Novillo on what it takes to become a Polo superstar

Anna Blundy 13/03/2016
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Eduardo Novillo Astrada.

“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.”

 Jaeger-LeCoultre Polo ambassadors Clare Milford Haven, Eduardo Novillo Astrada and Luke Tomlinson.


Clare Milford Haven, Eduardo Novillo Astrada and Luke Tomlinson.

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?).

Eduardo Novillo Astrada and his wife Astrid Munoz (second left).

Eduardo Novillo Astrada and his wife Astrid Munoz (second left).

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).

Jaeger-LeCoultre Polo Ambassador Eduardo Novillo Astrada.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Polo Ambassador Eduardo Novillo Astrada.

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.”

Steve Thompson, head coach and founder of Dubai Polo Academy.

Steve Thompson, head coach and founder of Dubai Polo Academy.

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….

Where can I play?

UAE polo clubs

Based in Dubai since 1994, Desert Palm is ten minutes away from downtown Dubai. The club hosts three medium to high goal tournaments every year, like the Cartier International Dubai Polo Challenge (most recently held in December last year), the UAE Nations Cup, and the Sunset Polo International Cup.

Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club hosts the La Martina Opening Cup (8 goals) played during the month of November, the Dubai Polo Series (15 goals) which includes the Dubai Silver Cup and the Dubai Gold Cups played in February and March. The Dubai Open has been split into two tournaments. Starting with the McLaren Cup 2016, which ran from Friday, 22nd January 2016 to Friday 5th February 2016. The second tournament, the Julius Baer Gold Cup, commenced on Friday, 19th February 2016 and ends on Friday, 11th March 2016.

Saif Polo Club, is a private club based in Khawaneej, Dubai and it hosts the National Day Polo Cup.

The Ghantoot Racing and Polo Club, 40 minutes outside Abu Dhabi, hosts several tournaments during the season like the Pink Polo (in support of Breast Cancer), British Polo Day Abu Dhabi and the UAE President Cup, a 15 goals tournament at the end of every season.

LIFE360 is a quarterly Lifestyle magazine published by Sport360. Read the latest issue online HERE

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LIFE360 - Polo passion, the cycling revolution & 20 health myths

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LIFE360 is a luxury lifestyle glossy, with a strong sporting emphasis. A magazine that combines in-depth features with sport, fashion, travel, beauty, culture, health, shopping and car reviews for the high-end market.

Covering life after sport – what we want to buy, wear, eat, read and do as well as more serious issues that touch the world of sport and beyond – LIFE360 is aimed at both men and women with content that is relevant and interesting to both. A kind of Intelligent Life with a strong sporting flavour…

Issue Three cover a range of topics from Polo to diet myths and you can pick up your copy of LIFE360 with Sport360’s newspaper on March 10 or read the magazine online HERE.

POLO PASSION – Just how do you get to play the sport of kings? Is it just about the money or do you need talent too? Anna Blundy speaks exclusively to Eduardo Novillo Astrada to discover all.

20 MYTHS BUSTED – Challenging common misconceptions about diet and fitness including notions like ‘no pain, no gain’ or ‘no carbs after 6pm’. Anna Blundy talks to fitness gurus about the myths they want to bust.

IT’S ALL IN THE GENES – Carla McKay recently underwent genetic testing and discovered she is high-risk to get Alzheimer’s. Unsurprisingly this has changed the way she lives now. How far can genetic testing go? And is it a good idea?

MEDITATION IN MOTION – Emma Woodcock began cycling at the ripe age of 41, when she weighed in 91kg.  Five years down the track, Emma is a positive cycling evangelist. The founder of Velo Vixens Dubai, an all-female cycling group with over 500 riders of all ages, Emma tells LIFE360 her story.

BOOK REVIEWS – A selection of sports books reviewed by Rupert Wright including Joe Root’s autobiography -and After the Final Whistle, a history of the first Rugby World Cup and the First World War.

YACHTS –  In the wake of the Dubai Boat Show, Jennifer Bell investigates Dubai’s ambition to become the Monaco of the Middle East.

TRAVEL – Where to watch horse racing around the world; Including the Dubai World Cup, Melbourne Cup, Ascot, Arc de Triomphe and the Kentucky Derby.

A QUESTION OF SPORT – Rupert Wright asks if the recent corruption scandals have tainted sport for ever.

FASHION – Several pages of sporting fashion for both women and men as well as tips on what to wear to the Dubai World Cup.

LIFE360: Issue 3

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#Life360: How to feed your second brain!

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Scientists are becoming aware of how the gut affects us.

Can you believe that back in the day we used to eat without thinking about it? Yes, we used to fork in whatever was on our plates without once stopping to consider how many calories it contained, whether or not it was a ‘superfood’, how many vitamins or minerals it had, if it had been processed, if it was local or had travelled halfway round the world, and (yikes) without even checking for hidden sugars.

Well, that’s because back in the day it wasn’t so important to do so. Most of the food we ate was fresh, local, grown in soil not depleted by chemicals, not laden with sugar, hidden or otherwise, not processed and preserved to within an inch of its life, not flown in from across the globe and kept frozen, not the result of international agribusiness dedicated to making money rather than human health.

– #Life360: Interview – Susie Wolff says goodbye to F1
– #360fit: How you can benefit from having a life coach
– #360fit: Read our top five bodybuilding blogs of 2015

Now eating, a simple instinctive activity that we have been doing all our lives, is fraught with danger. We have a stressful relationship with food, the very thing that should be nourishing us. And don’t we know it? Every day brings another diet – either a new one, or an old one discredited. We are obsessed with losing weight and yet we continue to ignore very simple and basic nutritional rules.

Across the first world we are killing ourselves slowly by eating the wrong food. We have no knowledge or interest in finding out how our bodies actually work, and in particular how our digestive system works, which plays a desperately important role in both our physical and mental health.

I’m talking about the gut – the stomach and the miles of intestines, which have the mammoth and never-ending task of converting the food we eat into our lifeblood. Many people will be surprised to learn that the gut is also known as our second brain. We are used to thinking of the brain in our heads as being the sole and absolute ruler of our bodies.

We hold our brains responsible for everything we experience in life. But in the last decade or so, scientists have begun to realise that there is more to the ‘self’ than the brain in our head.

The gut has a completely separate nervous system called the enteric nervous system (ENS) comprising an estimated 500 million neurons – about five times as many as in the brain of a rat. This system is just as large and complex as the grey matter in our heads and is around nine metres long. It is such a sophisticated system that scientists now believe it to be crucial to our physical and mental wellbeing. A system that huge is clearly designed for rather more than just transporting food and breaking wind.

A healthy diet is imperative.

We humans must have always had the sense that our ‘gut feeling’ is responsible in large measure for how we feel. And how about our ‘gut instinct’ – the instinct that we rightly feel to be the most reliable? You don’t need to be a gastroenterologist to be aware of gut reactions, or the way your stomach reacts to emotions such as fear, excitement or stress. Science is finally catching up with the language.

Researchers now know that the ENS is not just capable of autonomy (if the main connection with the brain – the vagus nerve – is severed, the ENS remains capable of co-ordinating digestion), but also that it influences the brain. In fact, about 90 per cent of the signals passing along the vagus nerve come not from our head brain, but our gut brain.

It is a rapidly expanding and hugely exciting area of research, if relatively recent. It was only in the 1990s that the field of neurogastroenterology was born. It transpires that signals from the gut can reach many different areas of the brain, though they can’t reach everywhere. For example, they never end up in the visual cortex at the back of the brain. If they did, we would be able to see images of what is going on in the gut! Personally, I think that might be salutary – imagine watching your poor gut struggle with the third doughnut of the day…. 

Regions where gut signals do reach, however, include the insula, the limbic system, the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, the hippocampus and the anterior cingulate cortex. These are roughly defined as brain regions responsible for self-awareness, emotion, morality, fear, memory and motivation. In other words, the gut is the body’s biggest sensory organ that gathers information for the brain on our inner workings and affects not only our general health and wellbeing but also our minds and moods.

It may surprise you to learn that the gut also produces a wide range of hormones and around 40 neurotransmitters. In fact neurons in the gut are thought to generate as much dopamine (the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward) as those in the head, and intriguingly about 95 per cent of our serotonin – the ‘feel-good’ molecule involved in preventing depression and regulating sleep and appetite.

We now know that there are strong links between our gut and our mental condition, and that an unhealthy gut leads directly to all kinds of conditions such as depression, irritable bowel syndrome and stress. Brain scans show that when a gut is irritated, its connection to the brain can make life very unpleasant. An unhappy gut can be the cause of an unhappy brain.

This discovery that problems with the ENS are implicated in all sorts of conditions means that our second brain deserves a lot more recognition than in the past. Pankaj Pasricha, director of the John Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology in Baltimore, points out that without the gut there would be no energy to sustain life.

“Although we are only just beginning to understand the interactions between the two brains, already the gut offers a window in the pathology of the brain,” he says. He believes that a better understanding of the second brain could pay huge dividends in our efforts to control all sorts of conditions, from obesity and diabetes to problems normally associated with our first brain such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

So, how to get and maintain a healthy gut? Every day when you eat, you’re also feeding roughly 100 trillion bacteria that call your gut and other organs home. In the past decade there has been a tidal wave of research into how the microbes that live inside us affect our health, weight and mood. These microbes make digestion possible, supply the gut with energy, manufacture vitamins, break down toxins and train our immune system. In fact, about 80 per cent of our immune system resides in the gut.

Each of us has a unique fingerprint of microbes, which is largely genetic but, importantly, is also influenced by our lifestyle and diet. Different species of bacteria thrive on different foods, so what we eat alters our intestinal make-up. Evidence suggests that greater microbial diversity may protect us from all kinds of health issues including heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders and obesity.

Fruit and vegetables can develop that 'second brain'.

Yes, there are microbes that make you pile on weight, and microbes that keep the weight off. Variation in the food we eat affects the microbes. Fibrerich food for example is particularly good for your gut, and, wouldn’t you know it, junk food is spectacularly bad as it only contains three or four main ingredients of which one is the deadly sugar. Gut profiling rather than dieting is now the new A-list craze – a means of telling you what your bacterial flora mix is and whether it is responsible for you being unable to shift the pounds.

Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College, London, and the orchestrator of the British GutProject is one of a number of experts involved in an explosion of research about the role microbiota play in keeping us healthy and slim. He maintains that more than anything a lack of variation in the food we eat is proving our microbial downfall.

“Once you start cutting out carbs or focusing on fat, youstart restricting your food intake,” he says. “No fashionable diet is good for your bacteria unless it contains a lot of fibre-rich foods.”

He also is unconvinced by probiotic supplements and drinks, as were the scientists at University College, London who put eight of the probiotic bestsellers to the test last year and found them wanting. Real food is the answer; particularly those that contain probiotics and prebiotics.

We know that probiotics (live microorganisms found in foods such as yoghurt, soy and miso) are essential to gut health. But so are prebiotics, indigestible carbohydrates found in a variety of plant foods as well as saliva and breast milk. Both have a positive effect on the bacteria that live in our digestive system and supply them with the correct nourishment to thrive and enable our immune systems to fight off any number of diseases and conditions.

“Too many people are depriving gut bacteria of the nutrients they need to survive,” Spector says. “We need to get back to eating real food with more diversity.”

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