“It doesn’t matter if you miss the ball, you just have to look fantastic,” says Steve Thompson of the Dubai Polo Academy, confirming our suspicions about this absurdly picturesque game, played on beautiful ponies (actually horses but called ponies), by beautiful people in tight trousers for the delectation of even more beautiful people in sunglasses and diamonds.
Imagine the cover of Jilly Cooper’s iconic novel, Polo, a pair of white jodhpurs, a polo mallet, gleaming leather boots and the scarlet nails of a female hand. Think the divot stomping scene from Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts, wearing that heavenly spotty dress at the Cobra Polo Classic. Remember when Princess Diana, overwhelmed by media pressure, burst into tears at a polo match in 1981 and was comforted by Charles who still seemed to like her? Then remember when, on Valentine’s Day in Jaipur 1992, she ducked his sweaty victory kiss and the world began to talk?
Ah, the chock of the mallet on the ball, the heady thunder of the ponies hurtling past, the deft mid-chukker pony change that athletes can effect without their feet touching the ground! Oh, keep up – a chukker is a seven-minute period of play and, in theory, a pony can last the distance, but some riders switch mid-chukker, perhaps just to show off their circus skills.
It all started with my grandfather, who was a great polo fan and we all inherited his passion. – Eduardo Novillo Astrada
Actually, keeping up is tricky as the rules can feel obscure. The two mounted referees often disagree and seem to communicate with Indian Chief hand gestures. If someone says; “My handicap is zero,” you might leap back in bewildered awe because zero, you see, is pretty good when counting starts at minus two and goes up to an almost unachievable ten goals. Only a small handful of players have a ten goal handicap, including the legendary Adolfo Cambiaso of Argentina and Miguel Novillo Astrada, one of the famous Astrada brothers, all five of whom are a) preposterously good-looking and b) professional polo players.
One of them, Eduardo, is the Jaeger-LeCoultre Polo Ambassador (sponsorship in this vastly expensive sport is all-important) and one of the world’s big winners. Like a lot of players, he started young. “I was riding when I was three,” he says. “When I was nine I thought I was ready to ride my father’s horses. I insisted so much that they gave me one, and he bolted full speed. When we got back to the stables I jumped down and ran into the house!” He is too manly to say “in tears” but that sounds like the gist. The Novillos were destined for polo it seems. Says Eduardo: “It all started with my grandfather, who was a great polo fan and we all inherited his passion. My father played back, so that means that me and my brothers are very strong defenders. That’s what gives us our family style.”
And the Novillo polo prowess won’t end with his generation. “I’m hoping to play some more important tournaments with my sons, Justo and Cruz, one day! With them riding the horses bred by our family. We say that the horse is 70% of our game. To be a good player you have to know how to get the best horses and the best of each horse in crucial moments. My favorite horse at the moment is Geisha. She is amazing and when I am on her I feel I can do stuff that I don’t do with other horses.”
Now 42, Novillo has won a host of cups and tournaments all over the world but for him, winning the Triple Crown with his brothers in 2004 was his biggest triumph. “I don’t think anybody else in the world will have that record, four brothers winning the Triple Crown. It felt amazing and the party after the last game went on for 24 hours!”
To be a good player you have to know how to get the best horses and the best of each horse in crucial moments – Novillo
What with all these asado (Argentinian barbecue) parties and bands of brothers, you’d think polo originated in Argentina, but it didn’t, of course. The British took it there in the 19th Century, though it comes from Southern or Central Asia, probably Persia, and was a military training exercise that dates back at least to 600BC. From Persia, it went to the Indian Subcontinent and China, giving us the word ‘chukker’ from the Sanskrit ‘chakra’ meaning wheel or circle, and ‘polo’ from the Tibetan ‘pulu’ meaning ball. By the Middle Ages, the game had reached Constantinople and Japan, but the modern game was popularized by the British when some tea planters formed the European Polo Club in 1859. Not twenty years later the sport was drawing crowds of up to 10,000 people.
‘The sport of Kings’, polo was played by Sultans, Kings and Emperors because of its military history, and British Royalty have played enthusiastically since 1868 when George V became one of the first members of the Malta Polo Club. Today’s Prince of Wales, Charles, was gently nudged into the game by his father, Prince Philip, who bought him his first polo pony, San Quinina, when Charles was 15 and captained the younger Prince’s first ever match.
You would have to have been hiding under a rock for twenty years not to know that the younger Princes William and Harry are keen polo players, their skills honed in part at Eton College, one of a large number of English boarding schools that offer polo as a recreational sport. Eton boasts an intrinsic link with both polo and India as 11 viceroys of British India were educated there as well as five Governor-Generals and three High Commissioners after independence along with countless Indian Maharajas, including Maharaja Gaj Singh II Of Marwar-Jodhpur who attended the school in the 1960s. Eton College also produced Luke Tomlinson, Captain of the England Polo Team and a 7-goal player (or maybe his mother had something to do with it?).
Whichever way you look at it, the May to September polo season is the season of Royal sightings. The Princes take part in five to seven matches every year to promote and support their different charities. In eight years of charity matches they’ve raised more than $5 million (AED 20 million) and last year alone, their participation in six matches raised $1 million (AED 4 million).
The young men feature heavily in polo anecdotes, including those of Eduardo Novillo Astrada, whose most awkward polo moment goes as follows. “Once I was playing an exhibition with Prince Charles and Prince Harry. At half time I went to my car to get a new glove. Leaning on my car were two boys and a girl, who said hello and I leant into the car.
When I got back to the tent they were inside talking to everyone. One of them was Prince William and the girl was Kate. I never realised and everyone started laughing at the tent because I didn’t realise who they were!”
But the British aren’t the only royals who play. As the sun sets over the polo field at Dubai’s Desert Palm resort it’s not unusual to catch Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum dismounting after a vigorous bout with the mallet. One of the world’s great players, Her Royal Highness is a leading figure in highlighting the rising profile of women in polo (who include supermodels Jodie Kidd and Elle Mcpherson).
The Sheikha’s teammate, Sunny Hale, for example, was the first woman in United States history to win the prestigious US Open Polo Championship and spent 20 seasons playing in world-class men’s teams. “I didn’t come from a lot of money,” says Hale. “I didn’t come from a lot of anything. I just didn’t listen to anyone who told me that it wasn’t possible.” Like Hale, Sheikha Maitha (an Olympic martial artist) is fed up with hearing that polo is too tough for women. “I heard it from the day I started,” the daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, has said. “Everyone kept telling me to just relax and have fun. I didn’t realise that they didn’t actually believe that a woman could do it. And I think we’ve proved them wrong.”
Everyone you talk to about Polo says the horses are the main attraction and Sheikha Maitha is no exception – there is a special place in her heart for Patchi, the first polo pony she ever rode and who is still going strong. “She’s a horse that I know my children will be riding,” she says. It is this relationship with the horse that makes polo so addictive. Just a note in case you’re interested about the pony/horse thing: In the 19th Century there was a height restriction. No polo could be played on a pony over thirteen three hands (55 inches). With taller riders’ legs dragging along the ground, the Americans decided to ignore the rule and ride proper horses. After beating the British conclusively on these much faster steeds, the US demonstrated to the UK that it had to follow suit but, stubbornly, the Brits insisted on continuing calling the horses ‘ponies’.
Polo is just like building a house. Only when there is a solid foundation can you begin to construct the storeys on top – Steve Thompson
Says Novillo Astrada in his attractively broken English; “There is only one important thing, learn how to ride as well as you can. Until you feel very secure on the horse, then start trying to hit the ball.” This somewhat goes against the ideas of Steve Thompson at the Dubai Polo Academy who insists we need to simply look good and not worry too much about the ball, but perhaps by looking good on a horse he means riding well?
“Yes. A true horseman would never interfere with the horses unique efficiency,” says Thompson. “The line of communication between the rider and the horse are exact and clear. When mounted the horse cannot actually see the rider, so he listen and feels everything. The best horse and rider combination are those that are built on trust.”
This sounds easier said than done, but Thompson is confident that a proficient game of polo can be achieved by anyone with the requisite number of limbs.
The Dubai Polo Academy offers beginners’ courses, meaning even novices can rapidly integrate into a team and play in a match (player handicaps make it easier for good players to play with beginners).
“Polo is just like building a house,” says Thompson. “Only when there is a solid foundation can you begin to construct the storeys on top. Big power shots are the roof of the house and you will never reach them if the foundation is weak and can’t hold the growing structure. 90 per cent of player problems are at their foundation!”
Thompson’s three day boot camps offers a lunch whose “signature dish is pain” but promises a gala dinner at the end of day three for “the survivors”. Anyone can sign up and you don’t need to be as rich as you might imagine.
To find out what the adrenaline rush of polo-addiction is all about, find your local club, sign up for lessons (hire of the ponies included) and it is possible to play polo for as little as $250/ AED 1000 a month. Having said that, the prerequisite of looking good can be as expensive as the lessons….