It's hard to get lost when visiting Cowdray Park Polo Club. The distinctive mustard yellow signage, a trademark of the club since the first matches were played there in 1910, guides your way into the village of Easebourne, Midhurst, West Sussex, where the striking colour adorns the paintwork of houses and shops alike, proclaiming that these are tied properties of Lord Cowdray's estate.
Considered the home of British polo, Cowdray Park sits in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the peer's 17,000-acre estate, and is renowned as one of the leading clubs in both the UK and abroad.
Perhaps, more than any other club, it proved pivotal in re-establishing polo in England following the Second World War. In a sporting sphere seen as still the preserve of royalty and the affluent, Cowdray Park is a venue where even the grounds manager has a double-barrelled name.
And he is 33-year-old Julian Russell-Hayes. London born and bred and four years in the post, Julian came to the job after a varied early career. Raised in Wimbledon, opposite the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, he acquired an early taste for the racquet sport but relocated to Sussex after finishing his A Levels.
After a short stint at Portsmouth University, he discovered, early on, that academe was not the route for him, so decided to move into agriculture after it was recommended to him.
He went on to study at Brinsbury College, near Billingshurst, West Sussex, before landing the assistant groundsman's position at Middleton Sports Club near Chichester, where he worked for some five years. "Whilst there, I saw the job at Cowdray advertised in a local paper and thought I'd apply. They offered me the job and I haven't looked back since," he enthuses.
When I met Julian, he was busy preparing the final touches for the semi finals of the Verve Clicquot Gold Cup, the highlight of the British polo season and one of the sport's premier international open tournaments, drawing up to 20,000 spectators for the weekend final, including the occasional visit from Prince Charles, an avid player and supporter.
"It's tough preparing the lawns for such a prestigious event," Julian confesses. "The players know the standard the turf needs to be, so there's always a pressure on me to deliver the goods for events like this. The rewards though outweigh any pressure, especially if I receive good feedback from the players."
Polo at Cowdray requires all entrants to the Gold Cup to enter a four-strong team with a joint handicap of up to 22 goals, with the best players holding a 10-goal standard. Any team worldwide is eligible to enter the Gold Cup as long as it can attain the necessary level.
When you enter the world of polo, you think big in terms of scale of machinery and acreage managed. For Julian, the scope of the task is almost agricultural, so vast is the complex of playing surfaces he and his staff maintain.
The club runs 14 main lawns, each measuring 300 yards long by 160 yards wide, across two sites separated by Sussex farmland.
Six pitches make up the Lawns complex by the main village entrance of the club, while a further eight are sited at the Ambersham complex, two miles away, on what was once an old World War Two airfield that suffered at the hands of wartime bombing.
Polo pitches receive more of a hammering than perhaps any other sportsturf. Polo ponies are carefully selected and bred for explosive acceleration and speed, as well as stamina, agility and manoeuvrability - all factors vital for the excitement of the sport but ones that take their toll on turf.
And, to limit the likelihood of these equine dynamos careering into the crowds, a ten yards deep safety zone surrounds the pitch, keeping spectators out of harm's way of heavily braking horsepower. "Accidents are few and far between," Julian confirms reassuringly.
"Our grass needs to be extremely durable and able to recover well," he continues. "I use a mix of perennial ryegrass supplied by British Seed Houses (BSH) and go through 800 x 20kg bags a year. "BSH produces a really good seed at a very reasonable price," he adds. "When I joined we were looking to change a few things with the turf so decided to go out to tender. BSH gave us the best price for what we thought was a superior seed."
As much for sporting dynamism, polo is known for the countless numbers of divots that ponies hurtling at top speeds inevitably create.
The deepest ones - up to three inches - materialise when ponies dig their hooves in. A polo pitch can look something akin to a battlefield after play - a state that Julian knows must be addressed with minimal delay.
Repairing the lawns begins immediately after a match - good time management is a crucial part of the mending process, he emphasises. "It's vital to get straight on it and is even more pressing after heavy rain, my worst nightmare in the job. The pitch can end up in a pretty terrible state, so we get straight out after chukkas and start on the repairs. The earlier it's done, the more successfully the pitch will recover."
Repair is so critical that Cowdray pays an agency (JFD Associates) to bus in a team of mainly Eastern European treaders-in to walk over the pitch, filling in divots using a sand, seed and green waste mix. "There's usually about fifteen workers, but we can employ anything up to twenty-five depending on the match and the state of the pitch," adds Julian. These latterday journeymen follow the calendar of polo events and, for obvious reasons, are much in demand.
The more general maintenance involves topdressing twice a year with sand in March and June, using more than 4,500 tonnes across the fourteen lawns, applying a minimum of 250 tonnes of sand per lawn. "We are lucky to have a natural sandy loam-based soil here," Julian explains, "which means drainage has never been a problem. That's a blessing considering the size of the estate."
Taking on a new post as head groundsman can often be a fraught one, as ideas on how best to run a maintenance programme, preferred choice of seed and makes of machinery thought most suited for the task can all be highly personal ones and result in a major overhaul by the new incumbent.
For Julian though, the transition was largely a smooth one. "Fortunately, I inherited grounds in great condition, which needed little changing, but was met with an ageing fleet of machinery. The pitches were in fantastic nick but the machinery needed replacing and updating. I was lucky to be given a generous budget for renewing our fleet."
Julian set about replacing all the tractors with a new fleet of New Holland units, introducing all new cutting equipment, new towing machines, two vertidrainers and a Weidenmann Terra Spike - used for deep spiking and aeration.
"I specified hydraulically folding cutters. There are very few currently on the market, but Kesmac gang mowers were the best for the job. With winding country roads separating the Ambersham and Lawns complexes, it was vital that we had a machine that could travel back and forth without any problems," he says.
One machine few and far between in the industry, but one Julian and his team swear by is the Bowcom Trike motorised line marker. "Few clubs in the UK have one, possibly because, at £3,500, it's not a cheap piece of kit," says Julian. "You really need the space to justify the purchase." Something in plentiful supply at Cowdray Park.
With a 5.5hp engine, a top speed of 18mph and the ability to line a lawn in 20 minutes, the Trike suits the large, agricultural scale of Cowdray Park down to a tee, not to mix the metaphor.
"Before purchasing the machine, lining a pitch by hand could take up to an hour and a half, so it's been a worthwhile investment for us," says Tony Lewis, one of the team of four groundsmen at Cowdray. The line marker needs to be a workhorse, he adds, as Cowdray plough through more than sixty big tubs of the marble-based marking material a year.
Although the polo season only runs from mid-April to the end of September, upkeep of the grounds is a year-round undertaking. "We maintain a 20mm cut height throughout the playing season and for match days," Julian explains, "but leave the sward to grow to 45mm through the winter months to allow the divot damage to properly repair, ready for the new season.
"Our regular programme of post-match maintenance involves the initial filling-in of all the holes post chukka, followed by cutting if the weather permits, then finishing with a light roll with the roller mowers."
Cowdray use a 20ft Major roller mower, in addition to a fleet of Kesmac gang mowers, also of a similar cut width. "It's a great machine for consolidating divots after chukkas," says Julian.
Applying the right fertilisers is as important as utilising the correct machinery, he believes. "We have an ongoing fertiliser programme and, in winter, send our soil off for analysis to NRM laboratories in Woking, Surrey, to reveal any nutrient deficiencies. The sandy soil here leaches potassium very quickly, requiring us to apply high potassium fertiliser in the autumn and spring. We top up with nitrogen in the summer to help the turf recover from the rigours of play."
He has only a few words to say on weeds but his spray programme, carefully recorded, clearly brings results, judging by the pristine condition of the turf. "We spray with Headland Transfer weedkiller in spring and apply insecticides in the autumn to control leather-jackets and frit fly. I bring in ACS, a Midhurst-based firm, to do the spraying for me."
Despite the constant upkeep needed to maintain Cowdray's internationally high standards, Julian relishes the challenge. "My job is a wholly demanding one which means we do work long hours, especially in the summer, but it's enjoyable and we're all looked after really well by the club. The opportunities to work lots of overtime are welcomed by all of us, especially through the busy summer months. "We run a well oiled machine - everyone knows what they are doing and no-one minds getting on with the job as it's important to make hay while the sun shines, as they say."
Groundsmanship on such a huge scale requires a balance between maintaining such a vast area in a cost and time efficient manner and addressing the finer detail of nurturing well-groomed turf for top class polo.
There's no getting round the fact though that irrigation - or "irritation" as Julian and the team fondly refer to the process - is one task that is never anything other than monumental in scope. "Our irrigation is conducted on a massive scale," he declares. "Water is pumped out from the river Rother, which runs nearby the Ambersham complex. It's pumped up through a ring main to water hydrants at the end of each lawn. We then use agricultural-style irrigators, with rain guns attached, to water the playing surfaces." Repair work he leaves in the capable hands of KGB Contractors of Chichester.
"However, the equipment I inherited is on borrowed time," he adds, "as we are looking to replace the irrigators with boom sprayers because the reels, now 15 to 17 years old, have come to the end of their lifespan."
The job of grounds manager at a sports club as prestigious as Cowdray brings its fair share of headaches, Julian concedes, but he is keen to stress that the positives far outweigh any downsides to the role.
"The best part of my job is the satisfaction of seeing thousands of people descend on Cowdray during Gold Cup week to enjoy the polo, played on surfaces that we've dedicated so much time to," explains Julian. "The downside to the job would be playing on very wet days and machinery breakdowns."
Yet all this pales into insignificance when you are showered with praise from some of the most respected players in the game. "My best individual moment to date was during my first season in charge when I received an email from management notifying me that Carlos Gracida, one of the greatest-ever polo players, rated lawn one a ten out of ten. I still have the email, framed and hanging on my wall at home."
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The full game of polo is eight chukkas, but often, in club matches, four or six chukkas are played. Each chukka is timed to last seven minutes. There are intervals of three minutes between chukkas and five minutes at half time. Ends are changed at every goal scored - this has been found fairest when there is a wind.
Ponies can play two chukkas in an afternoon with a rest of at least one chukka in between. There is no limit to the height of ponies. Each player in high goal (top level professional) tournaments uses a fresh pony for each chukka because the game is played at a very fast pace, with the horses galloping much of the time. In club games, ponies may play two chukkas in a match. Should overtime be required, a seventh mount may be called upon, or a player may go back to his best mount of the day. Three minutes are generally allowed between chukkas to change horses.
Each player is handicapped (on a 4-6 chukka basis) from -2 up to 10 goals (the top professional players). The aggregate handicap of the four players in a team is the team handicap. e.g. if all players have a handicap of two goals each, the team handicap is eight goals and is referred to as an '8 goal team'. In handicap tournaments, if both teams do not have an equal aggregate handicap, one team is given a number of goals start which is calculated as follows: the number of goals start is obtained by multiplying the difference between the two teams' handicaps by the number of chukkas and dividing by six, any fraction counting a half a goal.
The Gold Cup
The Gold Cup for the British Open Polo Championship was inaugurated at Cowdray Park in 1956. In the early days, Prince Philip was a regular contender with Her Majesty the Queen having presented the Gold Cup on more than one occasion. Cowdray Park's own team lost in the very first final but was victorious in 1958, 1961 and 1962, coming runners-up 11 more times.
For the past 15 years, leading champagne house Veuve Clicquot has sponsored the Gold Cup. Taking on the sponsorship was the brand's first venture into the UK polo scene but it fitted perfectly with the company's status as 'Champagne of the Season'. It also helped that Clicquot's branding closely matches the distinctive bright yellow paint used throughout the Cowdray estate.
The Gold Cup is the most coveted trophy in polo and 2009 saw sixteen teams in contention in the British Open Polo Championship and the world's finest players in action. The tournament opened on 23 June with forty matches played before the final was contested on Sunday 19 July, when some 15,000 spectators flocked to the famous Cowdray Lawns for a day of world-class polo.
This year's winners were La Bamba