Tiva Gross’ birthday party was not your run-of-the-mill affair. First, it was held outdoors – on a polo ground no less. Secondly, Tiva had just turned 21 – that magical age where many young adults feel they have earned the stripes of adulthood thrust on them three years earlier.
But the sweetener was undoubtedly a famous victory for Tiva’s new pony, which had been crowned the winner at the Samsung Galaxy Nairobi Polo Tournament held in Nairobi.
So, as the Gross family invited spectators and polo players to join them for cupcakes and cocktails in front of the club house, a smiling Tiva only had kind words for her father, Mr Gross, who had imported the winning pony from South Africa.
Then a birthday song burst from the crowd and Tiva beamed. It felt nice. It was as if everyone on the grounds knew her.
Welcome to the world of polo families where the easy camaraderie of spectators and participants at tournaments and bonds forged by clubs make it only natural that the Gross’s would choose to hold their daughter’s birthday on the polo grounds in the company of some of Kenya’s well-known and admired personalities.
Though many of the families shy away from the public limelight, a few are willing to talk about polo and the central role it plays in their lives.
Antony Gross, a well-respected lawyer with AF Gross & Co Advocates, Gideon Moi, Raphael Nzomo, Philip Arungah, the Grammaticas, Somaias and Griffiths are some of the more prominent polo families. Almost the whole Gross family are keen players of the sport.
Then there are the flamboyant bachelors who have come to love the sport. Among them is Tim Chesire, 28, a UK-trained lawyer and successful farmer who runs the genetic firm Indicus. The other is Chris Foot, a farmer, radio presenter and juggler of “other things”.
“I wouldn’t say we are a polo family. There are a few families that are prominent. But you tend to find that a polo club is more of a club of families. You play together, you chat together and you form very strong bonds of friendship,” says Chesire.
His interest in polo started while he was in school. He played it on and off in 2005 in England before coming back to Kenya where he took it more seriously. While in the UK, he would hire ponies. But back in Kenya, he approached an Argentine pro and bought his first two locally-bred ponies before importing several others.
The game is hard on the animals and Chesire says serious players need to have a steady string of ponies, which calls for commitment.
Arungah, another regular on the polo scene, says it is tough to raise ponies so he prefers to import. Arungah got hooked to polo from watching. “I was invited for a game of polo about 12 years ago at Rolf’s Place in Kitengela by a friend, and I got interested. The late Rolf Schmidt was a keen player.
“I had a close friend who was playing at the time. He was actually the one who had invited me to go and watch. After the game, I went to him and said I wanted to ride. I didn’t know how to ride a horse. He took me to his stable and that’s where I learnt.”
Arungah says that after riding for two to three months, he started playing polo using his friend’s ponies, who later sold him three of the animals. He now has 12 ponies which he shares with his 13-year-old son, Omwakwe, who developed an interest in the game after watching his father play.
“Saturday and Sunday are family days so I used to come here with my son. He got interested and asked if he could play and I said why not. Today was his first polo tournament. Usually, when you start playing, you start at handicap -2. I’m glad that he has improved his handicap to -1.5,” says Arungah.
Arungah says that while he is happy to have his son for company, he would be content when the time comes to hand over the mantle to Omwakwe. Also cheering on the sidelines on the day was Arungah’s wife and his four daughters.
“Where my wife used to find her own things to do on Saturday and Sunday, now she has no choice but to come and support her family. So it’s a sport that helps us spend the weekend together as a family.”
Arungah says that his groom also plays because that is the only way ponies can be taught the game. He also dismisses claims that the sport is expensive.
“Expensive is relative. I think it’s not as expensive as people think. This is the problem that we have had in the country. People have thought of it as a white man’s sport. I don’t think so. I believe there are a lot of Kenyans that can afford to play the sport and perfect it.”
Foot, however, admits that for a long time, polo was a sport played by whites. But he says the picture is slowly changing as more indigenous, black Kenyans get hooked to the game.
“What I like about the Kenyan game is that it is a lot more mixed today than it was traditionally. We have a lot more indigenous Kenyans playing. There have always been a large number of white Kenyans who played polo. In terms of indigenous Kenyans, we have the largest number ever and it is growing. The kids winning prizes now are all indigenous Kenyans. Gideon Moi’s sons Kigen and Kimoi, Arungah’s son Omwakwe, Nzomo’s daughter Hiromi.... there are a whole lot of guys playing in this great sport today and we love the cosmopolitan mix because that’s what we are as Kenyans,” says Foot.
Foot, who also got interested in polo at a young age, says he was afraid of joining the sport because of the myths.
“I always wanted to play but the problem was I thought polo was full of rich, spoilt kids. Then I met a whole lot of farmers who played (in Oxford, England) and they invited me to play with them. So when I came back to Kenya after school, I carried on playing,” he says.
He attributes his love for the game to his love of horses. “I have ridden quite a lot in my life. I also worked in Argentina as a cowboy for a year, when I was younger.”
When in England – just like Chesire – Foot hired ponies to play but was compelled to buy the animals when he returned to Kenya.
“I started off with some quiet shenzi (hopeless) ponies and gradually over time, you invest in better ones until you end up with quite a good string of horses. But it’s always tricky when you start off because you are not always good – and you need good ponies. Ponies are about 70 per cent of the game,” Foot says.
According to him, and other players agree, the biggest expense in playing polo is buying ponies. “But once you have taken that heat, especially in Kenya, it becomes affordable,” he says.
Foot has five ponies. He says the price for a pony is between Sh100,000 to Sh1 million depending on quality and breed. His favourite pony is called Zambezi, a big, strong animal he imported from South Africa.
While the ponies are normally between four to six years old, Foot says the one he rode at the Samsung Galaxy tournament was 18 years.
South Africa is a favourite country for the imports because its polo programme is well-developed and it has a fairly large number of polo horse breeders. According to Chesire, it’s also cheaper to import than get one off the track.
“The biggest challenge in buying the horses locally is that there are a lot of players and demand is higher than the number of horses available. So a lot of people go to South Africa.”