Man of the Hour – Malcolm Borwick

We hear from British polo player, new Piaget Polo S “game changer”, and thoroughly nice chap Malcolm Borwick about the changing face of polo, why he wears a watch, and what to look for in a horse

So, to start at the beginning, how did you get into playing polo?

Around the UK there’s a system called the Pony Club, which are basically youth riding academies. I’ve been riding all my life- I started when I was one, I could ride before I could walk- and then aged eleven I got asked if I wanted to try polo. It was one of those things; when boys turn eleven they start losing interest in Pony Club, and the girls carry on with dressage and jumping. So polo suddenly appears on the radar for the boys. It gives a nice additional interest, hitting a ball, instead of just looking after your horse. I was asked if I wanted to have a go, and I went and tried it, and I absolutely loved it, from the first go.

And how did your career in polo begin?

The first four years I was playing polo; it was purely this Pony Club circuit, playing for three weeks a year. I had my eyes opened went I went down to Argentina, aged fourteen. I was selected by the sports governing body, the HPA, and they sent me there. And I can remember walking around the national stadium, which would be equivalent to having a 27,000-seater polo stadium on the Kings’ Road, in the middle of London. It’s their national sport. I walked out and said to myself, “what would it be like to play here, to this many people?”. Just by the way, fast-forward twenty-two years later, we played for England against Argentina on the field, in that very stadium. It was kind of a dream come true.

But back to being aged fourteen, my eyes are opened in Argentina. I went home and I formed a polo club at school, and we went on to win the national schools championships, twice. Then I left school and worked for a term in another school, teaching as an assistant, to earn some money. Then I went to Argentina again, and made the decision, with the help of a fantastic Argentine coach, to go pro. The understanding was I’d have his help for the first year or so.

After that I start at University- Durham- studying psychology and Spanish. With the ideas of trying to understand Argentine polo players! A few modules of philosophy for some reason too. It was great fun; I really enjoyed my time there. I set up a polo club at University, and we were very successful, winning the University championships three years running. This is amazing considering that one year we played with two girls who had never even played polo before on the team. It was great fun. I had this idea that I would use polo to pay for my University fees. That I’d pay my rent, my fees, and then go to University for September – April, and I’d just sit exams in the summer term. I’d do my exams at 6am in Durham, than drive for three hours to play my next polo match.

But even three years after University I wasn’t that convinced that polo was a valid choice, I kept denying that that was what I was going to do. And then there was this game-changing moment, where I really had to make a choice. And I don’t regret the choice for a second.

Since you’ve started playing, you’ve seen a lot of changes to the sport?

Even since when I went professional to now, there’s been a lot of change. I think if I had to put the team that I played in, in my first professional capacity in the premier league, on the field now- we’d be killed. The game’s changed a lot, as a sport. All sports go through cycles. Ups and downs of spectator interest and so on. We had, when I was playing for England, in 2005, 2006, 2007 or 2008; we had 25,000 people going to our main matches every year, and now that audience has dropped down considerably. But inner city polo has grown. I think people’s attention spans have changed and so they need a different product.

And how would you say the greater perception of polo is changing now?

That’s quite a question actually, because it is changing. We’ve got so much history attached to polo, so much of the traditional values attached to the sport, really threaded into the fabric of the sport. But polo is becoming a more modern game all the time, attracting a younger audience, a more modern audience. And that’s what we want and need, to get more people to come and watch polo, to relate to polo, and not see it as this far-off elitist, unapproachable thing. With the advancement of lots of inner city polo events, Polo in the Park in London, or Polo in the Park in Sydney, or beach polo events in Ibiza, Dubai, in France; there are all these condensed versions of the game. It is changing, and I think it will only gather momentum.  You have to engage a new audience. Every sport is trying to do the same. Every sport wants to get the next generation of followers; I think we’re trying to find ways to do that in our sport, without selling our soul, without losing all of the great values and aspects that the sport has. Because people have less time now- no one has a father who goes off and plays cricket all of Saturday and all of Sunday any more, no one has time for that. And that’s the same, when going to watch a sport like polo, to be able to fit it into people’s lifestyles, rather than it being this time-consuming thing.

And how do you see the sport developing in the future?

I think there’s definitely going to be an increase in a drop in activity, so a drop in stadiums and arenas, and instead bringing polo to where people are. Engagement with luxury brands will continue, in its true format, echoing the true aesthetic of the sport. It’s your test cricket to your Twenty20, to give you a sporting analogy. Hopefully we’ll still manage to portray that image of the beautiful game that it is, whether it is in the top match arenas or at the premiership level, people will want to participate in that. I think, in any sporting event, people want to be as close to the action as possible, and that’s the great thing about these inner city events is that you’re literally a yard away from the ball. In bigger games of polo, you’re more likely to be 300 yards away sometimes. In short, to answer your question, all sports evolve.

And you’re helping the game evolve, bringing in new talent-I know you developed a programme to nurture young British talent…

It’s not so much a programme, formally, but it’s been a bit of an obsession of mine, identifying talent. And when I’ve had the ability to help, the time and resources, I have. I’ve not had endless amounts of success at predicting how people will develop with that nurturing, but I’ve had some great results. If I were a talent scout, I’d be doing alright. I’ve picked up one young player who came to join me in my stables, age 15, and he’s gone from complete amateur now to second-tier of English professionals, and will be a fixture in the England team for the next five or six years, so that’s been great fun, being able to help those young players coming through, as I got helped early in my career. It’s come full circle. It’s great to continue the legacy of mentorship that the sport has.

You’ve certainly done a lot to help other players all through your career. When you were working in and with the England First team, you introduced many changes to the team. What led you to that?

When I left university, I played at playing polo for three years, because I wasn’t convinced I wanted to do it as a career. And then I had a real life-changing moment, where I had a job contract in one hand, and an offer to play polo for the England First team in the other, and I went with my dream, which was polo. I decided to follow my passion and my dreams, and play polo professionally. And then I was led down this path, and I wanted to tick all the boxes I possibly could. Where we go or what happens now in terms of the sport, if I can help with that, take it up and push as hard as I can, I will. I was extremely lucky to live for a period of time, both as a professional and playing for England. Everything felt quite neatly in a row when I made that decision to pursue a polo career. I looked at the sport, as though from outside, and I thought, what can I do to make this better- this was probably 2003, 2004- polo was still a playboy sport back then. It was the subject of a lot of accusations that it was a game played only by playboys, rich boys having a nice time. So I looked at other sports and said “Right, we need to consider the minutiae of the game, try and improve it in increments, the small things and make bigger results at the end”. We looked at personal training, we brought in a sport psychologist, we set objectives, and that was kind of a seminal moment, in the sport in England. And now, you look at any professional team, they all have associated trainers, coaches, psychologists. That was quite a big directional shift that was made to the game in the UK. It was about looking at it as a professional sport and not just as a hobby. Once you’ve made that decision, to do everything to the best of your ability, concentrating on a-z, looking at the big picture of team structure, the big picture of what we could do to get the best out of every talent. We weren’t the Ferrari in Formula One terms, we were the Williams. We were a mid-budget team that needed to find the best way forward.

Of your many achievements, what would you say you were the most proud of?

Well, I have three children, so I think I have to say that’s what I’m most proud of. Obviously having children is the game-changer in life, without a shadow of a doubt. But in terms of my sporting career- it has to be the first time I pulled on the England shirt, for the main England team, playing my debut test match. It will go down in my memory as just an amazing day. We won a test match away in South Africa, in front of a packed crowd, their home test match, and that was a really special day. And then also, winning the Coronation Cup, which is our big annual test match here, winning that is pretty special too. But I think the first time you hear the national anthem and you’re there with the team is a very special moment, for any sportsman.

You’ve worked closely with the Sentebale charity, can you tell us about your work with them?

Sentebale is a charity that Prince Harry established in his gap year in Lesotho. And he and Prince Seeiso of Lesotho set up this aid charity where they’re basically educating on the use of retroviral drugs. It’s an amazing charity; it turns over 1,500 people a week teaching and educating on how to live with the virus. There is a huge problem in Lesotho; over 33% of children are born with AIDS or HIV virus. And now this charity is the driving force of education, going into Botswana, and is becoming the defining force in education about anti-viral medication in sub-Saharan Africa. So it’s a fantastic charity and it’s one we’re very proud of our association with as polo players. I play an annual event with them, with Prince Harry, to raise money for the charity, and I know it’s a cause very close to his heart. He’s very grateful for our association with the charity and we’re very grateful for their involvement in the sport.

Do you see yourself always being involved in the sport?

Yes. Definitely. I’ll be involved in the sport for the rest of my life, in one way or another. Whether it’s being involved in marketing the sport globally, or in helping brands invest in the sport, be it playing, be it through my children playing… I was saying to someone the other day, that actually the horse that’s in the photograph (above) I recently loaned to a client of mine on a four-year deal. And she said, why four years? And I said, because my son is four, and this is literally the perfect horse. The best horse I’ve ever owned. So I don’t want to sell it, I just want to loan it, because when he’s eight, he needs to ride this horse so he knows what a good horse is. So I’m already thinking about my son. Which is a scary thought, but in four years time it will be the perfect horse for him to ride.

What makes the perfect horse?

What makes the perfect watch? The balance between aesthetics and functionality. That’s exactly what she is, beautiful to look at, beautiful to ride.

On the subject of watches, do you wear a watch everyday?

We have regular wake ups at night and so a watch is essential. One of the great things about this Polo S is that the night light and the reflection is brilliant. Come 3am my Polo S is telling me what time my children are waking me up. So, I use a watch the whole time. The only thing I don’t do is ride in a watch, because I value it too highly, and there are better ways of destroying a watch than wearing it to play polo. The Polo 45 watch- which I love as well- with it’s titanium casing can be worn when riding but I personally find it uncomfortable to wear a watch whilst riding. I don’t like wearing anything on my wrist when riding.

Can you tell us a little more about this Polo S collection specifically?

I know that we’re got four different faces, and that we as the “game-changers” all got to choose what face we wanted. I looked at the blue face and instantly felt that that was the one for me. It suits my skin type I suppose. And I have chronograph watches, and so I just loved the automatic, the face is just so simple. And I have to say, it’s got so many comments, so many people look at it and say “oh what’s that?”. I think it’s a really beautiful, well-pitched watch.

It’s an unusual shape as well, that slightly cushioned shape…

Yes, it’s very different. I wasn’t old enough to wear a watch in the Seventies, when the original Polo was so popular, but this is a great revisiting of that piece. These are precious items, these watches. I used to travel around the world and the one watch I would stare at in every stand I could, in every country, would be the Polo 45. It was the one watch which I could see myself buying. And the day I got one, it was a real tick in the box. And Piaget are such a wonderful brand, they deserve every success. And I love that I’m here, helping break ground for them with this new campaign.

You can’t invent affinities. There are things you’re comfortable saying and doing, or there are things you’re not. You find that very quickly with sportsmen, or with people just more generally, that when they tell you a story that’s not real, you know it. Piaget was just the brand that captured my imagination. From the beginning. I don’t know if it’s because the DNA of the watch is something in polo, or my awareness of that. I’d seen the Piaget polo team play in Argentina, been part of the Piaget tournaments in America, and it’s just something that was always within my sub-consciousness. I love a bit of elegance. And for me, Piaget just expresses that subtle elegance, a subtle elegance that I like to think- I don’t know if I do- that I reflect. And that’s what you do, when you buy something luxurious, you want to believe that there’s a part of it that reflects your character. And for me hopefully, this special Polo S embodies a lot of what I stand for.