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Polo reins in China's nouveau riche

By Dean Irvine, CNN
  • Polo is becoming the new exclusive for China's wealthy as golf loses cache
  • New club in Tianjin in Northeast China aiming to provide a complete lifestyle
  • Inaugural Goldin Gold Cup contested by European and Argentinean players
  • Some fear adequate skills and professionals are not available to keep up with demand

(CNN) -- The traditional "stomping of the divots" during a polo match brings the watching crowd with their colorful mix of hats, heels and outfits onto the field to repair the galloped-upon turf.

The inaugural Goldin Gold Cup match was no different, but instead of a manicured lawn in southern England or pasture in Argentina, the stomping earlier this month was on a field in Northeast China on the outskirts of Tianjin, a city of over 12 million.

As golf loses its luster as a marker for wealth and status in China, polo and equestrian events are being groomed as the new exclusive pursuit for the country's super rich.

Polo clubs have been in China since 2004, but the operation in Tianjin is just the latest, and currently most opulent, of the new clubs embracing horse sports as a way to corral China's "high net worth individuals."

Playing golf, no one else sees you
--Harvey Lee, Vice Chariman, Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club

"Playing golf, no one else sees you," says Harvey Lee, vice chairman of Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club.

"In China for now a lot of people will enjoy watching polo, not many will ride and play."

The club is looking for members and patrons who can afford to buy a polo team and keep horses at the club's stables.

The club declines to say how much membership would be or how many members they have, but on average the club horses, purchased from breeders in Australia and New Zealand, cost around $20,000 each

"To be a patron 24 to 30 horses are needed (for a polo match), so we can't have too many, maybe 10 to 20 realistically," says Lee.

Members of Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Club are keen to point out that this isn't the arrival of polo but its revival, as a version of the game was played over 1,000 years ago during the Tang dynasty.

But the link to China's historic aristocracy isn't as enticing as the lure of modern European-style luxury.

The club's stables can accommodate 150 horses and the 167-room hotel has 14 restaurants including one serving molecular gastronomy on gold-rimmed plates. Plus there's a wine museum that might have embarrassed Louis XIV with its use of gold-gilt.

It's all part of a larger real estate project transforming a whole swathe of the northeastern megacity, led by club Chairman Pan Sutong, a property developer and electronics mogul.

You see that equestrian sports are so fast growing that sometimes you have very important parts completely missing
--Sacha Eckjans, Secretary of the Hong Kong Equestrian Federation
  • China
  • Tianjin
  • Asia

European-style villas and luxury apartments are being built behind the club's main polo field. If the scene isn't incongruous enough for China, in a few years the 117-story Goldin Finance Tower, one of the tallest in Asia, will loom over the whole area.

Lee says that success for the club will be measured by youngsters learning the sport from the club's riding school and the emergence of homegrown players. For now, the appeal for many appears to come from the game's exclusive prices.

"If you want to start polo in China you need to write a huge check," said David Woodd, chief executive of the Hurlingham Polo Club, the venerable English institution that sets the rules and standards for the sport.

"Clearly they have a whole heap of money (in China). It seems to be the new exclusive, whereas we're trying to go the other way in England."

Around 20 more clubs from other developers are being planned or under construction in China.

One set to open later this year outside Shanghai is unabashedly aiming for the super-wealthy. Joining the club will cost the invited 200 members around $185,000, excluding yearly subscription.

"(They are) mainly business leaders and the social elite," said Heather Gu, business development manager for Shanghai Premier Club. "They know how to enjoy life and are looking for something fresh, noble and elegant. A horse can help create this."

In May the Beijing International Equestrian Grand Prix at the city's "Bird's Nest" stadium attracted a paying crowd of thousands, as well as high-end sponsors. Horse-riding clubs now number over 100 in the Beijing area alone. China's Horse Industry Association, the government body that promotes the country's development of equestrian sports, said 2,000 horses were imported to China last year, up from 300 in 2005.

The growing appeal of horse sports is no surprise to Derek Reid, a former professional polo player and head of polo for the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Club

"I saw coming to China as a huge challenge," he says. "I can sense that when people here learn about the polo that it will become really popular. The most surprising thing has been the willingness of the people (at the club); that it can be done -- whatever we tackle, it can be done."

Some facilities owned by private individuals in China are rumored to be so lavish they wouldn't be out of place if they belonged to James Bond super villain "Goldfinger."

However, there are fears that growing equestrian investment in China is akin to buying a Formula 1 car without bothering to buy a team of mechanics to look after it.

"In almost any business in China you see that it's so fast growing that sometimes you have very important parts completely missing," says Sacha Eckjans, Secretary of the Hong Kong Equestrian Federation, who visits the Chinese mainland regularly to donate horses to equestrian clubs.

"You'll find a good facility, but in the details it's not thought through. The people who should run the place the moment 50 horses arrive are often not there. You have very good intelligent people, but many simply don't know (how to run a club)."