Polo shirtfront: bitter stoush erupts among exclusive sport's power players
It’s mallets at 10 paces in the well-heeled world of international polo, as a bitter dispute between two Australians threatens to divide this exclusive sport of millionaires and maharajahs.
Astride one pony is Melbourne businessman Peter Yunghanns: veteran corporate raider, owner of some of Coonawarra’s most famous wineries, and a legendary benefactor of Australia’s polo scene.
Polo: sport of millionaires and maharajahs. Photo: Paul Jeffers
Atop the other is Nicholas Colquhoun-Denvers, Esq (as he likes to be titled): London-based president of the Federation of International Polo, and a one-time staff member to billionaire Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi.
Those caught in the crossfire of this battle of society’s elite include a Chinese billionaire, the last Indian maharajah and an Egyptian royal whose daughter was rumoured to be dating Prince Harry.
The stoush has been brewing for years but now lawyers are involved, after Mr Yunghanns filed a writ in the Victorian Supreme Court launching defamation proceedings against Mr Colquhoun-Denvers over a heated email exchange last year.
The 77-year old claims he is fighting for his reputation after being accused of running a “personal campaign of half-truths and innuendo” against Mr Colquhoun-Denvers and the Federation of International Polo executive.
Based in Buenos Aires, the Federation of International Polo represents more than 80 playing countries. Part of the Federation’s objectives is to return the sport to the Olympic Games.
Its sponsors include private jet company Gulfstream and Chinese developer Goldin Properties, chaired by polo-loving billionaire Pan Sutong.
The fallout revolves around a $US600,000 “polo development fund”, supposedly paid by Goldin over three years as part of a multimillion-dollar sponsorship agreement to support the Snow Polo World Cup in Tianjing.
Email sent by Peter Yunghanns to polo community, September 2015
Mr Yunghanns has made a series of allegations about Mr Colquhoun-Denvers in emails to polo chiefs around the world, court documents show, including that those funds were mismanaged.
At the end of last year Mr Colquhoun-Denvers shot back. On official letterhead he denied the allegations in two emails that have since been filed in court as part of the defamation action.
In one email sent in November, Mr Colquhoun-Denvers wrote that Mr Yunghanns had been making “spurious accusations” against the administration of the Federation of International Polo and its officers.
In a follow-up email a month later, the president claimed that the polo world body took “personal exception to Mr Yunghanns’ accusation of incompetence, and his misleading and deceptive statements”.
Email from Nicholas Colquhoun-Denvers and the executive committee of FIP to members and friends, November 2015
“His regular email assaults…are not only extremely divisive but also damaging to FIP’s image both internally and externally,” Mr Colquhoun-Denvers wrote.
Fairfax Media understands the emails that sparked the response — “vindictive diatribes” as Mr Colquhoun-Denvers called them — were addressed to polo royalty, both literally and figuratively.
One recipient was “Bapji”, otherwise known as Maharajah Gaj Singh II of Jodhpur. Another was Farouk Younes, whose lineage can be traced to Egypt’s royal family. His daughter Enayat reportedly once dated Prince Harry.
Both figures are heavily involved in polo in their respective countries. Moscow Polo Club president Alexis Rodzianko, whose grandfather was head of the state Duma in 1917 before the Bolshevik revolution, also got the emails.
Fellow polo aristocrats observing the fray included Pakistani minister Ishaq Khakwani, Singapore businessman Asad Jumabhoy and Johnny Depp’s former business partner, Bruce Colley, who was a tabloid regular during his affair with Bobby Kennedy’s daughter Kerry.
However, the two contenders in the middle of the field have links much closer to the antipodes.
Born in Britain but raised in Australia, Mr Colquhoun-Denvers was educated at the exclusive Christ Church boys school in Perth. His diplomat father, John Colquhoun-Denvers, was the Australian consul-general in New Delhi.
It was during a trip to India that the ex-British Army man played polo against the then Maharajah of Jaipur — nicknamed “Bubbles” due to the volume of champagne drunk at his birth.
“I swore at him and evidently one certainly did not do that, although he did cross me very badly,” Mr Colquhoun-Denvers recounted to The Polo Magazine in 2009.
Email sent by Peter Yunghanns to polo community, December 2015
After his time in the Army, Mr Colquhoun-Denvers spent 10 years running the London office for the Triad Company headed by billionaire Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, notorious for his role in the Iran-Contra affair.
Mr Yunghanns, meanwhile, is legendary in Australian business circles. The family’s wine estates have included the Katnook Estate, Riddoch, Deakin Estate and Crackerjack labels.
Some consider him a “corporate raider” who has made attempts to seize control of such famous names as Golden Circle, but Mr Yunghanns calls himself a turnaround specialist.
“I have been involved trying to add value to, or save, the corporate garbage bags that proliferate corporate life,” he once told a Melbourne court.
A long-time member of the Australian polo set, he founded the Yaloak Polo Club, which hosts regular meets of Melbourne’s moneyed elite. (AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan competed in an event at Yaloak last year).
He is also a former member of the five-person Federation of International Polo executive committee and was once its Australian representative.
Email from Nicholas Colquhoun-Denvers to members of the Federation of International Polo, December 2015
In emails filed with the writ in court, Mr Colquhoun-Denvers laid out a series of previously confidential sanctions handed to Mr Yunghanns by the body’s council of administration because of alleged misconduct.
The sanctions included the removal of Mr Yunghanns as Australian polo delegate and revocation of his position as an ambassador. The council of administration also declared him “persona non grata” and not welcome at polo meetings or events.
In his statement of claim filed in the Supreme Court, Mr Yunghanns contends that the emails by Mr Colquhoun-Denvers are untrue and have “gravely injured his feelings, credit and reputation”.
Contacted by Fairfax Media, Mr Yunghanns did not want to be drawn on the details of the defamation action. But he did quip about being officially branded “persona non grata” in the polo world.
“I have asked the FIP to design a tie and a badge so that everyone will recognise me,” he said.
“To that request, they haven’t acceded.”
Mr Colquhoun-Denvers and the Federation of International Polo declined to comment.