Polo is getting the T20 treatment as the public's thirst for fast and furious sport ekes into the equestrian world.
Polo in the Park, now in its third year and already winner of London Sport Attraction of the Year, is attracting large crowds to the former home of the sport.
AT Bone are the contractors charged with turning a council facility into a world class venue in just a few weeks.
Polo in the Park, held on land adjoining and formerly owned by the Hurlingham Club in Fulham, London, is fast becoming one of London's most popular events. Now in its third year, it provides a fascinating introduction to the sport of polo and, what makes it even more interesting, is that it's held on the very same ground it was originally played on more than one hundred years ago.
Polo was brought to England in 1869, owing largely to the initiative of one of the Hurlingham Club's first Trustees, Lord De L'Isle and Dudley, and its Manager, Captain the Hon J D (later Lord) Monson, and the game was established at Hurlingham in 1874.
Bordering the Thames in Fulham, and set in forty-two acres of magnificent grounds, The Hurlingham Club is a green oasis of tradition and international renown. Recognised throughout the world as one of Britain's greatest private members clubs, it retains its quintessentially English traditions and heritage, whilst providing modern facilities and services for its members.
The Hurlingham Club became - and remained until the Second World War - the headquarters of Polo for the British Empire, and was the scene of major competitions, notably the famous Westchester Cup matches between England and the United States of America.
Unfortunately, after the Second World War, the club lost both of its polo fields to the Government through a Compulsory Purchase Order. One polo field was built on, whilst the other was turned into a public open space, which is still in use today.
However, in 2009, an event PR company saw the opportunity to promote 'Polo in the Park', working on the fact that they had the ideal venue for the pitch and were able to associate themselves with the famous Hurlingham Club, which is used for corporate hospitality during the event.
The three day event comprises a number of matches between some of the world's best international polo teams and players. The playing field is surrounded by a corporate hospitality village where there is a variety of attractions, including the Veuve Clicquot Champagne Garden, Harrods Food Court and lively bars, Mahiki and The Punch Bowl Pub - all with direct views of the polo field.
Since its debut in 2009, Polo in the Park has rapidly established itself as one of the leading central London sporting events, selling out to both the corporate market and general public in 2010 and, in the same year, winning London Sport Attraction Of The Year.
In a similar way to how Twenty20 has changed the image of cricket, Polo in the Park has adapted the traditional rules of polo to create a high octane, fast moving and dynamic sport which attracts both spectators and the media alike.
Six teams - Mint Team London, City AM Team New York, Gaucho Team Buenos Aires, Otkritie Team Moscow, Team Abu Dhabi and IG Index Team Sydney - play in a round robin format over three days, culminating with the final and the presentation of the MINT Trophy.
The job of changing the park into an elite polo playing field has been a testament to the skills and hard work of Rob Kendle, operations manager for AT Bone & Sons, who took up the challenge back in 2009.
The company is a successful sports turf contractor which, under Rob's guidance, has secured many interesting jobs in terms of sports turf provision, with this being one of their toughest challenges to date.
In less than six weeks, Rob and his team have to turn a swathe of public open space into a top quality playing surface for horse and rider to perform on.
The park generally provides the local community with a number of rugby and football pitches to play on, with both incurring a lot of wear during the playing season. It is upon these pitches that the polo field is created.
Work begins in earnest as soon as Rob can gain access to the park - this year they managed to get on site on the 26th April. Rob will have already inspected the site to ascertain the level of input required. In the first year it was a bit of a guess on their part, as they had to tender against other companies and were not fully familiar with the possible outcomes; it was a case of suck it and see.
However, now into his third year, he knows, with some confidence, what can be achieved in a relatively short period of time. The public, however, still have access to the park until two weeks before the event - this year the park was closed to the public on the 23rd May.
Closing the park is important, as it allows Rob and his staff the freedom to get their job completed without the worry of kids coming on to the playing surface to play football.
Rob enlists the help of two other staff members to help set up and maintain the polo field during the three day event - Rob Draper and Pat Bradfield - who remain on site everyday once the park is closed, spending their valuable time mowing, watering, feeding and overseeding.
No two years have ever been the same; the weather is the driving factor and the condition they receive the park in dictates the way forward. This year's dry spring did not help, with grass cover being thin with little vigour. Rob's plan was to decompact the area using a vertidrain, topdress to restore levels, overseed and feed to promote quick growth. The polo field area was sown with one of Rob's own blended rye grass seed mixes.
With the experience of the last two years under his belt, the one driving factor to the success of the project is having the availability of water on site. Last year they worked closely with the local environment agency and gained permission to drill a bore hole to extract twenty cubic metres of water a day, back up by the mains supply. This enables them to provide with the large amounts required to water the new polo playing area of two hectares (200m x 100m).
A twenty four hour step test was carried out to ensure the borehole could produce the allocated amount of water required under the terms of the licence. The test was successful, thereby ensuring they had enough water to cope with the likely demand.
A T Bone have designed and built a number of specialised mobile pumping containers which can store up to twenty six cubic metres of water that can be pumped, at pressure, using Grundfos pumps to operate their self travelling sprinklers and water cannons. They have two mobile units, allowing plenty of capacity to cope with demand and effectively be able to apply 8mm of water in one pass of the playing area. It can take between 4-8 hours to complete a full cycle.
The underlying soil in the park tends to be quite free draining, so it is inclined to dry out quickly, hence the need to irrigate in dry conditions. Without the water it would be extremely difficult to produce a good sward in the time they have.
Once the new seed has germinated, it is a case of waiting for it to get to the two leaf stage and begin the process of cutting, starting with rotary mowers and then moving on to cylinder mowers to get a closer, sharper cut. Height of cut (HOC) at the start of the cutting regime is around 60mm and this is then gradually reduced, over the coming weeks, until they get to match playing height of around 28-30mm.
To help speed up the growth and enhance colour, the sward is fed with a Humber Palmer organic granular 10:5:16 + 1% fe at a rate of 40 gms/m², which is followed, eight days before the tournament, with some seaweed products.
I caught up with Rob and his staff on the day before the event to see, first-hand, the work they had achieved leading up to it, whilst also taking on board the sheer scale and size of the project. I also wanted to witness the last minute preparations and enjoy seeing the pitch being used by these skillful and highly respected polo players.
Rob and his staff were busy mowing the pitch, putting the goal sockets in and setting up the sprinklers to give it a final watering. Like horseracing, the welfare of the horse and rider is paramount and, therefore, ground conditions have to be safe and consistent; not too firm and not too wet.
The following morning I returned to see Rob's final pitch preparations - one final cut and the marking out of the pitch. The pitch is 100m x 200m and needs a perimeter pitch line to demark the playing area, a half way line and penalty areas.
Using a laser guided spray jet linemarker, it was a simple case of setting up the laser guides and marking out. To help make the half way line stand out, blue lines were sprayed either side of the white line. All the work was completed by midday when the public are allowed in. It was good to stand back and admire the standard of work the lads had achieved; the pitch looked absolutely first class from the stand.
The true test, though, comes when the first game is played; Rob can then judge the playing condition of the pitch and see how it stands up to six horses running and turning at break neck speed.
The format of the game is two teams of three players, with each rider having four horses, with the rules of this event stating that horses have to be changed for each chukker. So, for every game, twenty four horses are used, with the aim of ensuring they get adequate rest and are not over-exerted.
A game consists of four chukkers, each of seven minutes duration and, allowing for changeovers, divot replacement and rest periods, lasts about one hour.
We had to wait until 2.45pm to witness the first game and see how the pitch would perform. In the meantime, we were able to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the hospitality the event has to offer, plenty of drink and food outlets, with thousands of people enjoying the glorious sunshine.
The organisers were expecting good numbers to attend - the first day is usually fairly quiet, getting busier as the event progresses, with 16,000 tickets sold for Sunday. It looked like it was going to be a very busy weekend.
Finally, the players make their way onto the pitch to begin their match. The game is played at fast tempo with horses galloping up and down the pitch at breakneck speed and turning on a sixpence. The players' control of the ball is amazing; goals come thick and fast, making it a highly exciting and high scoring game.
Rob was watching the horses closely, seeing how they perform on the surface and, more importantly, how the surface stood up to this activity. The variability of soils over such a large area can cause problems, with different parts of the ground having different playing characteristics. On the whole, Rob was pleased with the way the pitch was standing up to the rigours of the game.
After each game the spectators are allowed onto the pitch to help put the divots back, quite a sight to see all these fashionable ladies in high heels walking all over the pitch. In amongst the melee of spectators, Rob and his staff - armed with forks - put back the worst of the divots.
Three more matches were to be played that day and, once play had finished, it was a case of getting back onto the ground and repairing it, using a set of brushes, rollers and rakes to restore levels. If time allows, they mow it and mark it again for the following day's play.
Once the event is over, repair work is carried out, before handing the park back to the local authority. AT Bone are also required to repair all the damaged and worn areas where the stands, stables and hospitality tents/marquees have been.
This involves decompacting the areas using a vertidrain, topdressing and over sowing - usually leaving the site in a better condition than when they started!
It is a tremendous event and plans are afoot to promote it in other parts of the country, allowing more people to witness a spectacular spectator sport.
It is certainly a full-on effort to get the polo field up and running in such a short time frame, but the rewards are excellent when you see the event unfold over three days.
Rob must be very proud of what he and his staff have achieved this year and is, no doubt, looking forward to yet another exciting challenge next year.