Presenting the best pitches possible and accommodating growing numbers of players on a limited income is the challenge for groundsmen at low goal polo clubs, the sport's entry level. Fortunately, for Kirtlington Park Polo Club, their Head Groundsman 'Magic' Mike Moss is adept at providing the princely sport on a tight budget. Jane Carley reports
For Mike Moss - known to the members of Kirtlington Park Polo Club as 'Magic Mike' - providing playing and practice facilities for what can be up to 200 polo players over a weekend, playing up to twenty-five matches, requires an intimate knowledge of the seven fields at the club's home near Bicester in Oxfordshire, plus clever juggling of the resources available.
"Matches have to take place for the teams to pay for the use of the pitches, which goes towards their upkeep, but if the ground gets too hard, they won't play on those fields," he explains.
Just two of the seven pitches can be irrigated, but the Number One and Two grounds have an unusual soil structure that means they rarely become too firm.
Kirtlington Park Polo Club was founded by Hugh Budgett in 1926, who built a polo field in the grounds of his family home. During the war, the field was ploughed up to grow potatoes and, when it was reinstated, the Land Army carefully de-stoned the soil and dressed it with ash from the factories before re-turfing.
Mike believes that this has helped to give the present day pitches their unique quality: "When the ground dries up, it crumbles rather than cracking, which means that it retains its give. The horses love it and go so well on it - it's one of the best polo surfaces in the country."
Hugh Budgett's son Alan carried on the polo tradition in the post-war period, adding further pitches, and his nephew James now owns this part of the estate, which has seen a change of direction in recent years.
"In the late 1990s, changes to grain storage legislation meant that the farming operation was no longer viable," explains Mike. "Some of the buildings have been redeveloped as business units, and the emphasis on polo has increased. There are now seven fields with five full size pitches, one chukka (practice match) field and a two-thirds size practice field for school children."
The farm also has 200 acres of grass paddocks and 150 horses stabled in two new barns to house the polo ponies which stay on site through the season.
"The stable development was a big investment, but should pay for itself within ten years," he says. "We have also added an all-weather horse exercise track throughout the park."
The latter is mainly used by polo grooms who ride one horse and lead several others at the same time, traditionally done on the country lanes - the frenetic pace of life in rural England now makes this practice too hazardous.
Interest in polo has grown dramatically among pupils at local independent schools, and this keeps Mike busy in the first half of the season.
The Pony Club organise tournaments with up to 200 riders attending per weekend through the summer, whilst the demand from individuals keen to take up the sport increases steadily once again in the improving financial climate.
Pitches take a real hammering and need constant care. With each pitch measuring 300 x 165 yards, or 10 acres - the size of three football pitches - that's a lot of turf to maintain.
Polo fields are constructed on a slight slope - a dome shape is ideal - to encourage drainage, and it's a delicate balance between having the surface firm enough to facilitate fast, exciting play, but not so hard that it risks injuries to the horses.
"We have minimal machinery and hire in a verti-drain and seeder to cut costs, but all profits are ploughed back into pitch improvements," says Mike. "Our bill for seed alone is £5,000-6,000 a year, and we aim to fertilise every eight weeks."
Preparations for the new season start in March when all pitches are scarified, using an Amazone Groundkeeper.
"I tend to delay the first fertiliser application until we're mowing, otherwise the grass can get away from us. But this is a busy time of year as I look after the paddocks too."
Agricultural grade bulk nitrogen is used to feed the sward. "We tried small bag specialist fertiliser, but found that it is not much better than the agricultural product," Mike comments.
The first matches are planned for Easter weekend, subject to the weather, and Mike comments that many of the members will have been playing abroad over the winter and are raring to go! "They don't always understand that cold British springs can mean that the pitches are not quite ready."
A 6m Major triple roller mower is currently the tool of choice for grass cutting, which can need doing three times a week at the start of the season. Cut heights are set at around 3cm (1.5in), or a little higher in dry conditions.
"The roller mower design means that we don't have to roll as a separate operation," Mike explains, "and their 6m cut is essential to get across the expanse of grass."
In addition to the pitches themselves, there are large 'stick and ball' areas where players can warm up their ponies, and practice and hone their skills, which have been developed and improved by Mike.
"The area next to Ground Four was like a jungle, so we had to cut it with a pasture topper to start with and keep collecting with the Amazone," he recalls.
The Major roller mower replaced a set of Ransomes gangs, and Mike laments their passing. "The finish from gang mowers is second to none, but the repairs are so expensive, especially when you hit something like a horseshoe, which is quite common! The Major rep actually demonstrated the durability of the roller mower by throwing a horseshoe in front of it, and it chewed it up and spat it out."
However, the Major mower is up for replacement after ten years' service and Mike is now shopping around. "I will have every contender here and test them before making a decision," he says.
An Irrifrance reel feeds a raingun to water Grounds Five and Six in three runs each; the irrigation lagoon is filled from a borehole via a diesel powered pump although, once the dry weather arrives, the borehole pressure drops and there is only sufficient for one pitch.
Verti-draining helps to ease the firm ground, and is currently carried out at the start of the season, halfway through and at the end, although Mike says that more often would be ideal. Pitches are also hollow cored to relieve compaction and encourage grass tillering.
Wet weather is as much of a challenge as dry conditions, and a rainy tournament can see the pitch repair gangs called in - at a cost of £4,500 - to fill holes and replace divots.
In better weather, Mike and his assistant fill the divots themselves, using a 50/50 sand/soil mix, which encourages grass growth better than straight sand, he suggests.
"The roller mower is one of the best tools for repairing a pitch as it puts the divots back. If you can get them back in quickly, the turf will recover rather than die. However, you do need time - it can be tricky repairing a pitch after a 6.00pm fixture when there is another one at 10.00am the next day!"
He adds: "The two tractors, a 100hp John Deere and New Holland TS90 work hard, and it's a compromise between having something that's powerful enough to run the irrigator and pull the roller mower, without being too heavy."
Mike also reseeds at the end of the season, using a 1m square to assess the most important areas for attention.
"We're using ryegrass varieties from the DLF Master Seeds range at the moment. They are fast growing and withstand cold winters - we actually graze the polo fields with sheep in the winter to stop the grass growing too much."
"I also use some fescue, if the budget allows, as it is good in drought conditions, if a little slow to grow. We buy seed in bulk and get a good price and prompt delivery."
The underlying Cotswold brash soils make growing anything a challenge - in the final years of farming on the estate, Mike recalls dry summers sending crop yields plummeting.
Highlight of the season is the Budgett Everett tournament in August, where players compete towards the Hurlingham Polo Association's Victor Ludorum award, although the club is more renowned for offering entertaining polo in a picturesque setting throughout the season rather than one specific event.
Efforts to provide the sport's legendary hospitality on the outlying pitches, away from the clubhouse, include the building of 'chukka bars' by Mike and by members - temporary buildings with raised decking to afford a lofty view of the action whilst quaffing a Pimms or other seasonal beverage!
Landscaping of the area adjacent to the lagoon is another project, whilst Mike is also responsible for the maintenance of the magnificent oak trees in the parkland setting of Grounds One and Two.
A new electronic clock, which also acts as the scoreboard, has pride of place on Ground One, donated by the family of member Rupert Thorneloe in his memory after he was killed in Afghanistan. His love of the sport is also commemorated in a popular KPPC members vs the Army tournament each July.
Mike Moss is something of a fixture at Kirtlington Park, having worked for the Budgett family for forty-three years in total, and is looking forward to his retirement, if he can train up a successor.
In the meantime, he ponders on his wishlist for the club. "A bigger lagoon would be useful - it was originally only designed to irrigate one field. A verti-drain would make a big difference, as would a set of gangs that could stand up to the workload. Oh, and 500 tonnes of sand wouldn't go amiss!"
But he prides himself on making the most of what is available, carrying out repairs and maintenance over the winter in the club's workshop, and getting the best out of the machinery. The new season will soon come round again.