STANDFIRST - Marcus Speed is among English polo’s most promising young players, yet to become a professional in the sport of princes and aristos, he must do so on a budget.
But overcoming odds is nothing new to the 13-year-old. Three years ago, he broke his neck in a car accident, and now he juggles his daily equine demands with schoolwork and helping to care for his younger brother.
Even among sport’s most eclectic fans, polo probably ranks, at best, on the periphery of their knowledge. At worst, it’s seen as a closed shop for aristocrats and the unimaginably wealthy; a niche hobby dripping in privilege. Images of immaculately-dressed It Girls and minor royalty treading hoof-torn divots back into the pitch between chukkas, champagne flute perched in hand, don’t help to dissolve this stereotype.
Just by the costly nature of equestrianism, polo is unlikely to leap from the country estate to council estate any time soon.But the sport’s UK governing body, the Hurlingham Polo Association, is at least making the right noises. Encouraging talented young players without limitless cashflow behind them, like Marcus, is a start. “It comes across as a rich man’s hobby, but it’s very much a professional sport now,” said Marcus’ mum Camilla.
“HPA are trying to create a junior polo scene to compete internationally. “For the last 20 years very little has been done here to help develop people who don’t have lots of ready cash, but now they are trying to help those with talent rather than just those with big cheque books.” The first call from Hurlingham came in 2014 when Marcus was invited to join their development squad. The fact he has retained his place is a tribute to his talent; denying the selectors an opportunity to revert to archaic type and make choices based on social standing.
His good form this summer led to a call-up to captain an HPA Select Young England team at Ham Polo Club where he scored three of his winning team’s five goals and discovered a taste for the big occasion. “It was one of the best matches I’ve ever played,” he said. “I loved the crowds and the commentary - it was one of the best feelings.” But perhaps the biggest step came when selected by the HPA’s development committee for specialist coaching in South Africa later this month.
During the 10-day camp in his dad Murray’s homeland, he will work with world-renowned South African coach and player Buster Mackenzie. “Getting picked was probably my proudest achievement in polo, as well as playing for Young England. ”I’m going to be playing on really good horses and learning from the best polo coach in the world. “It will really help me and keep me ticking over during the winter.”
But celebrating this landmark step in his fledgling career had to be tempered. First there was the considerable matter of finding the £2,300 shortfall to fund the trip. Almost as soon as the email landed, fundraising plans were hurriedly drawn up. Odd jobs in local villages allied to events and donations saw the target met, to his surprise, within the tightest of timescales.
Even at the age of 13, Marcus is used to making things happen for himself. “A lot of his friends that play polo have quite a lot of help,” Camilla added. “Marcus earns money by goal judging at polo matches to help pay for the entry fees. He is happy to work to do that.” Marcus added: “A lot of my friends rely on grooms; they can’t even tack a horse! “Having help is good, but when I’m at tournaments, it’s nice to be able to do it all myself. “I always bandage my horses and tack them. That’s how I like to do it.”
Barring a rebellious streak, his route into polo seemed pretty inevitable; it was in the blood.Both his mum and uncle played pony club polo when growing up and his grandmother started running a local club in Rutland. While most babies are coming to terms with crawling, at nine months Marcus had a pony, and by the age of four he was weaned onto the sport through his grandmother’s mini polo sessions. Cottesmore Pony Club introduced him to the full spectrum of equestrian sport a few years later, but it was the game of hockey on horseback which grabbed him. “It really clicked with me. I used to love rugby and cricket and always loved ball games, but I would probably pick polo over rugby now. “It’s a very good rush and gets your adrenalin going. It’s very fast and very physical – my fastest horse could go about 40mph full throttle.”
But it took an unusual and unwelcome turn of fate to intervene and fully focus his mind on polo. Marcus was coming home with a former au pere when the car crashed on a bend just a few miles from their Edmonthorpe farm. “I felt it coming before it happened,” he said. “Before we got to the corner I felt really strange. I closed my eyes and then there was a lot of smoke and there I was. “I can’t remember much, but I remember the driver’s side of the car being pretty bad, but my side was totally dented. “The main shock kicked in five minutes after it had happened when I saw the car.”
As well as the psychological hangover, the collision also left him with a broken neck. Months in a stiff protective collar followed, and bouts of pain endured for a year. The impact also sent his pelvis slightly out of line which needs treatment to correct. The neck is now, thankfully, healed, but medical advice forced the young boy to make a difficult sacrifice.
Camilla explained: “After the car accident he was advised he could go back and play rugby again, but injury would be very likely so he wasn’t going to do that.” Marcus added: “I was really upset - rugby was my main sport at the time; I missed it a lot. “I was off all sport and even running for about four months which was hard for me. “At school I was constantly tapping my foot under my desk - there was nothing I could do to get rid of any energy. “I could probably play rugby now, but wouldn’t want to take the risk - I have to take a bit more care of my body.”
A month before the accident, Marcus had been named the country’s most promising under 10s player and was awarded the Robert Thornloe Trophy. The accolade, combined with the extra motivation and pent-up drive from his frustrating lay-off, was a powerful spur. “It was a very difficult winter for him, but he determined from that point to focus on his polo,” Camilla added. “He couldn’t ride, but he spent the whole winter planning for the next step, and the moment he got the okay from the spinal team he got back in the polo team and there was even more determination.”
And yet polo may not be everyone’s idea of a gentle route back into sport. “It’s like playing hockey and adding eight horses into the mix,” Marcus explained. “You get shoulder barging: that’s probably the roughest part of it. “But the most serious accidents are when people are hit by the polo ball. “I’ve been hit by the ball and the stick a couple of times and had a lot of close calls.” Being loaned his first proper polo pony allowed him to compete alongside adults and fast-track his development. While Rutland Polo Club remained his home club, to get regular game time during the season, the family had to up sticks and chase the sport to the south of England where most clubs are based.
He became a leading junior and demand grew for his services at senior level, too. But talent and potential will only get you so far. To succeed in turning the game he loves into a career, other financial and social realities must be faced. “It depends on who your connections are; it’s who you know that really helps,” Marcus admitted. “If you aren’t one of the big English polo families and not friends with them you have to really work for it.” The English game can attract the world’s best players, particularly from the sport’s traditional hotbed of Argentina. Most full-time professionals are reliant on wealthy patrons, and some players will be employed to look after their string of horses. “Hopefully I will go down and join a big yard in the south somewhere and take it from there,” Marcus added.
“You can look after horses and do the dirty jobs which gets you credit. “You can also get paid by the rich older players to make their games look better.” The lucky few will join one of the sports big employers such as King Power, the Thai travel retail group who also own Premier League champions Leicester City. Yet making a living from polo may not be as fanciful as it sounds to the uninitiated “In certain areas, in the south of England you can find whole villages employed by polo,” Camilla said.If Marcus lands on his feet with King Power or fellow overseas-backed giants, Dubai, it will take a bulletproof willpower and a heap of hard work to do so.
Starting with the horse power. A readymade polo pony, as you will expect by now, doesn’t come cheap. “He wants to be a professional player so he is trying to think about making his own polo ponies which is a more cost effective way of doing it,” Camilla said. “We take race horses who have finished their careers, or haven’t been cut out for racing, and retrain them. “But he is only 13 and racehorses can be a big challenge.” Whether through his upbringing, his outlook or experience, Marcus seems out of step with your average early teen; self-motivated and unafraid of independence.
“I’ve learnt from my parents, friends, and through trial and error, how to look after my own ponies,” he said. “I’m almost solely in charge of their fitness, feeding and match preparation, as well as my own. “Polo ponies have to be fast and able to stop nicely and turn sharply. And they have to be strong.” As well as the never-ending attention that equine care demands and the demands of education, Marcus is also part-time carer to his younger brother. Eleven-year-old Toby has quadriplegic cerebral palsy, leaving him wheelchair-bound and an epileptic. His condition requires constant monitoring and regular lengthy hospital stays. Marcus has had to grow up accustomed to his family being separated for months at a time.
“My mornings consist of getting up and if Toby’s not awake I will do the horses, eat breakfast and then get Toby, do some school work, check the horses and then do a long period of work. “You get used to it - it could be a lot worse. “Being home schooled I have to focus on things - I can’t take shortcuts. “When I was nine I took the most ridiculous shortcuts and then you find out there’s no point in doing that.” Mum Camilla believes her eldest son’s advanced maturity comes conditioned by necessity.
“He is a lot more grown up than a lot of his peers because he has had to be.” Despite such attributes, mum and dad still want Marcus to have the precious freedom and time that childhood affords to chase dream They are keen to put the emphasis on Marcus when the polo season returns every April. “He does pony club polo during the summer months so we set off on great road trips. “This year we also did that with junior HPA tournaments for the more serious players - so we set off with all three children and we camp. “Polo is Marcus’ focus and it’s his time which, as a family, is why we put all our energies into it.”