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'If you can get them banking and going to the sides, they’re proper weapons'

Tom Peacock meets England international Jack Richardson and his ex-racehorses

Jack Richardson: has combined successfully on the polo field with ex-racehorses
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Jack Richardson doesn’t miss once as he switches from dribbling to a backhand chip before launching the ball halfway up the giant field with a satisfying clack. 

These are perhaps the skills one might expect from one of England’s top few professional polo players, indeed an England captain, but the perfect position he maintains in the saddle as he makes each high-speed shot is impressive at close quarters.

As Richardson continues with his tricks, the eye is easily drawn to the pony he is riding.

Harmony at first circles in a tight diameter, changing her legs with slick frequency. At an imperceptible nudge from her rider, the neat bay wheels right into top gear and disappears into the distance. On returning, she screeches to an emergency stop from canter in just a few strides, adjusting her weight to stand to attention like a gymnast dismounting from the parallel bars.

It’s a symbiotic relationship between two athletes at the very top of the tree, made all the more extraordinary when understanding that Harmony, or Harmony Wold as she once was, spent the first three years of her life as a very ordinary racehorse, being beaten nine lengths in a seller at Southwell and going off at 33-1 or bigger in five of her six races for Declan Carroll.

Harmony Wold moved from the track to become one of Jack Richardson's best polo ponies

Carlos, Richardson’s chief groom for the last decade, brings out five more highly polished ex-racers during the course of the next hour. The polo season is starting to get going and each is being put through a final leg-stretch before an important practice game the next day.

From Jaga Time, or Jaga, an intelligent 11-year-old chestnut by Compton Place who performed at a very moderate level for Richard Fahey, to the reliable Deano’s Devil, a Medicean mare whom Richardson decided to call Kelpie and who is rather the better for being reincarnated, they can all do much the same as Harmony if requested.

A simple nod from Carlos, a Mate-drinking man of the Pampas steeped in polo tradition. They’re ready.

A change of scene

Richardson will use these exact horses on the hallowed lawns of Guards Polo Club in Windsor Great Park throughout the summer against international names and many ponies bred from specific stock in Argentina, the sport’s cradle.

Although not someone who would pretend to have been born within telescopic sight of the wrong side of the tracks, he decided to follow his passion upon leaving school and his parents supported the idea on the proviso that he would make it pay.

As he explains delicately, there is wealth on a whole different stratosphere in this most rarified of pursuits and this relentlessly enthusiastic 30-year-old has developed a fascinating system out of necessity. 

"Sadly I don’t have the money to go and buy a £200,000 horse that would fit straight in the top of my string, so I make them," he says.

"I trade them a bit, sometimes sell them, so it’s a cost-effective way of me being as well-mounted as all the other top players."

It was Richardson’s father, Kim, a more casual player, who had hit upon the idea of finding ex-racehorses.

"Dad and his best friend, Milo Manton, bought a couple one year and Milo started retraining them a bit and Dad played with them for a couple of years," he explains.

"They sold the first two to a really good player in Argentina, they went to the top level in Argentina, so after that I think they thought it was really easy!"

Manton, whom we had better correctly title as Major The Lord, once won the Grand Military Gold Cup aboard Silver Stick, owned by his late father Rupert, the former senior steward of the Jockey Club.

A well-known figure in northern equine circles, he is approached by trainers when they identify a horse that they think might make a polo pony. He road tests each one and will spend a month with the recruits, gently introducing them to being ridden with one hand and having a stick waving alongside them.

After that, they will spend at least seven months at grass in Richardson’s Sussex base, resetting themselves.

"I want them to completely forget about anything and to grow up, get a personality, for when they start training with us," he says. "Them listening to you is the main thing, then you get them fitter and fitter.

"You might buy one at three, start playing slow practice chukkers [seven-minute periods] at the end of their fourth year. They will play lower handicap games in their fifth and sixth years and by seven they’ve officially made it, as it were.

"They know how to go forwards, that’s the best thing," Richardson continues. "It’s understanding now that their job is to be smooth and quick. To stop and accelerate out of the corners, not just accelerate in a straight line. If you can get them banking and going to the sides, they’re proper weapons."

These ones have definitely arrived. From the five-star hotels that we regularly equate racing stables to outsiders, around a dozen lodge in a sort of Soho Farmhouse, an impossibly pretty private estate in the middle of Burnham Beeches, Buckinghamshire.

Jaga Time is an 11-year-old by Compton Place who began his career with Richard Fahey

Richardson is allowed to train on its manicured ground all season alongside an eclectic mix of fellow players including sheikhs and one suave character ambling past on our walk back to the yard whom he explains is among the best from Pakistan.

Richardson has around 32 in all – "I’m basically my own Retraining of Racehorses charity" – and there’s a sifting process.

Some simply won’t take to being around a ball or the hurly-burly from the outset, while others end up not being at the select level he requires. Often the graduate drop-outs can still play lower-league polo until their mid-teens, but word has spread about their new-found manners and many have made beloved hacks and hunters.

Should they get as far as Richardson’s roster, they are valuable commodities who are treated as the equals of more traditionally-bred specimens and often win the 'best playing pony' prize at major tournaments.

"Good polo ponies are all the same price," he says flatly. "One for a top, top Argentine ten-goal player, the best in the world, for them it might be £300,000 to £400,000."

He recalls an amusing moment negotiating with one illustrious South American, who had to hold his nose at the prospect of buying one of his thoroughbreds.

"I said, 'This is the price', and he kept trying to dog me on it," he laughs. "He couldn’t get his head around giving that money to an English person for one that I’ve made.

"He’s breeding thousands a year in Argentina and one of his best is going to be from some gringo who has bought it in Yorkshire and ended up turning it into something."

Richardson sometimes looks at horses at the end-of-season racing sales to add to his line-up. The foremost requirement is that they are not more than 15.3 hands, and, while they tend to have been sprinters, Richardson pays more importance to judging their character.

"I’m not overly bothered by how they look as long as they’re not too tall," he says. "You can’t have them too big because then their action is a bit long and you struggle to get them really agile.

"The second thing is their temperament; they’ve got to be quiet. Ideally you want the ones that have flopped out of the stalls behind everyone else. You always know you’re onto a winner when their grooms are sad to see them go, that’s when you know you’ve got a nice quiet one.

"They need a bit of compassion about them because they’ve got to learn a whole other thing."

Racecourse results are of no importance. "They’re bred to be quick," he adds. "Even a slow thoroughbred is going to be quick enough to play polo. It might not be the best but it’ll play."

There’s little by way of prize-money in a sport almost entirely underpinned by private funding, and Richardson’s income is mostly derived from aficionados – 'patrons' – who pay him to play on their team.

He estimates that around 80 per cent of the success in a combination should come from the horse rather than the player, so to maintain his profile - and therefore his earnings - his mounts need to be top-class and have a sort of feeling for the game, even putting him in the right position to make shots.

As Richardson’s time is best spent prioritising his own career with the present members of the team, he uses others to bring the future constituents up through the grades. He might trial them from time to time but tries not to tempt himself to promote horses before they are ready, even if they appear exciting.

"One of mine, Orrell Post (a Kyllachy mare), seemed really easy and I thought I might sell her to a patron to play for fun," he says. "My brother had her and I played when she had just turned six.

"I got the ball once, saved a goal, and the field opened up. I asked her to go and she just went 'whoomph'. I thought, 'Where has this been for two years!' It was incredible, and then, ever since, she’s just got quicker and quicker. 

"Racing’s such a churn out numbers game but I think I ended up with some super quick, amazing horses because I just give them time to be themselves."

Luck in running

At the beginning Richardson would pay little attention to the pedigrees of his intake, but a few incidents have caused him to think again.

Although he tries not to spend more than £3,000 to £4,000 on any individual, he had once come across one by supersire Pivotal that proved to be particularly adept and was made a very decent offer for it by a member of Arabian royalty.

"I soon realised when I went back to the sales that most Pivotals were a bit out of my price range," he recalls. 

Another time, he had a remarkable stroke of luck when one maiden mare’s page was suddenly spun upside down by becoming a half-sister to the Fillies’ Mile winner Pretty Gorgeous. Fortunately, all the passport details were already in the hands of bloodstock agent Billy Jackson Stops, an old friend and associate.

"Billy rang up and asked, 'Have you still got that chestnut?' I said, 'Yeah, she’s okay, a pretty average polo pony to be honest'. He said, 'Her sister is running in a Group 1 tomorrow - we might be in the money here'. 

"I suppose she would have maybe been worth £6,000 as a polo pony but we got a fair bit more than that [for breeding]. You do get the odd one. Billy has it all tracked so we’re not sitting on a gold mine and teaching it to play polo!"

Richardson had otherwise tended to remember the sires that he should avoid until the discovery of one who he believes could have been the holy grail, his Galileo with a mallet.

"Kyllachy was just throwing polo ponies for some reason," he recalls. "I found I had about four of them and I started to get as many as I could as I pretty much knew they would play."

While the champion sprinter is now pensioned and infertile, it did not deter Richardson from approaching Cheveley Park Stud to see if he could clone him. It is a concept that he still thinks could work.

"The Pieres family, big breeders in Argentina, had Rainbow Corner (a son of Rainbow Quest who was once second to the great Arazi) and crossed him with polo mares, a lot of their breed has come from that," he explains before pulling out a video on his phone.

"I bought this Kyllachy with Billy at the Tattersalls February Sale, Chiarodiluna (placed twice in 13 starts for Charlie McBride), I didn’t need to teach her, she did it all. It was incredible. 

"She’s so collected, not even caring about the ball after just a couple of months of training. She’s only five but she’s the best I’ve ever had. She’s unbelievable."

A unique species

Like a trainer spotting a two-year-old take off on its first serious work on the gallops, it is the expectation from a talent such as Chiarodiluna emerging which now provides Richardson’s greatest job satisfaction.

Thoroughbreds have sustained his career for 13 seasons and he has played in surreal locations across the world, from an event on artificial snow in China to accepting what sounded a rather hairy assignment to Lagos.

"You do get to do some incredible things, of course," he says. "But honestly, 90 per cent of the time it’s just me and Carlos out here, doing some pretty mundane stuff."

Back out on the field, Richardson’s detailed explanations of matchplay and the minutiae of each pony’s tack and characteristics would probably be of more use to readers of Polo Times than the Racing Post.

However, to an onlooker whose perception of the sport has regrettably run little further than visions of high society and the clinking of champagne glasses, it is a genuine revelation to see how Jaga, Harmony and co have managed to gain such exceptional craft and discipline in their second lives.

"They learn so quickly," says Richardson. "I don’t think people realise how amazing the thoroughbreds are. There’s no other horse breed where they race, they play polo, they three-day event. People don’t realise how clever they are."

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Kyllachy was just throwing polo ponies for some reason. I found I had about four of them and I started to get as many as I could
E.W. Terms