Sport

Polo novice Anthea Ay­ache picks up a mal­let and at­tempts to be­come pitch per­fect un­der the guid­ance of a world-class pro­fes­sional. Could she be a match for the Duke of Ar­gyll?

Friday - - Contents -

Fri­day’s Anthea Ay­ache tries her hand at the game of kings (and queens).

While most polo-chic ladies in Dubai would be pick­ing out their fancy fas­ci­na­tors to match their well-coiffed locks and slight sum­mer dresses for the UAE Na­tions Cup 2014 Royal Salute Tour­na­ment, I found my­self in the Desert Palm Re­sort wash­rooms tug­ging at a pair of ill-fit­ting white jeans, slip­ping on an over­sized polo shirt and plac­ing a match­ing cap over hair tugged roughly into a pony­tail (far from dressage). Al­though I’d been told polo was not As­cot or the Derby, I had cer­tainly hoped I might turn out a lit­tle more à la Ju­lia Roberts in a polka dot­ted dress on the polo side­lines of Pret­tyWo­man than the polo-not-so-pro I saw re­flected in the mir­ror.

In light of the forth­com­ing pony polo sea­son, I had hastily vol­un­teered to prac­tise on pitch so that next time I was a spec­ta­tor I might un­der­stand the rules of this eight-man, ponys ad­dled, mal­let-wield­ing game. It was a rash de­ci­sion I was rapidly re­gret­ting. How­ever, cast­ing van­ity aside and pick­ing up my mal­let in­stead of my Mul­berry, I chose to be a good sport and strode out to meet the pros.

For a fleet­ing mo­ment as I stood un­der the morn­ing sun, polo mal­let in hand, I was trans­ported back to high-school sports lessons. In much the same way as I had 16 years (or so) ago, the sound of in­struc­tions slipped in one ear and darted from the other de­spite my fer­vent at­tempts to con­cen­trate. “Watch care­fully,” the adult in me chas­tised, but I knew that even with full fo­cus hit­ting the ball fur­ther than half a me­tre was a highly im­prob­a­ble sce­nario, and even then it was likely to be in the wrong di­rec­tion. Stick-to-ball co­or­di­na­tion has never been my forte and I was soon to re­alise while spend­ing the morn­ing at­tempt­ing to pick up polo that not much had changed.

We were prac­tis­ing tech­niques for what is of­ten re­ferred to as the ‘Game of Kings’ on the im­pec­ca­bly man­i­cured lawns of Dubai’s Desert Palm Re­sort polo pitch, the day be­fore the an­nual tour­na­ment fi­nal.

As a means not only to ex­plain the game but help us mas­ter it, our group of fe­male polo novices were un­der the guid­ance of none other than world-class pro­fes­sional polo player Mal­colm Bor­wick. Much to my re­lief – af­ter a sleep­less night wor­ry­ing about turn­ing into a Nor­man Thel­well car­i­ca­ture, can­ter­ing un­con­trol­lably off into the desert sun­set, polo stick air­borne, never to be seen again – Mal­colm’s Royal Salute Polo Clinic was ex­traor­di­nar­ily well con­ducted from pitch prac­tice through to equine ex­er­cise.

From the near­side forehand to the off­side back­hand, Mal­colm care­fully guided our rather ram­shackle group through the tech­niques on terra firma. Sat­is­fied we were all ad­e­quately co­or­di­nated (I use the term loosely), the charm­ing Royal Salute World Polo Am­bas­sador paired us off for prac­tice.

To my hor­ror I was part­nered with a polo afi­cionado who I later learnt was none other than Torquhil Ian Camp­bell, the 13th Duke of Ar­gyll and global brand am­bas­sador for Royal Salute. In hind­sight my ig­no­rance served me well, for other­wise I most cer­tainly would have failed to mas­ter any moves and in my em­bar­rass­ment

may even have at­tempted to stop the ball with my an­kle more than once de­spite His Grace’s re­minder that a polo ball is not a ten­nis ball!

Af­ter a morn­ing of prac­tice, Mal­colm, who is also one of Eng­land’s leading pro­fes­sional polo play­ers, made the brave de­ci­sion to al­low us to prac­tise our newly ac­quired skills on horse­back. All I can say is if you strug­gle to con­nect mal­let and ball on the lawn, it doesn’t get any bet­ter once you are some 150cm above ground strad­dling a pony.

Nonethe­less, while I may not have un­cov­ered a life­long de­sire to be­come the next fe­male polo pro over the course of the Royal Salute Polo Clinic, the morn­ing’s ac­tiv­i­ties cer­tainly opened my eyes to a sport that is gal­lop­ing fast and fu­ri­ous on to Dubai’s in­ter­na­tional equine scene.

A nat­u­ral match

In a re­gion well known for its cen­turies-old af­fil­i­a­tion with horses and a keen in­ter­est in lux­ury, it should come as no sur­prise that polo, one of the old­est games known to man (and more re­cently women), is well es­tab­lished in the UAE.

Polo was orig­i­nally brought to the coun­try some 35 years ago by the de­funct Dubai Polo Club at Abu Khadra, which was su­per­seded by the Ghan­toot Rac­ing & Polo Club and Desert Palm Polo Club. The lat­ter opened its doors in 1994 af­ter His High­ness Shaikh Mo­ham­mad Bin Rashid Al Mak­toum, Vice Pres­i­dent and Prime Min­is­ter of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, granted the first Dubai polo team land on which to build a club.

Its founder, Ali Alb­wardy, known as the fa­ther of polo in the emi­rates, whose vi­sion was to build an es­tate on which the game could be played pro­fes­sion­ally while also pro­mot­ing the sport in the coun­try, un­der­took the en­deav­our and cre­ated the first grass polo es­tate in the emi­rate.

The Dubai Polo Club at the Desert Palm has since main­tained its po­si­tion at the epi­cen­tre of the game both na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally and its founder’s pas­sion for polo is well re­flected in the grounds, man­age­ment and tour­na­ments to which it plays host. “What Desert

Palm has built here in terms of polo in­fra­struc­ture is ab­so­lutely re­mark­able,” says Mal­colm. “To con­sider that this was once pure desert and here we are sur­rounded by 12,000 palm trees, 4 polo fields and 300 or so horses is an ex­tra­or­di­nary credit to Ali Alb­wardy.”

The polo club serves not only to nur­ture the sport lo­cally by of­fer­ing mem­bers and non-mem­bers daily prac­tice chukkas (the pe­riod of play, last­ing 7.5 min­utes), but by host­ing some of the most pres­ti­gious tour­na­ments in the re­gion, such as the UAE’s first ladies’ polo tour­na­ment un­der the pa­tron­age of Shaikha Maitha Bint Mo­ham­mad Bin Rashid Al Mak­toum, the Royal Salute UAE Na­tions Cup and the Cartier In­ter­na­tional Dubai Polo Chal­lenge.

As pa­tron of the game, Alb­wardy has as­sem­bled some of the best teams in the world, with play­ers in­clud­ing the likes of world num­ber one Ar­gen­tine Adolfo Cam­bi­aso, who launched the Royal Salute UAE Na­tions Cup back in 2009, at the time recog­nised by the polo com­mu­nity as the only polo event in the Mid­dle East with com­pet­ing in­ter­na­tional teams.

“Royal Sa­luteWorld Polo is a se­ries of events that takes place through­out the year from Ar­gentina, US, GB, Spain, UAE, In­dia, China, Korea, Aus­tralia and many oth­ers in be­tween,” ex­plains the Duke of Ar­gyll, who has held his present po­si­tion as global brand am­bas­sador since 2007. While David Free­born, Gulf man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Pernod Ri­card, own­ers of Na­tions Cup spon­sors Royal Salute, adds, “We have polo events all over the world but nowa­days if you want an in­ter­na­tional brand you need to be in­volved in Dubai in some way as it’s a high-pro­file in­ter­na­tional city and there’s also some great polo played here. This is the 5th time [we’ve held the tour­na­ment in Dubai] so it’s a rea­son­ably long-stand­ing as­so­ci­a­tion we have now.”

Last month the elite es­tab­lish­ment hosted the much-an­tic­i­pated 2014 in­stal­ment of the tour­na­ment which saw six in­ter­na­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tive teams vy­ing for the tro­phy, a prize that was ul­ti­mately lifted by team GB (aided by Mal­colm) for a sec­ond con­sec­u­tive year.

This year view­ing was free to the gen­eral pub­lic and the event at­tracted not only myr­iad dig­ni­taries, in­dus­try lead­ers and lo­cal celebri­ties but also hun­dreds of non­con­nois­seur spec­ta­tors.

“Over the three days we hosted up­wards of 250 people who per­haps haven’t been in­volved in the sport be­fore,” says David. “They came along to watch the matches, get a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the game and, hope­fully, cre­ate a new in­ter­est.” He adds, “We’re as­so­ci­ated with polo not to ex­tract its elite na­ture but ac­tu­ally to pro­mote it and make it a lit­tle more ac­ces­si­ble for people.”

Op­por­tu­ni­ties to learn polo in the UAE have been some­what re­stricted over the years, but it’s un­der­stood that Alb­wardy, a man who for decades has lived and breathed the sport, is keen to prop­a­gate the game here. Tes­ta­ment to that is the in­tro­duc­tion of polo lessons for non-mem­bers of all abil­i­ties. “The ac­tual polo club is full,” says Desert Palm Polo man­ager and pro­fes­sional Ar­gen­tinean polo player Martin Va­lent, “and we have a wait­ing list for mem­ber­ship, but we started of­fer­ing lessons to the pub­lic at the start of this year.”

With a price tag of around Dh600 for a 45-minute class it is an ex­pen­sive pas­time, but for those want­ing to take up the sport se­ri­ously, Martin’s ex­pe­ri­ence demon­strates it’s money well spent. “It’s a priv­i­lege to be a pro­fes­sional polo player and to do what we do,” ex­plains Mal­colm. “It’s a sport that re­ally of­fers you an op­por­tu­nity to live and breathe the cul­ture be­cause we work in these coun­tries for two or three months at a time. Win­ston Churchill [the late Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter who picked up the game in 1895 as a young cav­alry of­fi­cer and be­came some­what ob­sessed with it] once said that a polo hand­i­cap is a pass­port to the world and for me it’s been ex­actly that.”

Ditch­ing the elit­ist tag

Ex­pense, and there­fore ex­clu­siv­ity, are cer­tainly two words heav­ily as­so­ci­ated with a sport that is tra­di­tion­ally re­served for roy­als and aris­to­crats.

Be­lieved to have first been played in Iran some 2,500 years ago as a train­ing ex­er­cise for elite troops, it was then favoured as a spec­ta­tor sport by the pe­riod’s no­bil­ity and rul­ing classes. The mod­ern form of the game was brought to theWest by the Bri­tish from In­dia, where in 1863 the old­est ac­tive club to date, the Cal­cutta Polo Club, was founded.

To­day polo, which is ar­guably the old­est team game known to man, re­mains the game of choice for mod­ern-day gen­try, some­thing Mal­colm – who comes from a line of polo play­ers ex­tend­ing back to 1902 – is quick to jus­tify. “We have to work with the black­smiths, grooms, the guys who pre­pare the fields; you have to have that Rud­yard Ki­pling thing where you can walk with kings but not lose your com­mon touch.”

To this day, de­spite at­tempts at pop­u­lar­i­sa­tion the game re­mains syn­ony­mous with royalty, es­pe­cially the Bri­tish monar­chy who reg­u­larly grace the cov­ers of glossy mag­a­zines par­tic­i­pat­ing in char­ity matches cheered on by peers on the side­lines. De­spite its elite no­to­ri­ety, how­ever,

the sport is grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity for both par­tic­i­pants and spec­ta­tors on home turf in the UAE.

Here, much like else­where in the world, it is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ac­ces­si­ble for those who are able to re­place their lack of blue blood with a pure pas­sion for horses and com­pet­i­tive sport.

“People get in­volved ini­tially be­cause they love horses and adrenalin” says Desert Palm Polo man­ager Martin, “but af­ter you learn the sport it re­ally be­comes ad­dic­tive.”

Get­ting to the level of Mal­colm and Martin on the in­ter­na­tional polo cir­cuit, how­ever, will take more than a few weekend classes at a polo club. Like any pro­fes­sional sports­man, earn­ing the ti­tle of “most valu­able player” and boast­ing 30 caps for the Eng­land side takes ded­i­ca­tion, com­mit­ment and a lot of hard work.

“The pro­fes­sional world of polo is not all a bed of roses,” Mal­colm says. “A lot of the time the per­cep­tion that people have of the life that you lead, is very dif­fer­ent from the day-to-day re­al­ity. Like all pro­fes­sional sports there’s a great deal of work that goes on be­hind the scenes.

“A lot of it is phys­i­cally hard work, the risks are very high, and the out­lay that you have to make to in­vest in your horses, is very, very high, it’s not that you’re just turn­ing up around the world and be­ing given ev­ery­thing on a plate.”

Mas­ter­ing the skills re­quired not only to ride a horse ca­pa­bly with one hand, but to play a ball game si­mul­ta­ne­ously with the other, also takes more than pa­tience and ded­i­ca­tion, it re­quires se­ri­ous ex­per­tise.

As Sylvester Stal­lone fa­mously once quipped, “Play­ing polo is like try­ing to play golf dur­ing an earthquake”. A good anal­ogy for two teams of four thun­der­ing ponies, sad­dled by play­ers ex­pertly swing­ing 132cm cane mal­lets in an at­tempt to hit a ball smaller than their ponies’ hoofs. It’s no won­der the four-legged crea­tures are rested and changed be­tween ev­ery chukka, (the game is nor­mally di­vided into six chukkas), and adds to why the game falls into the high-risk cat­e­gory when it comes to in­sur­ance.

“I think it would prob­a­bly be up there with heli-ski­ing and sin­gle sleigh bob,” says Mal­colm. “I think it’s as dan­ger­ous a sport as you can get. You’re go­ing at 38 miles an hour on half a tonne of an­i­mal and you’re judg­ing dis­tances down to inches be­tween the front of your horse and the back of an­other horse. Hu­man er­ror hap­pens; yes, there have been a few bro­ken wrists, col­lar bones and legs, but it’s all part of the process.”

As polo-ob­sessed Sir Win­ston Churchill in his true sar­donic style once said, “Young men have of­ten been ru­ined through own­ing horses, or through back­ing horses, but never through rid­ing them; un­less of course they break their necks, which, taken at a gal­lop, is a very good death to die.” Ac­ci­dents and jest aside, the ob­jec­tive is to get more people in­volved in polo whether it is for recre­ational pur­poses or to adopt it in a more se­ri­ous fash­ion.

Dubai, with its eight-month polo sea­son in­stead of the stan­dard three­five thanks to its warmer cli­mate, means the emi­rate is likely to at­tract even more play­ers and tour­na­ments in the fu­ture, po­ten­tially be­com­ing an­other mag­net for polo afi­ciona­dos.

So if you’re tired of peace­ful golf and want horse-rid­ing with a twist then per­haps a polo les­son or two is for you.

As for my­self, well, with all best in­ten­tions I think I will leave the Game of Kings to the ex­perts and watch their skills from the side­lines. The blue­ing bruise on my an­kle, a daily re­minder of my chal­lenged grasp of the game, forces me to look at Sir Win­ston’s state­ment in a dif­fer­ent light for let’s not for­get he said it was a good death for “young men”, there was no men­tion of young women!

Anthea with Mal­com Bor­wick, who put her through her polo paces

Con­nect­ing the mal­let with the ball can be tricky enough on the ground, let alone from a height of 152cm

The Dubai Desert Palm Polo Club is at the epi­cen­tre of the game

The 13th Duke of Ar­gyll, David Free­born and Mal­colm Bor­wick

Win­ston Churchill was known to swing a mal­let, af­ter he picked up the game as a young cav­alry of­fi­cer

Where Mal­colm leads, Anthea duly fol­lows...

Ali Al­bawardy with the win­ning GB team

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