Hunter Valley dark horse wins race for an urban polo first

You could say the Hunter Valley was a bit of a dark horse for the Urban Polo Association when it came to selecting a venue for a new boutique polo event.

TRUE LOVE: Olivia Popovic at Dark Horse Vineyard, Lovedale. Picture: Dominique Cherry

TRUE LOVE: Olivia Popovic at Dark Horse Vineyard, Lovedale. Picture: Dominique Cherry

Buoyed by the success of its groundbreaking Polo in the City and Polo by the Sea series, the association responsible for creating the “Twenty20 of polo” was keen to add Polo in the Vines to its portfolio. 

"Dark Horse Vineyard has that intimate feel. You drive in and there’s vines everywhere, a barn, even a horse yard with horses. It’s almost custom made for this."

Janek Gazecki

But the location had to be just right. 

After five years of searching, urban polo founder Janek Gazecki found the perfect Yarra Valley venue for the inaugural Polo in the Vines event to be held in April 2018.

Or so he thought.

He was about to sign on the dotted line when Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association general manager Jo Thomas suggested he travel to Lovedale to have a look at Dark Horse Vineyard. 

Gazecki did, and it was love at first sight. 

“We had very specific and complex aesthetic criteria and our search took us across the Margaret River, the Yarra Valley and the Clare Valley, all of which possessed promising sites,” he tells Weekender.

“I arrived at Dark Horse Vineyard and realised it was what we had been looking for all this time. It fit the aesthetic criteria. You know when you go to concerts at wineries and you can’t even see a vine anywhere? Well, we didn’t want that.

“Dark Horse Vineyard has that intimate feel. You drive in and there’s vines everywhere, a barn, even a horse yard with horses. It’s almost custom made for this.

“The polo field is literally cut into the vines – vines border two of the four sides of the field. And in autumn the leaves will be brown and yellow so it will look spectacular. The event is designed to have that European feel to it. It’s a bit cooler, more temperate, with a stronger focus on red wine.

“The site has a naturally flat area and a horse yard on the third side. The remaining side of the proposed field is graced by a rustic barn converted into what appears like a showcase Hermes home, which will be the site of our VIP area.”

Dark Horse Vineyard, purchased by Olivia and Martin Popovic in 2014, is the home of Polo in the Vines for the next seven years. 

“My two passions are wine and horses so it was a perfect fit. It’s a dream come true for us,” Olivia Popovic says.

Urban Polo Association founder Janek Gazecki.

Urban Polo Association founder Janek Gazecki.

“The vineyard has been here for over half a century and we have winemaker Damien Stevens taking care of the wine side of things for us.

“He owns the Hart & Hunter label and he and his partner Jodie are just the hardest working couple. We love working with them. Martin and I concentrate on the cellar door. It’s not just about the wine for us, it’s the whole experience.”

Polo in the Vines is, Gazecki says, a “highly boutique event” – even more so than Polo in the City, which is more corporate in nature and an opportunity for people to network. 

“The concept behind Polo in the Vines was to devise something next level from a culinary perspective.

“We’re shifting the emphasis slightly.

“We will still have all the elements that make it fun, with commentary and so on, but there will be a very strong emphasis on the culinary experience.

“The VIP section will be limited to just 80 people and hosted by renowned French chef Guillaume Brahimi.

“He and his team will be preparing a six-course meal matched with Hunter Valley wines. The converted barn setting is absolutely magnificent and even has a white picket fence.” 

Brahimi trained under Michelin-starred chef Joel Robuchon in Paris and owns the renowned Bistro Guillaume. 

“Dark Horse Vineyard is an incredibly pretty location and we are really looking forward to creating a menu that reflects the seasonal flavours in autumn and complements the wonderful wines coming from the region,” he says.

In addition to the VIP experience, which will cost $550 per person and is offered to Urban Polo Association members first, there will be the Vineyard Polo Lounge with its “English garden” feel. 

“I feel the coolest vibe will be in the polo lounge, which will have a DJ and a beer garden. To me, that will be where the locals will feel the most atmosphere,” Popovic says.

”There will be a relaxed country vibe there and it’s actually got the best view of the polo field. It’s a bit elevated and the polo field is kind of sunken – it’s like an amphitheatre so everyone has a good view.”

Corporate marquees are also available to purchase, designed for corporate hosts that wish to entertain clients in a private and personal environment. There will be tunes from the resident band and DJ throughout the day, Fashion on the Field, stomping of the divots and plenty of gourmet food and local beverages for sale at the bar.

Thomas says Polo in the Vines will “add another string to the bow” of the region’s highly popular events calendar.

“Urban Polo has come to the attention of international organisers of events like Polo in the Park in London and the Veuve Clicquot Polo Class in New York, so we anticipate our gorgeous little corner of the world will have some time in the spotlight during the event.”

As for Gazecki, he thinks Newcastle is “ready for this sort of thing”.

“We have a lot of Sydney-based urban polo groupies that follow us around the country for the whole series but I anticipate 80 per cent of people at Polo in the Vines will be from the Hunter.

“This isn’t just an event for the horse community – it’s a party, a culinary experience. Most of the people who attend our events have probably never seen a horse before except at the races. Urban polo is all about welcoming everyone, it’s us bringing polo to the people.” 

Gazecki came up with the idea of urban polo 14 years ago. A passionate polo player himself, he wanted to bring the sport to a broader audience. 

“The ancient sport of polo has been around for 2500 years since the Ottomans and the Turks devised it as a training activity for the cavalry and it hadn’t really changed that much in terms of the way it’s played,” he says. 

“The formula was certainly there – you’ve got 400-kilogram animals full of adrenaline being ridden by a bunch of blokes trying to hit a moving ball at 60 kilometres per hour, and then hitting that ball at 300 kilometres per hour. It’s pretty intense.”

To bring the sport into the modern era, however, some drastic changes had to be made. Polo had to become more exciting and spectators had to get closer to the action. 

“Think about the changes that tennis, rugby and soccer have gone through over the years to improve the sport and make it more spectator friendly,” Gazecki says. 

“I felt there were some changes that we could make to the sport and it could become a different code. One of the first things that had to happen was to make the field smaller. A spectator at ground level couldn’t follow a game being played on a field 300 metres long and 100 metres wide. And if you don’t know what’s going on, you lose interest and you go back into the marquee and start drinking champagne. 

“So we reduced the size of the field by half and all of a sudden the game became a lot quicker and players were always within the field of vision so you could follow the game. We also made the ball 5 per cent lighter so you could still hit it really hard but it could only travel a finite distance.”

The Urban Polo Association was founded 12 years ago to formalise the new code and is the governing body of urban polo. 

“We support all types of polo but we run a completely separate division or code of the sport. Thankfully, we have had more supporters than detractors from within the polo community,” Gazecki says. 

“At the end of the day, urban polo has become the largest polo series in the world of any kind, anywhere, and generates publicity for all polo players. It’s a huge boost to the sport in all its codes.”

Tickets to Polo in the Vines at Lovedale’s Dark Horse Vineyard on April 7, 2018, are on sale now through Ticketek. For more information visit polointhevines.com.

This story One horse race first appeared on Newcastle Herald.