In Style + Design

What It’s Really Like To Attend The Celebrity-Clad Portsea Polo

The pukka party that is the Portsea Polo isn’t just about the captains of industry and princesses of fashion letting their hair down; it’s about blokes letting their leg hair run free as well.

While it shares many champagne-swilling similarities with a day at the races in Flemington’s Birdcage, the polo is distinctly different in many ways, and the first thing you need to understand is the dress code.

Navigating the dress code

This year’s event was sponsored by Alfa Romeo, who plonked their pert and pretty cars on every spare piece of grass, which meant they were allowed to select the style statement for the year, which was “Italian summer casual”, and that turns out to be a long way from Derby Day’s simple, classic black and white approach.

While the female attendees – including Julie Bishop, Bec Judd, Asher Keddie and more – took a huge number of different approaches to this dress code, from flamenco dancer to Las Vegas showgirl to demure “just stepped off my yacht”, the men seemed to revel in the fact that, unlike the races, the polo welcomes the wearing of dress shorts.

And despite the fact that combining shorts with business attire – dress shoes (with no visible socks, of course), dress shirt and sports jacket – makes it look like they chose their outfits while in the midst of some existential crisis, it’s a hugely popular, almost compulsory look. Shaving or waxing your legs, however, is entirely optional, and there was plenty of Italian summer about the hirsute action going on.

Once you’ve mastered the dress code, which, in yet another way that polo beats the horse racing, doesn’t require a tie, you’re ready to get your head around just how exclusive the polo is.

Who’s who

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Rebecca Harding and Andy Lee. Image: Portsea Polo

Try to picture a large football ground that’s been designed in a completely inverse fashion – where 80 per cent of the seats are in corporate suites, leaving just 20 per cent, or possibly less, for the paying general public – and you’re part of the way to what the Alfa Romeo Portsea Polo is like.

Visitors are handed a map on the way in that shows a huge cluster of private marquees, each heavily plastered with sponsorship, and one tiny, tiddling and insignificant area on the far side of the field marked “General Admission”.

This tells you most of what you need to know about what kind of event this is. Yes, there’s a lot of corporate entertainment going on at Flemington and Randwick during their racing carnivals, but the majority of people at those events are still paying punters. The polo is different, darling, and far, far more exclusive. If you’ve actually had to pay to get in, or to buy a drink, you don’t really belong.

If you can snaffle a corporate invite, however, you’re in for some of the best people watching, and top-notch noshing, a day out standing in a field can provide. The Alfa marquee took pride of place this year, of course, and offered Italian food, cocktails and coffee of the highest order, and a man with a meat slicer whose job it was to keep the prosciutto pouring forth all day.

To make sure you sound like you belong, it’s a good idea to speak loudly about where you just spent Christmas – just make sure that it was somewhere with snow, and suitably expensive. Aspen is good, the Gold Coast is not.

It’s also important to ignore, or at least only tastefully acknowledge, all the famous people in attendance. Asking them for a selfie is hugely frowned upon – this is friendly territory after all – and if you’re important enough, someone will ask you to have your photo taken.

If they do, it seems appropriate to say “chi-chi” rather than cheese.

What about the actual polo?

As for the polo itself, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the players, and the commentators, and all the pretty horses, because no one, but no one, seems to watch the actual game. Partly this is because you’re all standing at ground level, about as high as the horses’ knobbly knees, and this makes it hard to see what’s going on.

It’s more the case, though, that no one seems to know how the game works (the scores often seem to include “half” goals, and no one can explain how they are half-scored), who any of the players are, nor what the rules are. Each game features “chukkas” rather than halves or quarters, however, which does at least appropriately rhyme with pukka.

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Image: Portsea Polo

They only last about seven minutes, but there seem to be a lot of them, and the players change their horses after each one. Which means, obviously that there are a lot of horses involved. One classy touch is that no one seems to bet on the results, at all, which, in our gambling-mad country, is both a pleasant change, and a huge surprise.

The bonus of all this, of course, is that you don’t have to pretend you know what’s going on on the polo field, nor pretend to watch it, because no one else does.

Fielding practice

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Stomping the divets at Portsea Polo 2019. Image: Portsea Polo

Fortunately, there are long breaks between the polo matches, during which the field becomes the venue for fashion contests, a strange and highly predictable race between a horse, a runner and a cyclist and, best of all, something called “stomping the divots”.

This is where everyone is invited on to the field to walk around and attempt to repair, using their shoes, the damage done by all those polo ponies. This can be tricky in high heels, and indeed in any shoes, because there is so much horse dung littered around the place, and you don’t want to stomp the wrong brown stuff.

It’s a vital networking part of the day, of course, because it’s the only time that the occupants of all the different marquees, and those few brave souls from the general public, get to socialise in the same area.

All that working does make you quite thirsty, of course, so it’s wise to repair to your marquee quickly to avoid the queues at the free bar.

Riding high

In summary, then, while the Portsea Polo might not be quite as famous as our many storied horse-racing festivals, it’s a fantastic and hugely classy day out. If you can’t arrive by helicopter, as most of the big stars do, don’t feel bad. Just be sure to arrive in an Alfa Romeo, driven by your chauffeur. 

And make sure that you look fantastic, even if it that means showing off your hairy legs.

Published 21 January, 2019