No one knows when man started fitting stirrups to his primitive saddle, but as soon as he did, he probably began to play a game like polo. It is one of the oldest and fastest team games.
The first recorded game occurred about 600 BC in North Persia from where it spread slowly East as far as China and Japan. However, it was not until around the middle of the 19th century that the beginnings of polo as we know it today took shape, when soldiers and merchants in Northern India adopted a game previously played by Manipuri hillsmen. The name ‘polo’ is derived from the Indian ‘pulu’ for the wood from which the ball was made and the word ‘chukka’ comes from the Indian word for a circle or round.
Although the first polo club, The Retreat at Silchar in India, was founded in 1859, no formal rules were produced until 1875 when Hurlingham in London became the recognised headquarters of the game. During the past 100 years, the game has expanded throughout the world and is now regularly played in over 50 different countries.
The Coronation Cup was first played for in 1911 to honour the coronation of King George V, grandfather to our current Queen. From then until 1939, it was traditionally played by the winners of the London Open Tournaments – Hurlingham, Ranelagh, Roehampton and the Inter-Regimental. Polo struggled in the aftermath of the Second World War and matches became a little more sporadic. Although a tournament was played to mark the Coronation of HM The Queen in 1953, mainly at Cowdray Park in Sussex, it was not played for again for a further 18 years.
Early in 1971 Lord Patrick Beresford introduced Col Gerard Leigh, then Chairman of Guards Polo Club and some members of the Club’s committee, to an American friend and polo player, Michael Butler. Beresford and Butler believed that there were sufficient English players at “the top of the tree” to form a team of around 23 goals who might take on an American team of similar handicap and that such a match would create much public interest. That first game featured a 23-goal English team featuring Hon Mark Vestey, Howard & Julian Hipwood and Paul Withers. However the USA team (Ronnie Tongg, Billy Linfoot, Chico & Joe Barry) was not the highest handicapped that the USA could have fielded and so it was agreed that these two countries would play for the “mothballed” Coronation Cup instead of the more usual Westchester Cup*. The Americans won 9-6.
A year later the Coronation Cup moved to Smith’s Lawn. Guards Polo Club had the facilities to make better use of the sponsorship – the tobacco firm Wills sponsored the International Day from 1971-1978 as well as employing a larger staff to cope with the organisation. The Club’s Polo Manager, Major Ronald Ferguson, was put in charge of the event. He had just returned from an American tour with the Household Cavalry’s Musical Ride and had picked up some showmanship tips from the Americans. He put these into action, not least introducing a Best Playing Pony Award. He also introduced a second game, which initially saw a Young England team play a Young American squad. When the HPA created the Silver Jubilee Trophy in 1977, to commemorate The Queen’s 25 years on the throne, Prince Charles expressed an interest in playing. He went on to captain his team in this match from 1977 – 1993. In fact he only missed two years: in 1978 he played for the opposing Commonwealth team, while a polo fall in 1990 kept him out of the saddle.
The format remains pretty much the same to this day. Cartier’s sponsorship of the day for more than 25 years (1984- 2011) ensured its position as a key fixture in the global polo calendar and Audi’s generous support from 2012 has enhanced the cup’s status even further. To date more than 10 different countries have sent their finest players to battle for this most historic of polo trophies. This year it is the turn of Argentina who are looking to register their fourth win.
The Westchester Cup was created in 1876 and is always played for by teams from the USA and England. The match was initially the best of three games, but in 1886 it was decided to make the polo match a continuing competition. There were a total of 12 matches conducted between 1886 and 1939 between these two leading polo playing nations. The tournament was revived in 1992 and was last played in the UK in 2013 on Audi International Day in place of the Coronation Cup and in 2009 in the USA. The Cup has been won a total of 11 times by the United States and six times by Great Britain, including the initial 1876 match.