x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Some polo players find life's a beach

In the shadow of perhaps the country's most familiar landmark, the Burj Al Arab, a two-day event was the latest chapter in the growing love affair between the UAE and polo.

Rashid Al Habtoor, CEO of Al Habtoor Trading Enterprises, is a tireless promoter of polo in the UAE.
Rashid Al Habtoor, CEO of Al Habtoor Trading Enterprises, is a tireless promoter of polo in the UAE.

It was polo, but not as we usually know it.

A sandy pitch, two teams of three, a bright orange ball and three chukkas of seven minutes. After an absence of six long years, beach polo returned to these shores.

This version of the "sport of kings" was invented by Dubai resident Sam Katiela in 2004 after watching polo being played on snow in Switzerland.

The UAE, he reasoned, needed its own version. Beach polo was born and is now played in 30 countries across the world.

Last night, the Julius Baer Beach Polo tournament at Mina Al Salam Hotel in Dubai bought the domestic season to a distinctly Dubai-style conclusion.

In the shadow of perhaps the country's most familiar landmark, the Burj Al Arab, the two-day event was the latest chapter in the growing love affair between the UAE and polo.

The UAE already holds several events: the Silver and Gold Cups in Dubai, and the Cartier Cup. There has even been Coutts Polo at Emirates Palace, and Pink Polo, an event dedicated to raising awareness about breast cancer in the UAE.

No one has done more to promote the sport than Rashid Al Habtoor, a Dubai businessman and one of the UAE's leading players.

But it has been a tough sell.

"The UAE and Dubai are very famous for horses, and polo came to Dubai over 35 years ago, starting with the old Dubai Polo Club, then Ghantoot and now the Arabian Ranches and a few other private clubs," Al Habtoor said.

"It's growing, but of course it is not an easy game to organise, as you need fields. You need horses, players, boots, saddles. It's costly sport, and it's game for people who can afford it."

Sponsorship plays a critical role in making events like this possible. The four participating teams are Rashid Al Habtoor's own Julius Baer, Aston Martin, Le Clos and Maradiva, patronised by his brother, Mohammed.

In fact, Rashid is one of seven Al Habtoors who regularly play, and patronise, polo in the UAE.

And although the sport has yet to explode into the public consciousness, he recognises a growing affinity to it among young Emiratis.

"I see a lot of young people at Dubai Polo Club Academy who are training to become players," the 46 year old said before adding a note of caution. "But the only problem we're going to face is that we don't have enough fields [to play on]."

For now, the sport draws on professionals from around the world, especially Argentina. All four teams had a player from the South American country over the last two days.

For Al Habtoor, this international flavour has fostered a worldwide polo fraternity, an extended family even.

"[Winston] Churchill said 'a polo handicap is a passport to the world'," he said.

"And for me, playing polo for the last twenty years means I can pick up the phone and speak to friends in Beijing, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, Sydney, Singapore, Paris, London …"

Polo, clearly, is not for everyone, and is often perceived as an elitist sport.

While it is expensive to participate, Al Habtoor is hoping events such as beach polo will make it far more accessible to the general public in the coming years. But, he stressed, it needs more funding and more exposure.

"It's very simple, sponsors need the media, if the media aren't interested there are no sponsors," he admitted, adding that Beach Polo is a high profile event in the way the more traditional tournaments are not.

"We played 2004, 2005, and 2006 and then we stopped because there were no sponsors and in 2008 there was the [economic] crash, but this costs millions to set up and we have to give credit to our sponsors."

Saturday night, Julius Baer defeated Maradiva 6-3 in the final to win the tournament.

As horses retire for the summer, it is an encouraging sign of things to come.

"In the summer I play in Spain and England, but this year will be difficult because Ramadan falls on July 10, so I'll play in May and June only," Al Habtoor said.

"After this we'll take the horses to the stables for the rest of May, June, July and August and in the middle of September we take them out again, and we start polo again in October."

And hopefully, thanks to events like yesterday's, a few more curious fans will show up to watch, too.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

 

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