This week the Dubai Polo Gold Cup, one of the city’s biggest tournaments, hits the playing field
Get those picnic baskets ready: Dubai’s Polo Gold Cup 2013 kicks off on Monday February 25, running through to the final big day out on Friday March 15. Horses have long been synonymous with the UAE, bred for hundreds of years by Arabic tribes, where they were used for hunting and battle. They’re also seen as a great symbol of wealth and nobility. So where better to get into polo than in a city where horses are such a vital part of the country’s heritage? At the very least, it’s the perfect excuse to get dressed up and head outdoors.
What is the Dubai Gold Cup? A domestic competition, the Dubai Gold Cup follows the Silver Cup, whittled down to six teams. The cup tournament is still relatively young: it was set up in 2009 by a committee comprised of well-known figures in UAE business, plus polo players passionate about the sport. Its aim is to boost the game’s presence both inside the country and across the rest of the Middle East.
Polo: the rules ‘Polo is played in a form of matrix,’ explains Dubai Polo Academy managing director Steve Thompson. ‘If you were able to watch the game from above, you’d see lines of passage and rights of way, not dissimilar to a road system.’ At its most basic, there are two main rules: the direction in which the ball is travelling, and the right of way of the horse. ‘When the ball is struck, it moves in a direction called “the line of the ball”. If it passes you on the right, you can only hit from the right, and vice versa. Fouls are incurred when a player crosses the line of the ball, or enters another horse’s right of way.’
Two more fundamentals include ‘hooking’ and ‘riding off’. ‘Polo is a contact sport, so to stop your opponent hitting the ball cleanly or at all, a player can ride off over the line to be able to hit the ball himself, or spoil an opponent’s shot. You can also block a shot by using your stick to hook your opponent’s stick.’
Anything else that spectators should know? ‘Polo always seems to be played on the other side of the pitch – it seems that no matter where you stand and watch, the play is always the furthest point away from you!’ explains Steve. He adds that many people are often confused by the direction of play: once a goal has been scored, teams change ends. A few glasses of bubbly in, it’s hardly surprising polo seems so difficult to follow.
The competitors ‘The six teams this year are Mahra, Abu Dhabi, Ghantoot, Bin Drai, Zedan and Habtoor,’ explains Dubai Polo Gold Cup chairman Mohammed Al Habtoor. ‘Three teams have taken the Gold Cup in the past three years – the first one in 2010 was won by Mahra; in 2011 by Abu Dhabi and last year by Habtoor.’ Though all are UAE-based teams, each is free to recruit talent from further afield, as long as the team’s total handicap – a skill rating given to each player, ranked from one to ten – doesn’t exceed 16. ‘In each team there are four players: one is the patron [the team’s sponsor], plus three players of another nationality, often Argentinian.’
Ones to watch ‘In each team, there is always one person who is the top handicap,’ Al Habtoor explains. ‘Zedan Polo have a player called Ignacio Heguy – he is one of the top players in the world – while Abu Dhabi have Juan Abroggio, and Ghantoot have Facundo Sola.
In my team I have Ezequiel Martinez.’ Unfortunately, Zedan and Mahra won’t qualify for the semi-finals, as Al Habtoor explains they recorded early losses in the Silver Cup, played in the first half of February. Al Habtoor also encourages people to pay attention to the horses. ‘These are some of the best horses you will see in Dubai – they are groomed very well and are physically beautiful.’
So which team does he expect to win? ‘There is one team that has a 99 percent chance, and that’s Ghantoot, which belongs to HH Sheikh Falah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.’ Al Nahyan is the son of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan; he’s also a member of the Abu Dhabi ruling family and chairman of the Emirates Polo Association. ‘But it’s not just about having the best players – you also have to have the best horses.’
Spectator etiquette Thompson explains that because polo is so well-known for its royal and celebrity connections, it’s seen as a special occasion and therefore the perfect opportunity to get dressed up. But even though you may look demure, getting involved and cheering heartily for your team is still perfectly acceptable. ‘It’s traditional for spectators to venture out onto the pitch at half time and help repair the damaged turf,’ says Thompson. ‘This is known as “stomping the divots” – most people will know it from a famous scene in the film Pretty Woman. The classic line from the movie, “beware of the steaming divot,” has become a part of every commentator’s repertoire.’
While polo guarantees a great day out, especially if you’re picnicking with family and friends, it’s a fast-paced sport, so certain safety measures are essential. ‘Horses can travel at up to 60kph and a ball can reach speeds of 190kph, so spectators need to make sure they stay behind the nine metre run-off zone that surrounds the pitch. If you wander inside this, play will be stopped immediately.’
Entertainment ‘Every Friday and Saturday, one side of the field is open for spectators. The matches start at 2.30pm, and you can watch two top matches both days,’ says Al Habtoor. But he also encourages people to head down during the week if they have time, with matches usually scheduled from 2.30pm if there are two in a day, or 4pm if it’s just one. On the final day, Friday March 15, there is a more festive atmosphere. ‘Every year we have food stands, a big lounge with a line-up of local and international DJs, a VIP lunch – this year by Villa Romana – and a brunch served on the terrace.’ Dubai Polo Academy, Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club, opposite Arabian Ranches, www.dubaipoloacademy.com (050 887 9847).
Smoked salmon by Salmontini Made using Scottish salmon, the fish is smoked in Dubai for a minimum of 24 hours to create a flavoursome, quality product. Dhs65 for 200g. Jones the Grocer, Al Manara, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 346 6886).
Burrata by Italian Dairy Try a traditional Italian cheese made to artisanal requirements in the UAE using milk from Al Ain. Dhs132 per kg. Carrefour, Mall of the Emirates, Barsha (800 73232).
Bread by Baker and Spice Baked fresh every day, the range includes bagels (perfect for smoked salmon), potato and rosemary sourdough, and organic wholemeal spelt loafs. From Dhs25 for sourdough 450g. Souk Al Bahar, Downtown Dubai (04 425 2240). Other locations: Dubai Marina, behind Marina Promenade Building (04 362 4686), Dukkan Al Manzil, Downtown Dubai (04 427 9856).
Hampers 101 Dining Lounge and Bar The picnic is dubbed the ‘yacht hamper’, designed for diners to enjoy aboard their own vessel, but there is no reason why you can’t zip off to the polo with it as well. Dhs450 per person. One&Only The Palm, Palm Jumeirah (04 440 1010).
Mange Tout Available online, the picnic basket is stuffed with everything you’ll need to eat alfresco, including cotton napkins, cutlery, plates and glasses, as well as olives, nuts, cheese and melba toast. Dhs275. www.mangetout.ae.
Milk & Honey Build your own picnic hamper; choose the items you wish to include and the store will pack it up for you. From Dhs100. Shoreline Building 10, Palm Jumeirah (04 432 8686). Other location: Emirates Hills, Meadows Town Centre 1 (04 435 6363).
Dubai Polo Gold Cup 2013
Need to know When: The Polo Gold Cup starts on Monday February 25 and culminates on Friday March 15. The final day of the event is the biggest day out, and the doors open at noon for the public. Visit www.dubaipologoldcup.com for the comprehensive fixtures list.
Where: Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club, opposite Arabian Ranches (04 361 8111).
How much: With the exception of the final day, matches are free to attend, and parking outside is also free. If you wish to bring your car onto the picnic field, there’s a Dhs100 charge per vehicle. Dhs150 per person for final event on Friday March 15. www.timeouttickets.com.