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Elephant polo: It's kind of a big deal

Wild snarls. Clashing sticks and trunks. And don't forget the waddling and squawking.

In Thailand's Golden Triangle, sportsmen compete in the annual "King's Cup" elephant polo challenge. Almost all of the competing elephants, and their handlers, were rescued from roaming the streets of Bangkok. (Patrick Winn/GlobalPost)

CHIANG SAEN, Thailand — Somewhere in the pantheon of blue-blood sporting, that exclusive world where men hunt foxes and race yachts, there is a place for polo on elephant-back.

Elephant polo is half sport, half high-society lark. Like its equestrian counterpart, it couples man and creature, adds a ball and long mallets, and engages two teams in a soccer-style scoring match.

But this is where the similarities end and the weirdness begins.

Only in elephant polo can spectators hear the dry hiss of pachyderms brushing hides as they scramble towards a ball. Only in elephant polo does the announcer gush, “What a beautiful under-the-trunk shot.”

Playing elephant polo is a bit like being driven around in a convertible jeep, while sitting on a high chair, and swatting at a ball with a 7-foot-long stick. Which is exactly how oil tycoon Ed Story practices on his Texas ranch.

“If we have to explain it, you’ll never get it,” said Story, CEO of SOCO International, an oil and gas exploration and production company.

Story and his competitors — business magnates, equestrian polo lovers and others — face off several times a year in exotic locales. Their most recent contest was the World Elephant Polo Association’s “King’s Cup,” held last week in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle.

Beside a glittering Mekong tributary, on a pitch spotted with small pyramids of dung, six elephants faced off during each match. It is a game that peaks and wanes. There is sometimes a wild snarl of trunks and clacking of sticks as elephants pursue a fist-sized ball. There are also long bouts when elephants, trunks dragging across the grass, waddle about and squawk.

All of this is narrated in a style typically reserved for racetrack announcers — though with a fine veneer of posh.

“He tries to swing, but there’s a forest of legs!” said David Wilbridge, an announcer, polo sportsman and airplane captain. “And now he’s taken it away from the Dark Horse of Delhi … going around the trunk now … and that’s a lovely under-the-belly shot!”