Polo: Tragedy fails to deter budding pro

By ANENDRA SINGH - Sports Editor

Travel, potential to make some serious money, the great outdoors ... and oh, let's not forget the promise of the chick-magnet factor at the grounds.

Why would anyone not want to play polo?

Well, if you are Will Hunt there's probably two monumental reasons why he should have had second thoughts.

When Hunt was 12 his uncle, Paul Clarkin, of Hamilton, died on the field of competition after another rider cut off his path suddenly, prompting Clarkin to lose his perch and break his neck.

A few years later, Hunt's brother, Thomas Hunt, now 24, also had a head injury playing polo but today he is still mixing it up in the game of the princes.

His uncle's death had shaken him up at the time, the 19-year-old from Cambridge says, but the tragedy didn't put him off the sport.

"I wouldn't give it up for anything else," Hunt says before the three-day Farmlands Hawke's Bay Open begins at Elwood Park, Hastings, tomorrow.

It is the 117th Dewar Cup tournament, drawing 16 teams from around the country including Hunt's Hawke's Bay A side comprising veteran Kip Coop, of Hastings, ex-professional and Bay farmer Simon McDonald and captain Jared Thompson, a Wellington businessman.

The Bay A team are favourites to clinch the top-grade silverware after winning the Wine Country tournament and making the Murphy Cup final at Wanstead on January 6-8 before rain put paid to declaring the winners.

Last weekend, the Bay outfit etched their names on the Schimanski Cup at Rangitikei, pipping their Manawatu hosts 4-3 with Hunt scoring the winning goal in the dying seconds.

The New Zealand Colt player, a one-goal handicapper is a budding professional, who spends four months here training the polo horses of Bay businessman Richard Hunt (no relation) who also sponsors him as a player.

He is a member of the BMT team in Australia, competing professionally for Queensland entrepreneur Balfour Irvine from March.

In the northern hemisphere summer, the teenager plies his trade in the United Kingdom, where a 10-goal handicapper can earn up to $1 million each season.

Will Hunt comes from a polo-playing background of professionals. His cousin, John Paul Clarkin, the son of the late Paul Clarkin, is considered the best polo player in the country.

"You have to love horses," he says.

Thompson reveals the past two years rain had scuttled the tourney but as the co-owners of Elwood Park, with Hastings Rugby and Sports they will benefit from a $180,000 project to install tile draining that will not hamper future tourneys.

"Last year all this was under water. We had ducks swimming in here," Thompson says, pointing to a portion of the ground.

Coop says professionalism didn't exist when he was playing at his peak.

Dubbed the "oldest statesman of polo" here, the 59-year-old believes the HB A's strength and success lies in the rapport because they have been playing together, off and on, for years.

Kihikihi and Wanstead, who boast an entire Kay family of four, will be their main opposition in the five-goal handicap tourney this weekend.

"Polo's not the main event, it's everything else around it," he says of the festive atmosphere that prevails.

Thompson reckons it's the cheapest place in the world to stage events because of sprawling land spaces and cost.

Will Hunt adds 84 per cent of the thoroughbreds in the sport come from New Zealand and they are the best but Thompson qualifies Argentina is up there, too.

"Everyone in polo knows everyone never mind where you are," Thompson says, claiming the high pressure weather system over the Bay will turn the park ground into a surface that will yield a fast-paced affair this weekend.

"It's quite physical so it's like rugby on horseback."

Hunt says no matter how skilful players are with a mallet and ball they won't be able to compete if they aren't good riders.

McDonald, 39, thanked the sponsors saying without them the tourney wouldn't have last over a century.

Coop comes from a generation of livestock farmers and horse lovers.

He runs a station at Tukituki - which he inherited from his father, the late Malcolm Coop - where he also breeds polo horses.

"We use the polo horses on our property as stock horses, too," he says, like catching a bug in trying to bring the best out of a mount.

While he has no regrets not experiencing a professional player's life in 35 years of competing, Coop counts his blessing.

"In my days they had very rough grounds where the ball would disappear in the hoof holes so today we have excellent hitters of the ball."

- Hawkes Bay Today

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