Polo’s Boy’s Own derring-do hero

Polo is a passport to the world”, is one of James Manclark’s favourite sayings. A man whose life had been filled with adventure and the extraordinary, that James should consider polo above all sports that he has been involved in to have been his passport speaks volumes about the game.

On December 3rd 2009 James Manclark celebrated his 70th birthday at the World Elephant Polo Championships in Nepal. An elephant numbered among the gifts presented at a black tie gala party in the jungle and James had spent the day in the pachyderm saddle captaining his Angus Energy elephant polo team. The Scotsman’s story is one filled with exceptional experience that spans the globe, a swashbuckling tale of derring-do that began when he was a Life Guard stationed in Aden in the 1960s.

The entrepreneurial vision that would lead to huge success in business was born out of necessity when, as a young Guards officer himself. “My mother didn’t realise that I needed an allowance”, he says with a wry grin. “I arrived in the regiment and realised I needed an income. They played backgammon and fortunately I started winning”, he says in a matter of fact tone. Rather than spending his winnings on day-to-day expenses, James found a somewhat unusual source of investment. “A Maria Theresa dollar (a former silver coin of Austria, issued between 1740 and 1780 used for trade with Ethiopia and other countries, also known as the Levant dollar) was worth five shillings in Aden’, he explains with a grin. ‘But in Dhala (about 80 kilometers from Aden) they were worth five shillings and four pence. As I was commanding a convoy to Dhala every week I had the opportunity to profit by four pence on every dollar. With that money I bought Alabaster from the Queen of Sheba’s tomb that I sold at Sotheby’s.”

Upon his return to civvy street, with something of a reputation for entrepreneurial vision following the success of his backgammon fuelled business venture in Aden, a glittering banking career beckoned and James entered the City. But it was not to be. “I was supposed to take over, but the boss died too soon”, he says of his departure from one of London’s largest financial houses at which he had been being groomed for the top slot. Too young to take the helm at the bank James returned to Scotland and to farming the family land. Not surprisingly farming failed to hold his attention. “It really is incredibly boring”, he says. “Once you’ve planted the stuff there’s nothing to do but wait for it to grow.’ But boredom was not what prompted James to part with the family estate, he quickly realised that the farms wouldn’t support the house and made the decision to sell and moved into real estate. It took 22 years, but ultimately he brought the whole lot back with the profits from his real estate business and Monkrigg remains his home today.

Competitive to his very core, James sought more than success in business and it was to the mountains that he first turned. He represented Great Britain in 1968 and 1972 in the luge and bobsleigh events and drove bobsleighs for a decade. After success on snow he then turned his attention to watery pursuits.

Something of a polo institution today, it comes as a surprise to many to learn that James only started playing polo in 1976. He had ridden since childhood, indeed he was still point to pointing at 62, but his first foray into the world of polo was promoted by the needs to find a cheaper sport than the one he was involved in in the early 1970s – power boating.

James had won a world championship race on Lake Windermere in 1973 but was mindful of the fact that costs were rising. “It was getting very expensive to power boat if you wanted to win”, he says. “Four of us sat down at dinner and said, ‘What are we going to do?’ and we cane up with polo”, he says. Having made the decision to take up polo opportunity followed rapidly: “I was put on a horse in Edinburgh – someone had heard about the mad idiot who flew Tiger Moths and rode the Cresta Run and decided to let me have a go. They let me score a goal and I thought it was marvellous.

“I bought a pony straight away and that really got me going. In 1976, my first year, I was very luchy to be taken in a team to play in Kenya and that’s when I realised what a fabulous way it was to get around the world.

“When the FIP started I was invited by Fred Mannix to play in the first Ambassador’s Cup represention Scotland. We won it so that encouraged me as well.”

James became the FIP Member for Scotland and remains an FIP Ambassador today. His love of polo grew rapidly and steadily and opportunity and invites flooded in from around the world. From the Argentine, across the Americas, Europe, Asia, the Antipodes and the Far East he epitomized the ‘Have mallets, will travel’ motto. In 2007 James played a key role in the reintroduction of polo to China after a hiatus of thousands of years when he captained the Royal Salute team in the inaugural Royal Salute Polo Gold Cup in Shanghai.

Despite his increasing business and polo interests James’ quest for adventure never took a backseat. A keen balloonist (he has more than 100 hours’ flying experience) he launched a challenge to Branson’s quest for the first round the world balloon flight in 1998. “I was playing polo in Washington”, he says. “And I saw Branson make a mess of it and I said, ‘If he makes a mess of it one more time I’ll have a go. So I did. I rang the sponsors and within one year we had the balloon built.” Ultimately James’ Cable and Wireless balloon piloted by Andy Elson and Colin Prescot ditched after a record-breaking flight of 17 days and 17 hours in the sea off Japan having been forced to fly across the bottom of China rather than across the middle. James’ balloon may not have made it around the world, but it broke the world endurance record for any non-stop sub-orbital flying machine.

In 2001 James turned his attention to treasure hunting in pursuit of the legendary Tayos Gold in Equador. “It’s one of the most important treasures”, he says. “In theory it’s 100 gold books and each weighs 60kg. It’s not gold leaf, but beaten gold and it was written a long time before Christ. I became involved to try to expose it so that everyone could see it – the venture was completely uncommercial.” James’ treasure quest was unsuccessful but he still believes that the Tayos Gold exists. “If you don’t find it the first time, there’s no point in trying again unless there is a new lead”, he says. “But people still believe it’s there.” Back on the polo field, James’ achievements are many, he has played the ‘game of kings’ in no less than 36 countries, but when asked what his greatest polo achievement is he replies without hesitation, “Probably suggesting that we play elephant polo.”

It was in St Moritz in 1981 that James’ wife Patricia sat next to AV Jim Edwards at a dinner party and discovered that the Nepalbased founder of the Tiger Mountain group owned elephants. “It’s terribly simple”, says James of the fateful meeting that launched a new sport. “Jim arrived in St Moritz wanting to be a member of the Cresta Run so he held a dinner party [for those involved], Patricia sat next to him and discovered that he owned elephants…” and the rest, as they say, is history… or rather modern day polo legend.

James suggested to Jim that they should teach his elephants to play polo. Perhaps inspired by the cartoon in the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur that shows the mighty Jaipur polo team mounted symbolically on elephants, while in the Rajasthan capital to play in the Gold Cup James had some long polo sticks made and sent the telegram to Jim in Nepal that has a well-earned place in the annals of polo history: “Arriving April 1st with long sticks, have elephants ready.”

By the time that James and his Gold Cup squad – himself, Oliver Everett, Colin Seaville and James Budget – arrived in Nepal Jim did indeed have his elephants ready; but not really ready, or trained to play polo. “it took us five years to get close to any semblance of an ordered game and ten years to perfect it”, Jim would recall with modesty years later and James’ words on the subject echo his friend’s: “I thought it would be something we would play once or twice”, he says of the sport that celebrated its 33rd renewal in December 2014 with a record 12 teams competing. “I didn’t even imagine it getting anything like the size that it has.”

When asked why he thinks elephant polo has become such a phenomenon James doesn’t hesitate: “Everybody seems to love elephants”, he says. “There are two things – elephants are lovely big animals with big soulful eyes, and the sport is completely unusual.”

The only man to have won as many world titles as James, longtime captain of the legendary National Parks squad Ram Pritt Yadav, proudly announced to me at James’ 70th birthday celebrations that, “HE’s my mentor, he taught me everything.” When I relayed this to James he smiled. “I have taught many people”, he says. “But yes, I taught him everything, how to play and hit the ball. We’re great friends.” To say that James was a good teacher is an understatement, Ram Pritt Yadav’s National Parks team is the most successful in the sport’s history having won no fewer than seven world titles.

At the age of 70 James had, surprisingly, only won the world title four times. But he made up for lost opportunity rapidly captaining the EFG Switzerland team in his seventies and adding a remarkable three further titles in 2010, 2011 and 2013. The latter was a good year with James also landing a double win at the King’s Cup Elephant Polo in Thailand landing both the tournament itself and the high-goal exhibition match that celebrates the life of his late friend, the AV Jim Edwards Memorial Match.

It’s hard to believe that a man as competitive as James wouldn’t like to add another world title to his tally but he’s adamant that retirement really is for him this time around. When asked what his hopes are for the sport he founded his response is passionate. “I would genuinely like to see it open up in a few more countries”, he says with vigour. “I think it does elephants an awful lot of good and it exposes the situation that elephants are in around the world.

“Also we’ve proved that it does increase tourism. In Nepal, even after just five years, elephant polo hard increased tourism by 20 per cent. It helps elephants and the countries it’s held in. It’s important to remember that what is [in our terms] small money is big money in these countries – it means schools and hospitals and more.”

A man who appreciates the success he has enjoyed, James is quick to pay tribute to those around him, especially his wife Patricia who has been at his side since they met in his toboganning days and is as familiar a face in the polo world as her husband. “She’s never discouraged me”, says James. “Although we did meet when I was driving bobsleighs so she knew what she was in for!

“It’s incredible the number of friends I have made around the world through polo”, he continues and goes on to stress that, while he has enjoyed as much success off the polo field as on it, that he has never mixed the two. “I’ve never used my polo contacts for business”, he says. “I always thought polo is sport, not business.”

Incredible is a word that James uses frequently in speech and there can be no more appropriate one to sum up his life to date. Is the elephant polo part of his life-long adventure over? Time alone will tell.

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