Colombia’s polo clubs symbolise a change in fortune

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During the height of the drug-fuelled violence that ravaged Colombia more than a decade ago, even the country’s horses suffered. As drug lords sought status, they wanted to enter into the equestrian world and so bought the most prized breeds of horse – the Paso Fino. This however, meant that the horses themselves became the target for rival gangs engaged in vendettas. There were often horrific accounts of stallions being castrated and massacres taking place in the stables. But for some reason, the drug kingpins knew to stay away from Colombia’s polo clubs and polo ponies.

“For whatever reason, narcos never even dared to ask to be members of a polo club, and nobody was keen on selling them horses,” explains Felipe Uribe, a two-goal (low-handicapped) player who used to administer polo for Club Campestre of Cali – a city that was controlled by a powerful drug cartel. “They knew this was no place for them, that they were never going to be welcomed, so they simply stayed away,” he says.

Polo was reasonably successful and popular in Colombia in the early to mid-1990s. Clubs attracted star Argentine players of the time, including the famed Heguy brothers. But this soon changed. By the late 1990s, an escalation of violence and an economic crisis crippled the sport’s development beyond the main clubs near the biggest cities of Bogota, the capital, and Medellin and Cali.

“Over 10 years ago, people that had horses on their ranches decided to stop breeding because it was too dangerous to be out in the countryside on their own,” says Uribe.

However, things are changing now for the better. With sustained economic growth, leftwing guerrilla groups in decline and drug gangs no longer a security threat, there has been a turnaround in Colombia’s quality of life and this has also impacted the Colombian polo scene too.

“Polo in Cali and Medellin and Bogota is growing again,” says Carlos Alberto Gomez, one of a the very few veterinaries for sport horses in Colombia, who works at the Cali club. “Those people that were scared have come back, their sons are playing and breeding now with the best blood imported from Argentina,” says Gomez.

In an attempt to professionalise the sport, Colombian polo clubs use the patron model, in which individuals fund a squad of players and ponies in return for a place in the team. However, this comes with its own unique challenges.

“Even if security is much better, some people are still hesitant to be identified as polo patrons. It is understandable, because they could be targeted as the richest among the rick,” says Felipe Marquez, a seven-goal player and the country’s number one.

“Overall, there is still a reluctance to professionalise the sport here, it is still seen as something very familiar, so it is quite amateur,” adds Marquez. “But I am working on breaking that traditional scheme.”

Marquez has in fact set a new trend of professionalism and horse breeding in Colombian polo. Now, Colombian teams are bringing in Argentine players and stallions.  “The level of horses here has grown a lot in the past 10 years, same with the players […] I think little by little we are heading in the right direction.”

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