To say it’s been a few chukkas since the last holding of the New Zealand Polo Open would be a clichéd understatement. Two years of COVID restrictions and devastating floods wreaking havoc across the wider North Island region in 2023, resulting in the home of the Open, Auckland Polo’s Fisher Field in Clevedon, being under an estimated 1.5 metres of water, meant that February was the first time in three years the Open had been contested.

Finally, beneath the majestic vista of the Hunua Ranges and nestled in the Wairoa River Valley in Clevedon, Fisher Field played host to a sun drenched 47th playing of the New Zealand Polo Open. Spectators gathered to watch a real spectacle of polo, with the match regarded as possibly the best final since the Open’s debut in 1977.

“It's absolutely fantastic to have the crowds back at the Fisher Field to cheer on the polo teams,” says New Zealand Polo Open executive director Lucy Ainsley. “The weather was fantastic and it’s the best comeback the event could have had.”

Six teams vied for victory in the 16-goal tournament. Previous finalists Tiger Building were pitched against locals Brinks in the first semi-final. Tiger boasted experienced veterans Kit Brooks and John Paul Clarkin with Liam Parrott and Jay Wilson, but local advantage won out with Brinks advancing.

The other semi-final saw Team Kim Clifford Distillery, comprising Australian 5-goaler Lachie Gilmore, experienced Manawatu player Angus McKelvie, and Auckland locals Edward Elworthy Jones and Ethan Wade. This combination proved to be a formidable force throughout the week despite their relative youth. In the semi they displayed determination against the power and experience of Team Ecogas. However after the first few chukkas of the match Ecogas took a commanding lead qualifying for the final showdown against Brinks with a dominant victory.

In the curtain raiser matches Tiger Polo and Kim Clifford Distillery competed in the Fisher Challenge. Getting off to the best start possible with a brilliant Kit Brooks breakaway goal in the first 30 seconds of the match, Tiger took out the bronze 10-6 after a dominant final two chukkas. Rodd and Gunn competed against Cambridge Grains KHS in the Open Handicap playoff, taking the win 11-9 1/2 .

It’s hard to imagine a better showcase of polo at its best than the match spectators were gifted during the final between local favourites Brinks and Team Ecogas. Under blue skies the Open final was a true display of polo for the 4000-strong crowd worthy of any arena globally.

The end of the third chukka saw Ecogas take a 6-4 lead, Argentine 7-goaler Paco O’Dwyer showing his class. Not to be denied, Brinks’ player Matt der Brink, led by England captain James Harper alongside Jimbo Fewster, showed skill and composure to push Brinks to a one goal lead heading into the critical remaining minutes of the final chukka.

Team Ecogas found themselves trailing by a single goal, prompting a determined offensive against Team Brinks. Despite their relentless efforts they were unable to equalise. As the game reached its climax, a frantic struggle ensued near the Ecogas goal, raising hopes of a last-minute equaliser. However, Team Brinks demonstrated huge defensive prowess, managing to dismiss Ecogas' attempts and ultimately securing a hard-earned victory 9-8 in a suspenseful final chukka of a memorable final.

When the dust had settled Ecogas team member, the New Zealand-domiciled South African 2-goaler Bruce Fraser, was awarded the Most Valuable Player Trophy.

Lola, ridden by James Harper and bred by Ash Reader in Kekerengu on the South Island coast was named champion pony, while Shooter, owned by Thomas Hunt and ridden by Paco O'Dwyer, claimed the best retrained thoroughbred award.

Over 100 thoroughbreds were showcased throughout Polo Open week signifying the importance of the collaboration between polo and Love Racing New Zealand. It’s estimated that 80% of rehomed thoroughbreds end up with a second career playing polo. This initiative isn’t just something that happens locally as New Zealand thoroughbreds are cherished globally, both for playing and breeding due to their size, speed and manoeuvrability. “Argentine horses are very stocky and solid but over the last 20 years, they’ve got thinner, leaner and faster and quicker,” says Lucy. “Some of that is from the New Zealand thoroughbred bloodlines being bred in. It’s making the horses more athletic, faster, quicker, and more clever.”

Between the action on field there were plenty of activities for spectators to participate in. The ever present “stomping of the divots” let people stretch their legs with a relaxing walk across the field while the men’s and ladies’ 100m dash allowed those happier to run (or stumble) their way to a prize. After some intense competition the men’s winner was rewarded with a bottle of Kim Clifford 10/4 Spiced Rum, adding a touch of sophistication to their victory celebration. Meanwhile, the ladies' race victor earned herself a substantial magnum of Whispering Angel Rose from Provence. With its dusky pink branding the exclusive rose appeared to be a crowd favourite, especially with those who made the Whispering Angel VIP tent their destination.

In the highly anticipated crowd favourite horse vs horsepower race top Kiwi female player Georgie Duncan, fresh from victory over Australia with the New Zealand team at the Mystery Creek Festival of Polo, rode one of her own ponies against the might of the V8 Land Rover Defender from event sponsor Archibald and Shorter. A quick start and streamlined rodeo style barrel rounding saw Georgie take the lead after the first crossing of the field. However it was to be four wheel drive prevailing over four hoof drive as the Land Rover edged Georgie at the finish line.

Returning again in 2024, the Remix Fashion at the Polo allowed the more fashionably dressed to showcase their attire. This year’s show saw a record number of entries in both the men’s and women’s categories. Receiving enthusiastic support from a large crowd of spectators, entrants strutted their stuff in an effort to impress the judging team comprising Remix Magazine’s editor-in-chief Amber Baker, Robert Niwa of top New Zealand men’s fashion label Crane Brothers, and Sydney fashionista Sally Richardson from Australian clothing label Cable. With the final dress paraded and the last hat tipped Best Dressed Lady went to Amanda Lydford, Best Dressed Gentleman to Danny Rasam, with Robert William Adams taking out the Best Accessories prize.

Lucy was delighted with the successful event, emphasising the return of a high number of spectators to the Open. “The Polo was the best it's ever been,” she said. “Crowd numbers were double the 2020 event. The feedback I had from guests and sponsors on the day was they loved it. Comments like ‘best day’, ‘best polo’, ‘best event’ were common.” Major sponsors, Spanish brewing giant Estrella Damm expressed their interest in returning for the event in 2025. Lucy expects all sponsors from this year’s event will be back for next year.

When the polo was finished, the prizes awarded and the horses resting, The Edge Official Polo After Party rounded off what was undoubtedly an emphatic return of one of Auckland’s favourite social events.