If it weren’t for polo, I would have been unemployed long ago!”
Twice a week, President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia Alexis Rodzianko drops everything and travels from Moscow to the village of Tseleevo, located 60 kilometers outside of the capital. There, he trades in his suit for a polo uniform and mounts a horse to spend a couple of hours playing with friends and colleagues.
Alexis Rodzianko, 68, became a polo enthusiast by accident about fifteen years ago. Back then, he couldn’t even imagine that playing polo would grow into a serious commitment, that he would become President of the Russian Federation of Polo Players, and that his son Mikhail – a professional polo player – would head up the Moscow Polo Club in Tseleevo. During their interview with Sergo Kukhianidze, Editor-in-Chief of Capital Ideas, Alexis and Mikhail talked about their love affair with polo.
“Sugar: Water polo, isn’t that dangerous?
Joe: It sure is. I had two ponies drowned under me.”
(Quote from “Some Like It Hot”)
Mr. Rodzianko, how did you get into polo?
It all started with Mikhail’s younger sister Anastasia (Tasya). Tasya was just 11 years old when she suddenly wanted to start horseback riding. I started taking her to Bitsevsky Park. At some point her coach said: “You’re just standing around, maybe you want to try riding? Give it a shot, you’ll like it!” And I really did like it, so I started riding with Tasya. We wanted Mikhail to get into it as well, but he didn’t like riding in circles around the arena. He was still really into hockey back then.
Then one day in 2003, Victor Huaco, a banker friend from New York now working in Moscow, reached out to me. He wanted to open a polo club in Moscow and was organizing a big presentation event for it, so he invited me to be a sponsor. I was heading up Deutsche Bank in Russia, and learned that the bank supports equestrian sports generally, and polo in particular. So we were one of the corporate sponsors of this marvelous event, which hosted great polo players from all over the world and 25 horses from Argentina. It was held at the big horse arena, at “Gorki-10.”
So this is how I became interested in polo, and then got my kids Tasya, Misha, and Alyosha into it as well. This is essentially how the first polo team in Moscow was established. Then, toward the end of 2005 when Victor and his partner parted ways, I was offered to buy the Moscow Polo Club.
This was the club in Tseleevo?
No, first it was in the south-east of Moscow, in Aksenovo, Ramensky District. There is a livestock complex there. We established to fields on the territory, and adapted some of the buildings to serve as stables. The complex was owned by the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences and managed by the Institute of Aromatic Grasse, and we agreed to work together. But sometime later, the Academy transferred it to the Institute of Furry Mammal Husbandry. And let’s just say this was an entirely different animal to deal with. (Laughs) It was impossible to work with them. The leadership couldn’t decide what they wanted. The only thing that was clear is that they wanted to keep dipping into my wallet, believing it to be bottomless. Unsurprisingly, we parted ways.
Soon, in 2006, I found out that a company that belonged to a Russian oligarch had plans to build a golf and polo club in Tseleevo. Not just a golf club, but a golf and polo club – a lot of oligarchs had golf clubs at the time, but nobody had a polo club yet. Anyway, they started building it, but the project was put on hold during the crisis of 2009. They had already built quality fields with drainage systems, along with a foundation for the stable. And that’s when I showed up with my proposal: “You have fields, I have horses. How about I build stables on my dime, and you make your money back by leasing the facility?” That’s how we came to an agreement.
So the polo club in Tseleevo belongs to you now?
Yes, I own the Moscow Polo Club, but I rent the field and stables.
Your son Mikhail, who is a 31-year-old professional polo player, heads up the Moscow Polo Club in Tseleevo. So polo is no longer a hobby but a family business now, right?
(Pauses to think) It would be more accurate to say that it’s half and half – both a hobby and a business. It’s a family business, but it’s not financially profitable right now. I get more of a personal satisfaction out of it, which is why I gladly support it. It’s not bringing in money.
Mikhail, tell us how the club is run…
I will say right away, the club has excellent, world-class infrastructure. There are about 30 regular players in the club, and by far not all of them are expats. We’ve had a total of over 100 players over the course of the club’s history. We have practice three to four times a week, and tournaments twice a month. We have two seasons. The summer season runs from mid-May to the end of September, and the winter season is from mid-January to mid-March. The club’s stables house about 70 horses, many of which are privately owned.
It’s not a cheap sport, right?
Our total budget for maintaining the club adds up to half a million dollars. The average price of a horse purchased in the Caucasus is $4-5,000, and horses brought over from the US or Argentina cost around $50,000. We have both. We usually invite coaches and judges from abroad. For example, right now we employ an Argentinian who lives in Florida and used to play professionally. He holds seminars, coaches, and plays himself. Both individual and corporate club members sponsor teams.
Mr. Rodzianko, polo needs to become more popular to start making money. As a businessman, you must be thinking about this. We like horses in Russia. The entire Caucasus is on horseback, and the horse breeding business is growing in Krasnodar, Tatarstan … and in neighboring countries like Azerbaijan, for example. Have you tried reaching out to people there?
Yes, of course, we’ve invited interested parties from these regions and countries to work with us, and people come over from these places. But this is more of a question for Misha, he’s in charge of this and has thought more about it.
Mikhail, what do you say?
I’ll say there is mutual interest. I’ve met with people from these places, I’ve been to Krasnodar. We’ve had teams over from Kazakhstan for training. But see, you need a lot of money to promote polo. All over the world – in the US, the UK, in Latin America – polo is a sport that is propped up by enthusiasts who pour their money, time, and hearts into it.
Mr. Rodzianko, does the business community know about your hobby?
Yes, of course they know.
And what’s the reaction from your colleagues like?
I think they’re interested, and slightly surprised. Polo isn’t the safest sport. Of course we try to minimize the risks, but they’re still there, and you take a risk every time you play polo.
Would you say that polo is the kind of sport that helps you make business contacts?
One hundred percent! I’m speaking from experience. (Laughs) If it weren’t for polo, I would have been unemployed for the past seven years.
You know, sometimes I think that your enthusiasm is the only thing keeping polo alive in Russia. As soon as you leave, polo will cease to exist here…
First of all, Misha will still be here! Second, I think that polo has already put down its roots in Russia. For the first time in sixteen years, our club is close to hitting a breakeven point. This is a big milestone, because it will be a rare club in the world if it becomes profitable.
What is your goal? Do you have a dream?
I want Russia to host a championship that teams from different places sign up for and play at, and for polo to thrive here. And I would also like for there to be sponsors who want to support this.