This Friday is the second annual British Polo Day in Dubai - but does the sport deserve its reputation as a social minefield?
Can you divot?
An air of elitism has always surrounded polo. Not for nothing is it often referred to as "the sport of kings". The perfect sport, then, to take centre stage this weekend for the annual British Polo Day at the Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club. Kicking things off on Friday will be a game of camel polo between the Cavalry and Guards from Britain, followed by a more traditional, pony clash between players who attended the schools Eton or Harrow, rounded off by Oxbridge players taking on the Habtoor team.
It's the second time that such teams have descended on the UAE, organised by a Dubai-based Old Etonian called Tom Hudson. "I'm pleased to have transported a slice of Britain to Dubai for this weekend," he said ahead of the big day. "Polo, ponies and picnics are quintessentially British, and I hope that everyone has a thoroughly enjoyable day." The key to this, he says, is not taking oneself too seriously and simply having fun.
This is all very well, of course, should you have attended a school such as Eton or Harrow. But polo can be an etiquette minefield, the perception often being that it's a posh sport played and watched by snobs. Katie Price, or Jordan as she is more commonly known, illustrated this perfectly in 2008. Having booked a table for the Cartier Polo event at Guards Polo Club in Windsor, her money was then mysteriously refunded and she was told that there was no table after all. "I was told she was not the sort of person they wanted," said her agent, Claire Powell.
Jordan hit back a few days later in an article penned for The Times. "It's pure snobbery," she thundered. "Unless you are a toff, they don't want you." Steve Thompson, the owner of the polo academy at the Dubai club, says that, in part, this culture that's grown up around polo in England is because the sport has existed for so long there. "It can be quite intimidating," he admits. "Less so here though," he says of Dubai, "because it hasn't been around for so long."
Thompson arrived in Dubai to set up his academy five years ago, and was meant to stay for just two years, but demand has kept him busy. Six days a week, you'll find him teaching the game from 6am until 6pm with a mere two-hour break in between. "In the years I've been here, it's evolved quicker than anywhere else in the world I've seen." Signifying this is the forthcoming Gold Cup tournament, which will be held in Dubai for the first time between March 6 and 12. "It's a big event which has been talked about for a while. There'll be massive parties for that," says Thompson.
Happily, the speed with which polo has developed in Dubai means the scene is less surrounded by the stiffs and bossy rules that you might find in Britain. "It's just a great day out," says Thompson simply. "We don't have much grass here, so it's nice to sit with a picnic." The origins of the game are close to home, with the first recorded event taking place in 600BC in ancient Persia. Both the Chinese and the Moguls are credited with spreading it, and, in the 16th century, a polo ground as we might recognise it today was built by Shah Abbas the Great in Isfahan. After the sport's arrival in India, the British picked it up and developed the first basic rules to the game, many of which still stand today in polo-playing parts of the world such as Britain, the US, southern Spain and, of course, Argentina. Listen up, because this is the key to sounding like an experienced hand on the day.
Polo is a game made up of two teams, each fielding four players who bowl about on a pitch that is approximately three times the size of a football ground. Players have a handicap between minus 2 goals (the lowest possible) and 10 (the highest). There are relatively few 9-goal and 10-goal players in the world, however, and they're often Argentine. The players' handicaps on Friday all hover between minus 2 and 2. They play on polo ponies, not horses, because the rules originally stipulated that all mounts be pony-sized.
Goals stand at each end, and confusingly change each time a goal is scored so you need to keep a close eye on the action or end up bewildered. The game is divided into seven-minute sections called chukkas. Friday's games will be made up of four of them and a noisy, foghorn-like bell will be rung to denote the end of each. At half-time, willing spectators are urged to dive on to the pitch and "tread in", which means stomping down the bits of turf kicked up by flying hoofs. "Avoid the steaming divots," laughs Hudson, referring to the scene in Pretty Woman in which Julia Roberts heads on to the pitch to have a go.
This is "a peculiarly clandestine affair which is seen as good sport", says Hudson's friend, the Dubai raconteur and Old Harrovian Zulf Hyatt-Khan. He is not one to let little knowledge of the sport interfere with commenting on the spectators. "The dollies that watch are better looking than the dollies that watch football," he says chivalrously. Ah yes, this brings us to the polo dress code - another path riven with pitfalls for the uninitiated. "I think we're going for the 'relaxed smart' look," says Hudson breezily of the male attire expected on Friday. "No ties for the men, but trousers and shirts. Avoid the 'Zulf' white jacket look," he jokes about his friend from the rival school. "That's very Harrow."
It's perhaps a trickier gauntlet for women to run. Polo is an all-day event, followed by celebratory parties that often run into the night. This means not only dress challenges, but make-up quandaries and shoe dilemmas. But panic not, because there's help at hand from Clarissa Walsh, a young Dubai-based designer who launched her own label after last year's polo day, called C by Clarissa. "Long, floaty maxi dresses are ideal," she advises, because they can be casual, understated but still glamorous. Flat shoes should be paired with long dresses, she says, which is lucky because flats make for perfect treading-in attire. "For girls, there's the thing about no heels for stamping in," adds Hudson.
"Colours, colours, colours, you can never get enough of colours as long as the style is simple," she adds. Women will often wear white jeans, so avoid them unless you want to look like too much of a polo groupie. Or Liz Hurley. Walsh says that hats are not for polo either. "They're for the races," she instructs. "Big sunglasses and sun cream, however, are a must. Be prepared." Once you've read up on the rules and sorted out your wardrobe, there's the issue of lunch to sort out, around which the day is organised. Tickets for the VIP section at the club have sold out, but for Dh100 cars can line up and park alongside the pitch, where onlookers can settle down with their picnics. "We want a good atmosphere on the far side of the pitch," encourages Hudson.
Given that temperatures are now skirting 30°C during the day, picnics need to be carefully thought out. "I would suggest that people stay away from mayonnaise, as this is quite heavy on a warm day," says Sophie Evans, a Dubai-based private chef. "Stick with fresh ingredients such as lemon, lime, garlic and chilli. And keep away from creams. Yogurt and mascarpone are good alternatives." Her perfect polo menu? If you're looking to impress, Evans suggests items such as chilled soups, pea and mint of gazpacho, along with courgette and feta salad, or new potato salad in a whole-grain mustard dressing. "Leafy salads are a no-no as they wilt in the sun," she says.
Large dishes such as fillet of beef or salmon en croute are good for picnics that need to feed plenty of people too, she says. Pudding? "Meringues with summer berries or cupcakes." Simple. "Take food out of the fridge at the last possible moment and make sure you have plenty of ice blocks for travel," she adds. Just remember a picnic rug and get there early to make sure you bag a good pitch-side spot. Gates will be open from 11am.