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’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