There were five seconds left in the World Elephant Polo Association’s amateur division championship in southern Nepal, and the New York Blue Elephant Polo Club was up 5-4 over the Tiger Tops Tuskers. It was a stifling Friday afternoon in December, and the New York Blue was moments away from becoming the first American elephant polo team to take home a gold trophy.
In the first half, they held the Tiger Tops scoreless, an impressive feat considering two members of that team—the home team and five-time WEPA champions—are sons of the sport’s co-founder, A. V. Jim Edwards. But during the second half, the Tiger Tops picked up four points. And just as the clock was about to expire and seal the New York Blue’s victory, they scored a fifth.
Tie! The thousands of spectators watching from a shade-less jungle airstrip erupted. Sudden death!
“I was on the sidelines going crazy,” said Bill Keith, the team’s 32-year-old captain, who was sitting in a West Village cafe with a face full of stubble a few days after his return from Nepal. He was reminiscing with teammates Bryan Abrams, a 30-year-old research editor at Playboy, and Melanie Brandman, a public relations executive in her early 40s with dark red hair.
“I’d never actually given a shit about a sport before,” Mr. Keith said.
Elephant polo was born in India during the 18th Century, but it didn’t become an official sport until the early 1980s. Its founders, Mr. Edwards, a British expat who’d settled in Nepal (he owns the Tiger Tops resort, home of the eponymous team), and James Manclark, a former Olympic tobogganer from Scotland, were throwing back cocktails in St. Moritz, Switzerland, when they came up with the idea to make elephant polo a real game, with teams and rules and competitions. The inaugural tournament was held at Tiger Tops in December 1982. Notable players have included the late explorer Sir Edmund Hillary, Scotland’s 13th Duke of Argyll, actor Steven Seagal, Ringo Starr and Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry. Proceeds go toward Nepali charities.
In the 26 years since the drinks in St. Moritz, only a handful of U.S. teams have made it to Nepal. The New York Blue began as a shimmering notion in December 2005, when Mr. Keith—currently deputy editor of Out magazine, then a writer for Giant magazine—was in Nepal covering the tournament. It had been some time since an American team had competed, a fact he lamented on the sidelines with U.S. diplomat Lauren Moriarty.
“It’s such a shame there’s no American team,” he said. “It’s sort of embarrassing.”
“Well,” Ms. Moriarty replied, “why don’t you start your own?”
And so he did. He started telling his friends about the tournament, vetting the most athletic and reliable ones. Those who made the cut were Mr. Abrams, the Playboy research editor; Josh Dean, former editor of Play, The New York Times’ defunct sports magazine; a corporate lawyer, Rob Forster; and two bankers, Chip Frazier and Jeff Bollerman.
Ms. Brandman, who owns her own travel PR firm, provided the key ingredient. Mr. Keith met her at a beachside bar one afternoon in April 2007 while on assignment in Anguilla for a men’s magazine; Mr. Keith was writing about the Caribbean resort that Ms. Brandman was representing. She pointed at the World Elephant Polo Association logo on his bag.
“I know what that is,” she said.
They started talking logistics: Mr. Keith had this elephant polo team he wanted to bring over to Nepal for the tournament, but they had no money, no sponsors, no way of getting there.
“This is where I come in,” Ms. Brandman said. The New York Blue had found its manager.
After a lengthy application process, the team got word last February that it had been accepted into the 2008 tournament. Sponsors including David Babaii, Carbon Copy Pro and Folio Collection helped cover the cost (the team’s round-trip Continental flights totaled around $15,000), and Converse and Levis furnished uniforms. The only thing left to do was practice. But where do you find an elephant in New York City?
They built mallets out of paint rollers and PVC pipe; Mr. Keith and Mr. Dean worked their media connections to borrow some Cadillac SUVs, which they mounted in place of pachyderms. They practiced twice last fall, at Jacob Riis Park in Queens, the second time being the Saturday before they left.
“We went into it totally blind,” said Mr. Keith.
The terrorist attacks in Mumbai made their 9 p.m. flight out of Newark on Nov. 26 a bit nerve-racking (it’s 13 hours to Delhi; then a two-hour flight to Nepal’s capitol, Kathmandu, where they stayed for a few days; then 45 minutes to Tiger Tops, on a 12-seat prop plane through the Himalayan foothills), but by the morning they arrived at the tournament grounds, they were ecstatic.
“I just started howling,” said Mr. Keith. “It’s a crazy mix of people. Diplomats from various countries. British soldiers. You never know who you’re going to sit down next to at dinner.” In addition to the competition, the next five days were filled with lots of boozing and safaris.
The gist of the game is simple: On a 100-meter pitch, four-player teams jostle for control of a small white ball with 96-inch mallets. Games are 20 minutes. The elephants—which are directed by their lifelong trainers (“mahouts”), who sit in front of the players—are changed at half time, and matches end in the early afternoon, before it gets too hot.
Some animal rights activists have called for an end to the sport, but the WEPA claims it enforces strict rules guaranteeing the elephants’ well being.
The New York Blue’s first match was against Scotland’s Chivas Regal, three-time world champions and the No. 1 ranked team in elephant polo. Surprisingly, Mr. Keith said, it turned out that the team he’d assembled … didn’t suck! They lost by a respectable 6-5.
“They pushed us all the way,” Chivas Regal’s Peter Prentice, who is said to be the world’s best elephant polo player, e-mailed from Hong Kong. “I was hugely impressed.”
The turnout of their second match was the same: a 6-5 loss, to National Parks, one of the hometown teams. On the third day, their luck changed. They beat the British Ghurkas 4-1. Then on Thursday, when the tournament was seeded and the New York Blue placed in the amateur division, they had their second win, this one against the Indian Tigers. By the final day of competition, it seemed they had a chance of winning the amateur championship against the Tiger Tops, who had been downgraded to the Blue’s division after performing poorly earlier in the week.
Five-five! Sudden death! The Tops got control of the ball out of the face-off, but the Blue managed to keep on the offensive. They had some good hits into the Tops’ defensive zone, but they couldn’t make it into the goal. Then one of the Tops’ star players cleared the ball down the sideline. Mr. Frazier tried to catch up, but his elephant was tired. The opponent headed straight for Mr. Abrams—the only player protecting the Blue’s goal—and trundled past him. Mr. Abrams turned and followed, leaning off his elephant as much as he could, his mallet inches from tapping the ball away from the goal. But the Tops scored, beating the Blue 6-5.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Mr. Abrams.
“Devastation,” Mr. Keith said.
That evening the team drowned their sorrows with Chivas hot toddies at a black tie dinner deep in the jungle (the temperature drops to around 45 degrees at night). At the following morning’s ceremony, aside from claiming their silver trophy, they picked up the highly esteemed Best-Dressed Team title.
Back in New York on Dec. 15, at an intimate homecoming cocktail party in a swanky midtown penthouse, the team vowed to return to Nepal in 2009 to claim the gold. The sport’s founder, Mr. Edwards, now 72 and recovered from a stroke a few years ago, says he’s happy to have them. Via e-mail from the Tiger Tops lodge, he wrote, “The WEPA is very fussy on who we invite back to compete in our once a year games. The New York Blue will be welcomed back at any time.”