It all started with the infamous Bubbles, a grey Welsh Mountain pony who was a loan from Galen Weston, the patron of the hugely successful Maple Leafs high goal team. But Bubbles was no pussy cat as Oli remembers. “Everyone fell off Bubbles, even Dad, I think she bucked me off really badly in the yard so Dad got on her and she just ran straight through the fence, so we spent the rest of the afternoon fixing the line of fencing”.
But Bubbles was certainly no polo pony. There were no strings of child-friendly fluffies for the young Hipwood. His parents divorced when he was young and his father was either away playing around the world or based at his polo yard, whilst Oli lived with his mother. “Polo wasn’t something that was on a plate, I couldn’t just arrive back from school , go and stick and ball or go for a ride. It was more like come home from school and get on with your homework or go and kick a football around or run across the fields.” But polo was still ever present – an omnipresent force quietly simmering throughout his childhood. Every other weekend during the summer he would visit his father, inevitably ending up doing something polo-orientated and it was this contact that kept the dream of one day playing on slow burn.
Roddy Williams was a neighbour and the contrast between the two children was marked as Oli remembers. “When Roddy was 10 years old he had a string of polo ponies and was already playing. By the age of 12 he was taking the penalties in the 8 goal and I hadn’t even played a game of polo yet. I would go and watch him at Cirencester, wearing his bandanas and looking cool, the ‘Hot Rod ’as he became known . It must have been frustrating as by his own admission all Oli wanted to do was to play polo. But let’s not get the violins out just yet. Like most polo players who have the talent to ultimately turn professional Oli was a natural sportsman and despite his polo dreams he excelled at other sports, playing football for the South of England schools, County level rugby, squash and hockey. He also played in Junior Wimbledon.
But despite this huge success in other disciplines, it was still polo that was his passion. By his early teens, Oli was able to start stick and balling some of his father’s horses and in an Easter holiday went to California where Howard was playing for the Prince of Pahang. At 14, Pony Club beckoned. Two seasons playing Loriner for the Beaufort with Luke and Emma Tomlinson was Oli’s polo debut. It was then that the reality of being a Hipwood dawned. “Dad was 9 goals, he was top of the world and expectations of me were enormous; everyone would say, ‘That’s Howard’s boy’, I was always introduced as Howard’s son. Everyone just assumed I had had plenty of stick and balling from a young age, whereas I’d only been doing a few odd weekends over the summers. When I was strong enough to actually ride some of Dad’s horses that were playing the high goal a few more opportunities to learn polo opened up.
Pony Club holds fond memories, the camaraderie of camping at Cowdray, the thrill of the inevitable run-downs. But again, Oli’s Dad was part of the equation. “Dad came to Cowdray the second year we went down there and he got mobbed, you know he was a 9 goal player and all the Mums were swarming around him. I think he decided then he wasn’t doing that again and nor was I.
At 16 years of age Oli groomed for his father, then at 17 he went to Black Bears with Brett Badham and was given charge of six of Urs Schwarzenbach’s low goal string. It was the usual grooming deal, playing them in chukkas when there was space and spare holding at the high goal games. The next year, in 1993 Urs’ bad luck when he broke his leg on the Cresta Run turned out to be Oli’s big break, if you will forgive the pun. “They asked me whether I would play instead of him which obviously was a no-brainer. So that was that, Oli’s first proper game of polo outside his two seasons of Pony Club was the Queen’s Cup, and in his own words “as green as they come”. If that wasn’t enough, the team (Sebby & Pite Merlos with Jason Dixon) won against Ellerston despite Cambiaso’s best attempts. So how did it feel? “I was physically strong enough, mentally I had seen polo since I’d been little, I knew the game but I just hadn’t actually done it. Weirdly enough it was kind of normal, it was almost as I had expected it to be, I wasn’t nervous and I wasn’t intimidated because I had grown up around it.”
Despite a Queen’s Cup win at only 18, Oli’s father wanted him to turn his back on the polo game and focus on a career in the Army. Howard knew how hard it was to make a go of it as a professional player. Maybe he saw that the game was changing, that the old guard were being replaced by a new breed of player and more importantly patron – that the business was getting more cut throat, more commercial, more challenging. Whatever the reason, in the summer of 1994 Oli was due to join the Army, the recruitment tests had been done and it was all set. In the interim he was based at Edgeworth working alongside Simon Keyte for John P Smail, working hard but learning a lot too.
Then the phone rang a week before the start of the Army Commission. It was Eddie Kennedy who ran the Maple Leaf high goal operation for Galen Weston. Would Oli like to go for a trial at Coworth for the team? He got the ride and that was the end of the Army idea. Victory in The Prince Of Wales (at that stage still 22 goal) was the big success of the season. Alongside teammates Mike Azzaro and Memo Gracida they got to the semi’s of the Queen’s Cup, but a double whammy win was not on the cards. “Playing with Memo was in way the first constructive polo teacher I had other than my Dad”.
The next year Oli was based at the Royal Berkshire playing the 8 goal with Jean-Francois Decaux with Michael Amoore and Jamie Le Hardy. One day Oli was at Guards with his father watching a Les Lions Queen’s Cup game when James Glasson had a fall and broke his hand. In borrowed boots Oli helped to win the game and was then asked to play the rest of the Queen’s Cup with Les Lions. They were beaten in the semi’s by Alcatel who went on to win the tournament.
So that left the Gold Cup still to play for. The expectation was that James Glasson would be fit again in time, so Oli was not formally asked to play for Les Lions. In the meantime the phone rang again. This time it was Gonzalo Pieres with the big call up. Ellerston. In The Gold Cup. At the height of their awesomeness. It doesn’t get much better that that. “Playing for Ellerston was something else, that was when you knew the pressure was on. The difference was that I had 35 horses to pick from. It was great being aligned with these high goal teams and they were the ones who really kicked me off as far as putting me into polo tournaments”. What probably kicked off Oli’s polo tournament career is the fact that he won The Gold Cup that year for Ellerston at just 20 years of age. Call it luck, call it being in the right place at the right time, or call it sheer talent – but that is some achievement.
Perhaps almost more important than the win was his father’s praise. “He has always been my harshest critic and the driving force to keep fighting away. There was no wimping out. It was, ‘Why didn’t you stop that guy scoring a try? Why didn’t you tackle him?’ It was quite tough, he was very strong. When we won The Gold Cup and was awarded Most Valuable Player it was the first time he had ever said, ‘That was really good, you played really well’ – it was my first ever proper compliment. I knew it meant something then”.
Critics of the way polo is run in the UK may say that Oli and his contemporaries had it easier than today’s young British professionals. Back then each team had to have a UK player on the team. Due to a quirk of EU legislation that means Europeans are now equally entitled to the UK player’s slots it has become harder for the young to get rides in the high goal. But in the good old days, the UK player slot gave the young pros a great foundation to come through polo. Oli explains, “ I was four goals before I knew it and along the way I had picked up five or six horses. I got a little truck and with the next stage of money I received, I went into Argosy and bought my saddles, bridles and equipment so I had all my stuff – so when I got sling-shotted out of the high goal, I had everything that I needed and could stand on my own two feet.”
There are many young polo players, who, to coin Oli’s words are ‘sling-shotted out of the high goal’ who never go on to make it on their own. But Oli has made a success of his professional career. After his high goal run he was based with Rick Stowe’s Geebung from1999 to 2007, spending the winters in Perth building up his string with Australian horses. This was where he first went to 6 goals and ended up with a fantastic string of Stowe ponies.
So, a full 17 years after that Ellerston win, Oli is rated at 6 goals and through hard work has earnt his place in the top ten British players. Over the last few winters, he has made the conscious decision to stay mostly in the UK and Spain’s Sotogrande with the family, play arena polo and build up his young thoroughbred string, concentrating on bringing on the ponies rather than travelling to Argentina’s higher levels and gaining handicap-raising high profile polo. Oli is a gifted horseman and works hard on his horses and not many people will know that he actually makes all of his own horses; getting the majority off the track or from race sales. It is a slow and pain-staking process, that typically sees him getting a youngster at three years old and progressing slowly and steadily towards full playing maturity at seven or eight.
Last year he tackled the Arena Season with a strong string which has resulted in a phenomenal series of victories, not least of which was winning two titles in the HPA Arena Nationals at both the 16 goal and the 10 goal level for Altyon and Chemas respectively – a milestone which has seen his Arena handicap raised to 7. A fitting acknowledgement of his tenacity, hard work and skill competing on the all weather surface alongside the likes of Hyde, Bown and Good.
The Summer season for 2012 looks bright for Mr Hipwood. He has 15 goal lined up with Clarita Pink – the well-oiled, highly efficient Mathias setup as well as with long-term Guards stalwart, Mad Dogs patron Alan Fall. He joins the new Black Eagles patron Jonathon Munroe Ford at Guards also to play alongside Johnny Good in the 12 goal.
Looking to the future, Oli has his daughter Suriah. She looks set to follow her father’s upbringing around horses, regularly grappling with 24 year old New Forest pony Fudge, previously owned by his girlfriend. We have to ask – what if she wants to play polo for a living – will Dad Oli be a chip off the old block and advocate an alternative career? “I will probably be quite old school, like Dad was in a way. Make them earn it, I’m not just going to roll it out for them – they will have to go and get the horse and brush it, tack it up, do the hard work”.
Good common sense Oli. Where did you get that idea from?
With a surname like Hipwood the assumption is that Oli has had polo handed to him on a plate. The ultimate polo silver spoon.
But it soon becomes clear that he has had no easy leg up into polo, his five goal status has been hard fought, earned by the increasingly rare currency of raw talent, great horsemanship, hard work, perseverance and maybe just a little bit of luck.
Growing up with Howard Hipwood as his father, inevitably polo was in his blood and part of everyday life. “I felt like I was born in the saddle because I don’t remember ever not being on a horse or not being around them,” explains Oli. But that didn’t mean polo was readily available or encouraged. The truth is that Howard was busy being part of the phenomenon that was the Hipwood brothers as one of the best players in the world. Oli had to get on being with a kid, suppressing any polo dreams until he was big enough to get on his dad’s high goal string and hold his own. With a wry smile he sums up the way it was, “I always wanted to play, it was just more of a dream than a reality”.
But dreams sometimes do come true. Before his 20th birthday Oli had won the triumvirate of British High Goal. The Prince of Wales, The Queens’ Cup and The Gold Cup. So how did that happen?