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Cowdray Park Polo Club at Midhurst is celebrating its centenary this year and has hosted the most coveted trophy in the sport – the fabulous Cowdray Park Gold Cup since it was launched in 1956...
MIDHURST comes alive at the start of the polo season with grooms and players flying in from all over the world to work the Cowdray season from April through to the end of September.
Around 450 matches take place annually a far cry from the modest single week of competitions when the club was formed by the Hon. Harold Pearson a century ago.
Harold was son of the noted Victorian industrialist and engineer Sir Weetman Dickinson Pearson who became the first Viscount Cowdray in 1917. He had played polo at Oxford and after Sir Weetman purchased the estate in 1909, a polo ground was laid out at Cowdray House and another alongside a bend in the River Rother close to the Cowdray Ruins.
Harold moved to Capron House in Midhurst with his wife and young family and by 1910 he and his brothers were inviting family friends to play at their grounds. The new Cowdray Park Polo Club offered chukkas (practice games) from April through to August but for competitive polo the Capron House team travelled to the Hurlingham, Roehampton or Ranelagh clubs in London with ponies transported by rail or road.
Cowdray Parks own tournament season came to life when the annual festival of horseracing took place at nearby Goodwood, the principal cup being the Cowdray Park Challenge Cup still played for today.
When Harold inherited the estate in 1919, becoming the 2nd Viscount Cowdray, he re-named his Capron House team Cowdray Park. Once again it was yellow that was the colour chosen for the Cowdray Park team which is still used by the home side today. The new Lord Cowdrays only son, John, shared his fathers enthusiasm for the sport. He too played throughout his time at Oxford but at home, being brought up with five sisters, was forced to play alongside the girls, three of whom played to a high standard.
Tragically, in 1933 Lord Cowdray died aged just 51 and John, at 23, inherited the estate. He was to prove even more important to the polo world than his father. He was determined to introduce polo to a greater number of players and spectators and by the 1930s as many as 5,000 spectators regularly attended Cowdray Parks Goodwood Week polo tournaments which took place following the afternoon racing with visitors coming on from the track to enjoy the sport, tea parties and social events.
Polo came to an abrupt halt at the start of World War II. The majority of players were called up and ponies were put out to grass. The grounds at Hurlingham and Roehampton were ploughed up to assist the war effort to grow home-produced food. Cowdray Parks polo pitches were used for agriculture and the House was used by the Royal Army Service Corp.
John Cowdray survived the war despite losing an arm in the battle for Dunkirk. Immediately after the war, he single-mindedly pursued a renaissance of the sport he loved so much. Equipping himself with a prosthetic arm designed by his gun makers and fitted at Roehampton Hospital, he re-formed his Cowdray Park team and encouraged family members and friends back into the sport. A few of the pre-war Cowdray ponies were still alive but Lord Cowdray set about importing 50 ponies by ship from the Argentine, a country he had enjoyed visiting before the war, By summer 1947 John Cowdray was organising tournaments at Cowdray Park once again, although there was a serious shortage of players and often the matches were three-a-side.
The early 1950s saw Cowdray Park firmly back on the map with spectators flocking to the grounds to catch a glimpse of Princess Elizabeth and to see her dashing husband Prince Philip play. The prince had been encouraged into the sport by his uncle Lord Mountbatten. Prince Philip then had a handicap of 3 and became a regular player for the Cowdray Park team.
By 1953, the year of Queen Elizabeths coronation, Cowdray Park was, without question, the centre of English polo. Lord Cowdray arranged an international tournament of six teams to play for the Coronation Cup England, USA, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Spain. Argentina beat England in the Final. An estimated 15,000 spectators turned up. That year, the business community of Midhurst presented John Cowdray with The Midhurst Town Cup to thank him for bringing prominence to the town through the sport of polo.
When the Duke of Edinburgh, with John Cowdrays help and advice, formed his own polo club, the Household Brigade Club (later to become Guards), in Windsor Great Park, the Coronation Cup was given a new home at Windsor. This encouraged John Cowdray to launch his own major tournament and the Cowdray Park Gold Cup was born. It was a huge success even though the Cowdray Park home side was beaten in the Final in the first year. Winners in 1958, 1961 and 1962, the Cowdray team was to appear in the Final eleven more times, losing out on each occasion the most memorable being in 1990 when the match went into two extra chukkas and Hildon at last snatched victory at 10-9 to scarcely a dry eye on the grandstand.
The 1970s saw polo beginning to change with a decline in the number of amateur gentlemen players and a rise in the number of professional players in each team. Once upon a time, overseas players had sold a few horses to their English patrons to cover the cost of their polo season but now the days of the well-paid professional began.
Another generation of the Royal family appeared at Cowdray when Prince Charles first came to play with Les Diables Bleus in 1979. A shy but particularly attractive young woman called Lady Diana Spencer accompanied him in 1980. Prince Charles was seen at Cowdray on many occasions during his polo career, which sadly ended in 2003 when he retired from the sport through long-term back problems.
It was with great sorrow that the polo community learned of the death of John Cowdray, the Father of British Polo, in January 1995. Not only had he made Cowdray Park a mecca for polo enthusiasts from all over the globe, he had raised awareness of the sport and set many young players on the path to success as professional players.
Most of the UKs best polo prospects have come up through the ranks of the Pony Club and in 1977 John Cowdray was delighted to offer the National Pony Club Polo Championships a home at Cowdray Park.
Encouraging youth polo remained one of his most heartfelt aims. He had also served as Chairman of the Hurlingham Polo Association, governing body of the sport in the UK, from 1947 to 1967, whilst simultaneously running a huge portfolio of business interests, two large country estates and the polo club itself. Tributes were paid to his legacy from every part of the polo world.
Today, Cowdray Park plays more polo than any other club in the UK with 10 perfectly tended pitches and a full programme of tournaments including the annual St Regis International Cup and the vibrant four weeks of the world famous Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup for the British Open. The arrival of Veuve Clicquot as title sponsors of the Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup fifteen years ago has blossomed into a perfectly harmonious partnership.
In 2010 the Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup tournament opened on 23rd June with some 40 matches in prospect and the worlds best players in action. Quarter Finals take place on the weekend of 10th-11th July with Semi Finals on Thursday 15th July.
At the Final on Sunday 18th July, a shopping village of some 90 tradestands selling all kinds of country goodies, a mini funfair, bars and food outlets complement the world class sport to offer a fantastic day out.
In this, its Centenary year, the founder of the Club, Harold Pearson, 2nd Viscount Cowdray, would no doubt be astonished at the scale of the clubs expansion, the majority of which took place during the 60-year guardianship of his son John Cowdray, 3rd Viscount.
He would, however, feel completely at home with the vivacious colour which epitomises the charming and historic town of Midhurst!
To book tickets call the ticket line on 01730 814110 or book online at www.cowdraypolo.co.uk. Entrance on Sunday 18th July for the Final of the Veuve Clicquot Gold Cup is 15 per person, under 12s free, with free parking. Grandstand seats are available from 30, entrance included.