(A version of this story originally appeared in print and online editions of News Corp publications The Daily Telegraph and The Herald Sun — paywall)

 

On the road to Ellerstina stands an Argentine polo pony made from scrap metal and used parts. Battered, but not broken, the discarded iron plates and roller chains are stitched together for a second life on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.

At once elegant and industrial, the figure in front of the local Chapa Bar strikes a balance between two worlds that professional polo has straddled in Argentina since the late 1800s. A Sport of Kings loved by both the elite family dynasties that control the game, and the populist masses that support it.

Billionaire James Packer has been holed up among the champion players, horse breeders and team trainers of this polo community for the better part of two years after a series of professional and personal setbacks: Billions in debt. Accusations of a frivolous lifestyle. And the high-profile end to his engagement with Mariah Carey.

James Packer with former fiancee Mariah Carey. Photo: news.com.au

James Packer with former fiancee Mariah Carey. Photo: news.com.au

Packer was again at his isolated polo estancia, Ellerstina, when news broke of his statement to the corruption inquiry into Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Packer did not immediately respond to an interview request for this story when reached through an intermediary.

Israeli police last week recommended Mr Netanyahu be indicted in two cases of alleged corruption. While there is no suggestion of wrongdoing on Packer’s part, he was named as a witness in relation to gifts given during his time as Mr Netanyahu’s neighbour. The two lived in the same neighborhood in Israel’s Mediterranean coast town of Caesarea, just outside of Tel Aviv.

Seemingly the latest twist in the life of an international billionaire, it comes at a time when Packer was living the quiet life. A self-imposed seclusion in the middle of polo country was helping him put scars of the recent past well into his rear view.

Business was moving back into the black. His so-called Hollywood days were a fading memory. And in September 2017, Packer celebrated his 50th birthday on the Argentine ranch with just 10 of his closest friends. A few weeks later, he gave an in-depth profile interview to The Weekend Australian Magazinewhere he credited part of this turnaround to the peacefulness of Ellerstina, his “Field of Dreams.”

* * *

Ellerstina

Ellerstina

A short turn off the road from the small town of Pilar, the rural countryside detours to an enclave of manicured lawns and grazing pastures. There are some small stores, country clubs and guest houses for seasonal visitors during the three-month polo season in spring. But the landscape is dominated by grand properties like La Zeta, Polo One, and Cuatro Vientos Polo Club. Greatest among them is the Ellerstina Polo Club, which in December came second in the 124th Argentine Open, considered the world’s most important polo tournament.

Ellerstina is an epicenter of the Argentine polo culture. It has eight polo fields, seven stables housing 268 boxes, two exercise tracks, one schooling arena, a tennis court and an 18-hole golf course. It breeds and sells horses from embryo to stud, runs an annual horse auction, hosts its own Gold Cup Tournament, and rears the next generation of polo champions at Polo Week school. It is most famously home turf of the champion Ellerstina polo team lead by the dynastic Pieres family; brothers Nicolás, Gonzalo, and Facundo Pieres, and cousin Polito Pieres.

Packer inherited the residential part of Ellerstina from his father, Kerry Packer, who founded the property with polo legend Gonzalo Pieres Snr. Named after the Packer family’s Australian polo property in Ellerston NSW, the two are 12,000 kilometers apart at a near-identical latitude in a straight line from West to East. It is about as close to the middle point between his business interests in Australia, and his family and friends in Los Angeles, while still being equally out of the way from both.

Packer may call Ellerstina his Field of Dreams, but the property is listed as a “Place of Worship” on the all-seeing Google. Whether a Freudian glitch or genuine designation, for many in Argentina, it’s not far from a truth.

In Australia and the UK, polo is often considered a niche and elitist sport exclusively for high society types. In Argentina, the game is held in a similar regard to football or international cricket. It is broadcast live and regularly attracts crowds of 30,000 to major tournaments like the Argentine Triple Crown: Tortugas Open, Hurlingham Open and Argentine Open.

“We play polo as an extension from loving horses and the countryside. Most polo players are coming from their own personal desires of riding horses, and feelings of closeness with the horse, the countryside and spending the day outdoors,” says Ruben Jabib, founder of Argentina Polo Day, which is one of the few clubs bringing the sport to the masses to play, rather than just watch.

Argentina Polo Day Founder Ruben Jabib. Photo: Argentina Polo Day

Argentina Polo Day Founder Ruben Jabib. Photo: Argentina Polo Day

“In Argentina we have some patrons — the millionaires who pay to play — but we have the most talented polo players here as well so we don’t need them as much as in other countries to organize a tournament.

“In Pilar, we have more polo fields than in the rest of the world. In other countries you have the elite playing because of the investment to play polo when not many horses are around. Not many fields. The maintenance. Here in Argentina, we have more horses, we have more players, we have more fields, and we have more polo clubs that makes it a bit more popular.”

The sport’s most well-known face, Nacho Figueras, is both a major Ralph Lauren model in the U.S. and owner and captain of the BlackWatch Polo Club. Figueras has a sprawling business empire of his own branching out well beyond the game that made him famous. As does Adolfo Cambiaso, the sport’s top ranked player and leader of Ellerstina’s arch rival, La Dolfina.

It is an elite game supported by the masses and controlled by the resources of a few families with historical ties to the country’s horse breeding apparatus — an equine engine that makes Argentina the best polo-playing nation in the world.

So highly prized are Argentine polo ponies, bred for a mix of deftness and durability, that an entire industry has emerged for the cloning of champion steeds. Two years ago Cambiaso rode six clones, Cuartetera 01 through Cuartetera 06, to beat Ellerstina and win the Argentine Open in 2016 for La Dolfina.

La Dolfina repeated the feat the following year to beat Ellerstina again in the Argentine Open 2017. The impact of reborn champions promises to further revolutionize the sport and solidify Argentina’s leadership.

The same champion DNA. But altogether different beasts.

It is the unlimited potential of rebirth that is embodied in the iron-solder sinew of the scrap metal horse on the road to Ellerstina. Titled La Clonada, or “The Clone,” the sculpture is part of Argentine artist Juan Pablo Depla’s mission to give a second life to bruised pieces of history and create “unconventional art with waste from consumer society.”

Whether by virtue of his connection to the Israeli prime minister, or his own sense of timing, Packer is returning to the public gaze as he prepares for his next chapter. On this occasion, he will do so after spending considerable time in a corner of the world that is as far and away in lifestyle as it is in distance from Sydney, Hollywood or Tel Aviv.

The same billionaire DNA. But altogether different.

 
“La Clonada.” Photo:  Pablo Ernesto Piovano

“La Clonada.” Photo: Pablo Ernesto Piovano