mid-20s, he was back in London and wondering what to do next. Someone called him and asked if he could raise money to develop an oil field in Africa. He said he would, and he did. "That is how Fox-Davies Capital came about," he said, laughing at his good fortune. "By complete accident!" He established the firm with £100,000. He had £10,000 of his own money, borrowed £20,000 from a bank and put another chunk on his credit card. He planned to employ experts in the practicalities of mining, oil and gas so that he could offer the best advice to companies and investors.
As he waited for the regulatory bodies to approve this new company he discovered horse riding. "I was renting a cheap as chips cottage in the West Country and started riding. Then I found polo. You needed a completely different riding technique. I loved it!" Though he does not look like a serious sportsman he obviously has the necessary guts and aggression to play the game:" It's like American football. The best players, and I am nothing special, can take you out of the game in an instant."
He has become so keen that he no longer wants to live full-time in Chelsea. He plans to move to the country, to be near his eight ponies and the polo club where he plays every weekend. Polo ranks players by goals. Those minus two goals are poor; someone with 10 goals is world-class. Anyone rated at two or above will be a professional. There are only a handful of 10s in the world. Mr Fox-Davies is ranked at minus one, which makes him a competent amateur. He is also a patron, which means he runs his own team. "Every team must have a professional, otherwise the spectacle would be horrible."
Although his passion for polo grew over time he became disillusioned with the sport's management. There were no leagues. It was fragmented, with governing bodies in the UK, Argentina and the States, each with slightly different rules. Because of the system of patronage - and for historical reasons - teams rarely consisted of four professionals. Despite this, he says, polo has become increasingly popular and is now played in dozens of countries by thousands of people. The potential, he says, is huge.
Undoubtedly there is potential in the Gulf. Polo is firmly established in Dubai, where some of the world's best players turn out for a team run by a local businessman, Ali Albwardy, whom Mr Fox-Davies says is one of the most accomplished patrons in polo. Abu Dhabi also has world-class facilities, at the Al Ghantoot Racing and Polo Club. The BBC recently described the club: "It is home to 200 pampered ponies that live in air-conditioned stables, their feed shipped in from Kentucky, their grooms from Argentina. This is a club that plays host to kings and queens and no expense is spared."
Mr Fox-Davies is taking nothing for granted. A city or a company might, he says, want to field a team or perhaps just be a sponsor of the series. All that counts is raising the profile of the sport, while retaining its excitement and glamour. * The National