The Polo Project spent a long weekend in the world of Australian professional polo player Ric McCarthy at his family homestead in Illabo, NSW – home to his heart and horses.
A six-hour drive north of Melbourne will take you to the country town of Wagga Wagga. From there, a further drive leads to Junee, which has the most lovely historic pub, if you are that way inclined, as well as a train station and pharmacy.
The road further north eventually reaches Illabo, a rural NSW town wallowing lazily in a magical yellow sea of blossoming canola flowers.
A whole lot of yellow, some sheep on the green bits in-between the yellow, and bunches of cockatoos bickering over squatting rights to gumtree skeletons thrusting into an azure sky. That’s Illabo.
Ric McCarthy, one of Australia’s best professional polo players, can also be found in Illabo, chasing sheep, fixing fences and ignoring the squawking cockatoos. When he is not playing polo that is.
“Ric is a generous host who exudes charisma interspersed with unrestrained bursts of laughter.”
Life on the farm is a long way from the glamour of the jet-setting polo lifestyle, which has, over the years, taken Ric to the USA, England and Europe for tournaments. Work has also taken him to more exotic destinations such as the Bahamas, where he represented Australia, and nearly got arrested – for reasons that should not be repeated in print, but which Ric would otherwise happily share with you in his typically candid manner.
Polo has always been perceived as an elitist pursuit, however, that has certainly changed as it enjoys a renaissance not seen since the 1920s. Some say it is currently the fastest-growing spectator sport in the world. Particularly in Australia, the farmers are, and always have been, the custodians of the sport, as testified in Banjo Paterson’s ‘Geebung Polo Club’ poem. Ric epitomises the quintessential Australian polo professional – a kid off a farm who took up polo in the same way a city kid takes up rugby. “Horses are not an indulgence on a farm, as they may be in the city, so many rural kids have them, and why not keep them fit by playing polo?” explains Ric.
“… the dedication, commitment and effort it takes to learn and improve in the sport, as well as to master the art of ‘breaking in’ and training your own horses.”
As far as Ric is concerned, polo in Australia is not elitist. It is a grassroots sport played by many others exactly like him, mostly in rural Australia. In fact, according to Ric, shedding that unsavoury stigma has helped bring the sport into the cities and attract mainstream sponsors in recent years, which is critical both for the continued development of the sport in this country and attracting new players.
The perception of polo being an aspirational sport reflecting an ideal of perfection will, however, in Ric’s view, remain on account of the “dedication, commitment and effort it takes to learn and improve in the sport, as well as to master the art of ‘breaking in’ and training your own horses”, which is generally considered necessary at the top level. Ric emphasises that “these qualities, necessary to make it in polo, can be developed by anyone, within reason, who is willing to make the sacrifices and effort to become a professional player”. This revelation has, Ric continues, “over the past five years made the sponsors, media and public much happier about the idea of polo generally, and fuelled its unprecedented popularity”.
However, despite the growing popularity of the sport, as well as Ric’s own increasing profile, Ric is unlikely to give up the farm life altogether. “I’d never leave the farm. I love polo, and play as much as I can. The farm has been in the family for three generations and it’s my sanctuary. I love it here in Illabo.
“Horses are not an indulgence on a farm, as they may be in the city, so many rural kids have them, and why not keep them fit by playing polo?”
We follow Ric around the farm during the interview as he casually carries out his chores, stopping only to wipe the sweat off his brow, or to ask us to pass him a hammer, some fencing wire or a cold beer. He is not what you’d expect from a professional polo player. There is no pretention, no arrogance and no indication that during his next polo tournament he may well be rubbing shoulders with royalty, as he has in the past.
Ric is a generous host who exudes charisma and often breaks into unrestrained bursts of laughter, such as when I ask him whether women throw themselves at polo players, as suggested in the best-selling novel Polo, by Jilly Cooper. It is unclear whether the laughter denotes incredulity or confirmation, and a follow-up question only evokes more laughter. Eventually we leave Ric and head back towards the highway through the vivid canola fields, beneath the bickering cockatoos (which, incidentally, seemed to have resolved nothing) and past the unremarkable sheep. It is easy to see why the tranquillity and predictability of farm life holds such sway with the polo star they call ‘Cappo’, ‘The General’ or the ‘Boy From Illabo’, especially in light of the hectic regime Ric will embark upon in a few weeks. Between November and December Cappo will go on tour with ‘Waterford Crystal Polo in the City’ followed by ‘Palm Beach Polo by the Sea’ in January, which is when I, and thousands of other polo fans, will see him next.