Poona’s Polo

BY AJAI SINGH

Stationed in Bombay, where the Hussars would first land, was a native regiment with British officers, the Poona Light Horse. Most of the horse trading occurred in Bombay, and the Poona were thought to have the best ponies. In what Winston Churchill called an “audacious and colossal undertaking,” the 4th Hussars bought a complete polo stud of twenty-five horses from the Poona. This gave them a huge advantage of well-trained ponies immediately upon arrival at their duty station, Bangalore in the south of India.

The Hussars were out to win, and Winston’s letters home were full of the sport. “The polo here is very bad and I expect our subaltern’s team will easily beat the whole Bangalore garrison,” he wrote to his mother. “I have only played 3 times but have made many goals.” “I get up here at 5 o’clock every morning…ride off to parade at 6. At 8 o’clock breakfast and bath and such papers as there are: 9.15 to 10.45 Stables—and no other engagement till Polo at 4.15″

A polo game lasts an hour and is divided into periods or chukkas of seven minutes each, with short intervals in between. Churchill played in every chukka he could get into, usually ten or twelve. His prodigious efforts soon came to the notice of the Aga Khan. “It was at Poona in the late summer of 1896 that our paths first crossed, the Khan wrote later. “A group of officers of the Fourth Hussars, then stationed at Bangalore, called on me. I was ill at the time, but my cousin showed them my horses. He later told me that among them none had a keener, more discriminating eye, none was a better judge of a horse, than a young subaltern by the name of Winston Spencer Churchill. He was a little over twenty, eager, irrepressible, and already an enthusiastic, courageous, and promising polo player.”

In November 1896 Churchill’s team went to a tournament at Hyderabad, a 24-hour, 700-mile train journey. The prize was a silver cup worth 1000 rupees (£60). Winston told his mother that the entire population turned out to watch, not infrequently betting thousands of rupees:

This performance is a record: no English regiment ever having won a first-class tournament within a month of their arrival in India. The Indian papers express surprise and admiration. I will send you by the next mail some interesting instantaneous photographs of the match — in which you will remark me—fiercely struggling with turbaned warriors….Our final match against the Native contingent was witnessed by 8 or 9 thousand natives who wildly cheered every goal or stroke made by their countrymen—and were terribly disappointed.

Climax of the year was the Inter-Regimental Polo Tournament at Meerut, a thousand miles north of Bangalore, in March 1897. The reigning champion at that time was the veteran Durham Light Infantry. Churchill’s letters are filled with prospects for the match. But to the Hussars’ disappointment the Madras Governor-General, Sir Mansfield Clarke, refused them leave to attend the tournament. In the official biography Sir Winston’s son suggested that “he simply thought the 4th Hussars did not stand a chance.”

Churchill was fond of other horse sports; he participated in steeplechases, point-to-points and pleasure riding. In a letter to Jack in November 1896, he proudly noted that their father’s racing colours, chocolate and pink, would appear on Indian soil for the first time at a pony race meeting. In his 1930 autobiography Churchill would advise parents:

Don’t give your son money. As far as you can afford it give him horses. No one ever came to grief— except honourable grief—through riding horses. No hour of life is lost that is spent in the saddle. Young men have often been ruined through owning horses, or through backing horses, but never through riding them; unless of course they break their necks, which, taken at a gallop, is a very good death to die.

Churchill is second from the right in the above photograph. It shows British officers involved in the Inter-Regimental Polo Tournament at Meerut, 1899. Courtesy: the Elihu Rose Collection.