Polo players Ruki Baillieu (front) and Nick Myers prepare for the Melbourne leg of Polo in the City. Photo: Simon Schluter
Serious horsepower will shake Melbourne's Albert Park on Saturday afternoon, but there won't be a racing car in sight.
The Polo in the City summer series will instead blend fair dinkum equine-style horse power with the silky skills of mallet-wielding professional riders and a social event that is developing a reputation to rival the Spring Racing Carnival's “Birdcage” marquees.
Polo in Australia has traditionally been caught between an image of being accessible only to the wealthy upper class, and the reality of being played predominantly in far-flung locations by mostly rural types – neither of which was enticing to middle-class city dwellers or corporate sponsors.
The answer, according to promoter Janek Gazecki and his business partner, Australian-bred international polo player Ruki Baillieu, was to bring polo to the people, both in location and popular appeal.
Polo in the City kicked off – or chukkaed - seven years ago in Sydney and has grown into a five-city, five-week series through November and December.
This year's edition in Albert Park will include a VIP marquee, a bar area capable of hosting up to 1000 patrons and 55 corporate marquees, a three-fold increase from 17 last year.
Around 3000 patrons are expected on Saturday and more than 15,000 over the course of the series, which moves on to Perth and Adelaide over the next two weekends.
"When we first came on the scene, polo in this country was perceived as an elitist sport and there were a few before us who had attempted to market the sport in that way, as the sport of kings, for instance. We think that's complete nonsense, particularly in Australia," Mr Gazecki said.
"Here, it's a grass-roots sport with the custodians being the farmers. Most of the professional polo players coming out of Australia and New Zealand are kids off the farm, they've access to horses and they just start playing polo. They're down to earth and they've got nothing to do with the elitist concept polo as it is understood in the UK.
"It does represent achievement and aspiration, and to be good at polo, to play it at the highest level, you've got to reach incredible heights of dedication and talent so it still represents that concept of excellence and success, but for different reasons."
Mr Gazecki said the popularity of polo had taken off not just due to the game itself, which he describes as "phenomenally exciting", but also because it is highly social but less formal than its horse racing equivalent, the Spring Racing Carnival.
"It's a lot more casual - overly fancy frocks and fascinators and silly hats are discouraged at the polo," he said. "It's about sensible, stylish dress, which makes for a far more relaxed and casual atmosphere."
Spectators are also encouraged to join the half-time "divot stomp", while some of the sport's top professional players - including Baillieu and Australian team captain Glen Gilmore - visit sponsor marquees before and after the game to meet fans and explain the rules to newcomers.
Baillieu is one of Australia's marquee players, touring the world and playing professionally in Britain, the US and Argentina. The latter is the game's acknowledged home, where games are played in an MCG-style arena before up to 60,000 spectators.
The 35-year-old Victorian is also a nephew of Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu and has been described by one publication as "a charming devil on horseback".
Mr Gazecki described the players who will contest Saturday's centrepiece professional match - one of two being played alongside a pro-am curtain raiser - as world-class athletes.
"It's a combination of hockey, rugby and I'd even throw yoga in there because it just requires so much core strength because you're on a horse and having to swing your mallet left and right and lean off the horse," he said.
"It's an amazing combinaton of physical and mental qualities that are required at the professional level."