On Monday, Crikey had a story about James Packer and the Ellerston polo team. I don’t know much about polo but I did manage to Trojan Horse myself into a tournament at Ellerston in March last year. It was enlightening. Talk about feudal.
Ellerston has its own postcode and post office — actually, I think it’s a gazetted village. The homestead is surrounded by hectares of not-quite-so-lush polo fields known, I think, as the outer fields. The real revelation is crossing into the electronically monitored, inner-perimeter, security on the gate, fording a delightful little stream and driving up to the greenest polo ground ever spied.
We went via the Ellerston mini mart where in three little aisles you can get Ellerston merchandise (much of it walking out the door on the backs of very-chuffed-looking interstate jodhpurs-wearing types), instant coffee, noodles, Tim Tams and internet access. Perhaps a hot sausage roll, but why bother when you can go to the Ellerston restaurant, where many are chefs serving up very adequate cafe-style burgers, salads, cakes, etc. It may have been licensed, but I can’t recall. Lots of jodhpurs and polo shirts wolfing down steak sambos and chips. But I couldn’t linger.
The home ground is where, after lunch on tournament day — the Ellerston Cup I believe — all the serfs, staff, local folk and interstate teams gather to watch the big game of the day. Ellerston, with James (or Jamie) Packer riding, versus someone or other. Huge gums towered around the lip of the field; families dragged out Champers, chardonnay and hampers. Children, dressed from the latest R.M.Williams catalogue, ran about, carefree and unpretentiously, as country children do, flinging stones at birds, falling off the quaint wooden stands scattered about, the air rich with the calls of “Quentin, Soames, William, Patrice! Lunch!”. It was a sparkling early autumn day.
The most excruciating part for this unabashed inner-city type were the conversations with the sea-changers and their spouses; mostly, it seemed, failed businessmen and disappointed wives who were “really enjoying” the change of pace, but still detoxing from the fast-money lifestyle and bored out of their brain on their new olive farms. The pecking order was obvious — two criteria: shit on those who have just moved to the district and fawn on the old money; the established families.
My favourite introduction was to the co-owner of a well-known water heating company (he was nearly royalty as he was old money and honkingly rich), a local lad who had recently fitted, I believe, Celine Dion and the king or sultan of somewhere in the Middle East, with solid-gold tap fittings and water filtering systems. The reason I didn’t hear where the exact location of the Middle East solid-gold taps was I became distracted by the helicopter zooming overhead and touching down on the hill above us at the homestead. A definite frisson of excitement gripped the ground.
The tinny loud-speaker system crackled into life — Jamie Packer had arrived, we were informed. It wouldn’t be long now. I did wonder later if Packer actually got straight onto his polo pony as he disembarked the helicopter. I don’t know as we never saw him mount or dismount directly.
About 20 minutes later, the ground heaved into life as the A-grade players launched into their warm-ups, belting up and down the ground, whacking the little white ball hither and thither. I don’t know much about polo but I do know that a handicapping system prevails. If you are good, you ride off a higher number. Ten is the highest, but so difficult to attain that there are only a handful of handicap-10 players around the world. Playing off five or higher indicates a professional player; novices start off at minus two. According to Wikipedia, most players play off two or less.
Average Australian clubs have anywhere between 15 to 30-plus members. Ellerston seems to have 12. This is unusually small, but then because of all the professional players stacked in the team — wages paid by Packer — it’s definitely a private club, not open to anyone unless you are professional, a very good amateur, a friend who is handy with a mallet or Packer himself. Out of the 12-member team, there are about five riding off five and above — only a couple of much larger clubs boast this much talent. The lowliest registered riders are Packer on two and another chap, Gysbert Boonzaaier, a South African buddy I suspect.
As the match got under way, the commentator focused mostly on Packer. It was a little embarrassing; all those miss-hits and awkward shots where the little pony seemed to wince. The partisan commentator brushed over the stuff-ups and told us that Ellerston was in a strong position. And they seemed to be roaring away, with the professional players feeding Packer the ball from every angle so he could score from in front. Or they’d hit it to him time and again, giving him the chance to drive it up the field. Everyone’s eyes were glued to this clumsy performance as he bumbled it or rode over the top of it. I’m not saying it’s an easy game, it’s just that a level-two handicap player playing with some of the best professional players in the world … well, it shows.
Two eight-year-old local boys stood in front of me, hands wedged in their molskins, providing the in-depth analysis required for any sporting event.
“James Packer is crap,” said one, full of disgust. “Yep,” said the other. “He can’t even ride.”
I guess Packer just looked a bit poorly against the professional spoon feeding — but God knows it’s a difficult game. And Ellerston won their own cup (I’m not sure if they have in-house engravers).
Then, as soon as it was over, they melted back up the hill and 10 minutes later the helicopter took off, buzzed low over the now much diverted field and somehow the zip that fame, wealth and bad polo playing engender left the air.