Posh pursuit of Polo and its thrills that comes at a huge financial cost

Osman Samiuddin talks to players to know what the sport is all about and the challenges that lie in its promotion on the world stage.

The patronage of Royals such as Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, left, and a love for horses is needed for the elitist sport to grow. Razan Alzayani / The National
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The original ambition was to attempt to examine the sport of polo without referring or alluding to notions of posh.

It was then scaled down to merely attempting to pen down a first thought or sentence without reference to the word.

On arrival at the Ghantoot Racing & Polo Club (GRPC), where the 14th annual President of UAE Polo Cup – the highlight of the UAE’s polo calendar – is taking place, it became obvious these ambitions would be swiftly doused. There was not much of a crowd watching Ghantoot Al Basti go down, comfortably, to UAE Polo, two of eight teams in two groups playing the tournament.

But it felt, unmistakably, like a crowd that knew it mattered. Impeccable couture, even more impeccably groomed, and the whole windswept glamour that comes from the carousel of life that marks Paris, Milan, London, New York and Abu Dhabi as its only stops.

So, polo is posh. But maybe it should be fine with that.

Because polo should not worry that people ask whether it truly a sport.

It is, unquestionably, a pursuit which tests the athleticism, skill, nous of man or woman, and in this case, animal, to difficult degrees.

Imagine, one, having to swing at a moving ball with a massive mallet and the strength and hand-eye coordination that requires; then, having to control and ride a four-legged animal while doing all that?

And to rope in notions of game and spatial awareness, to develop specific skills and ideas of strategy and tactics and teamwork?

Speed-chess on stilts on an ice rink with hoops might be simpler, but not by much.

“Physically, you have to train, train hard and keep training hard, especially in pre-season,” said Juan Zavaleta, a leading Argentina player in Abu Dhabi for the tournament.

“To be a good polo player, you have to work a lot, ride a lot and mentally you have to be very cold, to be able to take good decisions in the moment. You have to be very responsible in the stable, with the horses, with all that training.”

Zavaleta stood watching with countryman Facundo Sola, one of the leading players in the world, and the pair cannot be mistaken for anything other than young professional athletes, with that carefully cultivated air of careless stubble, the tousled hair and lean physique.

But the best capturing of what it takes to be a polo player came from Nasser Al Shamsi, captain of Ghantoot Al Basti.

Al Shamsi is one of the UAE’s most-experienced players – and one of its few full-timers. He was from the first batch of Emirati players sent to train in England for a few months to actively start a polo scene here back in the mid-90s. He is also, of course, well-groomed.

“One piece,” he said, by way of explanation. “You have to be one piece with the horse, you with the horse, the horse with you. Eighty per cent, you have to be a good rider and maybe 20 per cent a player, but you have to be one with the horse most importantly.”

To be at one with 10 other players, or an on-field partner, that can be done. To be at one with a horse? This is beyond the realm of simple training and could take, Sola said, many, many years.

“A polo horse has to be very complete in all ways. He has to be strong, but light on the sides,” he said.

“He must have good balance, good speed, be able to move quickly and quickly in different directions, the stop, start, turn this way, that. It takes maybe six years to train a horse for polo.

“Getting a horse ready to play well maybe six or seven years. We live with the horses all year round.”

It is bracing to watch as a spectator as well, the combination of that imposing, growing din that race-horsing provides with the usual compulsions of all ball games.

It can be – unintentionally – dangerous and violent. At the moment, Sola’s leg is in a cast, regular roughage of the sport.

It has quirks, too, so that teams change sides after each goal and there are no left-handed players. Do not ask why, instead just think and imagine the chaos it can cause.

But for all it has going for it, getting into the sport is more or less impossible. Unless, you know, you are posh.

It helps, as it did with Sola and Zavaleta, if your fathers played. It helps more, they acknowledged, to own horses, which basically means that the players are independently wealthy.

That is a serious barrier to entry. Players use as many as five to six different horses per game.

Though a haphazard circuit is now mostly professional, owning horses is key.

“We play here, we go to England, go to Argentina, we play all year round now,” Zavaleta said.

“It is well-paid enough, but the horses are very expensive, so you can earn good money, but you have to spend it on horses.”

That is a universal truth for the sport. “Horses are a huge cost, because you don’t need one but 50-60 [to have a team],” said Al Shamsi of the scene in the UAE. You need players – there is a love for horses here, but it is a love to ride horses.

“Lots of people come to us, but find polo difficult the first time, so they quit. They prefer to go to endurance, or jumping.”

Predictably, there are moves afoot around the world to ally polo with commerce in the way Formula One has done so successfully, to take it beyond just posh.

Whether that is a wise move is the real question, given the unique financial infrastructure of the sport.

“It should be more popular,” Sola said. “It is growing more, but it needs more sponsors.

“At least now, most players are professionals and not amateurs, playing all year round. That is something.”


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