A passion for polo in the sand

Jane Carleyin Equestrian

terrace&clubhouse.jpgA few minutes drive from the commercial bustle of Dubai's city centre, with the dramatic 828m tall Burj Khalifa tower at its heart, the Polo Club Dubai offers a glimpse into a different world.

Finely honed, fit equines pound emerald green turf in front of a spectacular colonial style clubhouse, surrounded by lush gardens and an upmarket riding club. Part of an exclusive new development, the polo club's neighbours include a newly built luxury housing complex and the Arabian Ranches Golf Club.

Polo competitors naturally include numerous Sheiks from the Emirates who have been gripped by the adrenaline fuelled sport, but this spring's inaugural Threadneedle Gold Cup also attracted leading names from the top polo nations, including England and Argentina.

In contrast with polo in Europe, the season starts on 15th of October, when the Gulf's weather cools down enough, and finishes in May. Polo matches are very much part of the lively social scene in Dubai, with the major tournaments promoted through the lifestyle magazines and featuring post match parties, banquets and discos in the club's grounds. The Threadneedle tournament attracted much of the country's glitterati, including members of the royal family.

the throw in.jpgCreating a polo pitch in the desert is a tall order - the surface needs to be firm and level, providing safe footing for eight horses and their often blue blooded pilots, travelling at speed and turning on a sixpence. But, equally, it needs to offer sufficient 'give' and traction to prevent the animals from injuring their delicate limbs.

Each pitch - Dubai Polo Club has a main pitch and a practice pitch - is 300 yards long and 160 yards wide, with a 12in upright board bounding the perimeter to stop the ball rolling out of play easily.

The main pitch was constructed in 2005 by local contractors Orient, using a Bermuda grass selected to cope with temperatures which frequently exceed 40OC in the summer. During establishment, vast quantities of water were required to help develop the root system into the sand-based rootzone.polo.jpg

Even as an established pitch, an intensive maintenance regime is required, as Head Groundsman, Darren Smith, explains: "Temperatures have a major influence on what fertilisers we use. During the winter months we tend to use liquid fertilisers whilst, during the summer months, granular products are used. During the lead up to tournaments, we pay special attention to the height of cut and the smoothness of the pitch, rolling it frequently."

Watering is another important task, with irrigators brought in every night to keep the pitch quenched: "We can't use an in-ground system on the polo fields as we don't want the horses treading on sprinkler heads, so we use six large travelling irrigation guns which are extended to the far side of the pitch and slowly wind themselves in as they travel over the turf."

Extensive planting around the club also requires plenty of care. Manicured shrub and flowerbeds are irrigated using a drip system to help minimise spray drift and evaporation.
"The landscaping seems to be the most labour intensive part of the job," comments Darren. "Plants and hedges are constantly being pruned to help keep the well defined look, and a significant part of our budget is spent on the landscape maintenance."

The club has a total of twelve staff, who are split between the landscaped gardens surrounding the clubhouse and equestrian club and the pitch maintenance, but can be redeployed as necessary.

Darren is also in charge of the Arabian Ranches golf course, an 18 hole, par 72, desert style grass course, which was designed by Ian Baker-Finch in association with Nicklaus Design.
"We also share machines and, if needed, the golf course staff can also work on the polo pitches, so it is a real team effort," says Darren.

The Dubai Equestrian Club is also based on site, offering training for show jumping and dressage. Facilities include luxurious stabling and three artificial riding surfaces.

Maintenance machinery in Dubai is supplied by two importers and the club mainly uses Toro and Jacobsen equipment. Darren says: "I have no preference on a brand, only that it does what it needs to do!"

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