Polo: A Player’s ViewBy Ameer Jumabhoy August 25, 2011
It’s really early in the morning and a Jumabhoy family entourage—mom, sister and grandfather—are with me to catch a 9 a.m. flight. We are headed to a polo match. Although I live and study in Houston, Texas, my family is based in Singapore, and that’s where we’re departing, heading to Pahang, Malaysia, where my polo team, La Sarita, is based in the quaint town of Kuantan.
Polo is an international game, literally spanning the globe, I feel blessed to have this juggernaut of support traveling with me. In a way, it embodies the spirit of polo: a tight-knit community spread over a huge playing field, and by that I mean not only the size of the actual pitch—nine times the size of a football field, or about 10 acres—but also our metaphorical field, the globe.
La Sarita is a family outfit that was started by my dad with the theme of “family polo” being central to all aspects of our operation. While tournaments may be sponsored by companies, most teams are not; they are run by patrons—amateur players who are primarily successful businessmen who are passionate about polo, and talented enough to be able to play the sport at a very high level.
I’m 22, but I learned the rules of the game sitting on my grandfather’s lap while he explained the sport to me, and was there to cheer on dad when he scored goals at important tournaments. (Pop was rated at 3 goals at the top of his game.)
My grandfather no longer plays, but my father and uncle still do, as does my younger brother Ali, 17. But the game is not just about those who are on the field. It’s about my mom, who offers advice and strategy; my grandfather, who still worries whether his boys have enough water to drink; my sisters, who know each and every horse by name and pat each one before a match.
There are four players per team, and La Sarita is comprised of me, my dad and two Argentine professionals. We play in the Royal Malaysian Polo Association league, where we compete in the medium-goal (6 goals) and the high-goal (14 goals) in Malaysia. The league includes teams from many of the Malaysian states, Singapore and a team from Thailand.
To stay active during the school year, I was able to put together the La Sarita-Catsprings team ― a satellite operation formed with Raymond Stainback’s Cat Springs farm, based at the Houston Polo Club.
At games, when I look around at the pony lines, I realize why polo is such a complete experience. It is a game that encompasses danger, speed, passion and strategy—all the ingredients for a perfect and pure sport. For me, polo is not just about the game. It is about all the aspects associated with putting a team on a field to perform.
It is a process that begins with the basics—the farriers, grooms and people who exercise and train the horses—then goes to the players’ physical trainers and finally to our manager, Karen, who overlooks the whole operation. Only when these components are in place can the team perform at its best.
The only way to win is if there is a strong playing relationship between each of us. Good horses and synergy between the players are the basic recipes for success. Luckily, our team in the 5 goal has trained and played together for a while, and we understand each other’s game perfectly.
At this particular match in Kuantan, everything clicks and we come away with a big 5–1 win against our tough opponents from the 1Pahang polo team, who are playing on their home turf.
I usually play number 1 in the high goal, but in the medium goal, I tend to play in the number 2 position. It’s a physical position and requires tremendous bursts of energy and an all-action performance in both defense and attack. My contribution to the team is that of “the fighter,” and I do my best to gain possession of the ball from the opposition and begin an attacking move.
Many people associate polo with only the glamour and social aspect of the sport, but there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes. In January I was asked to serve as a sports ambassador for the Texas Children’s Cancer Center in Houston, and devised a program to help the patients, called Golden Goals. I really wanted to come up with something that would take polo into the realm of “continued giving,” rather than the more common approach of one-off charity events.
Golden Goals recruits sponsors who pledge $10 for every goal I score during official tournaments. My target is to raise $15,000, and also to help people understand that polo is not a completely elitist sport. I also take many of the kids for pony rides and to tournaments, and have built close relationships with many of them, which has been very rewarding ― just one example of how polo has enhanced my life “off the field.”
At its heart, though, polo is primarily a bond between horse and man. The players do their best to ensure that this relationship is genuine and works. Horses have a knack of “feeling” their riders, upon whom much of the responsibility for developing this equine-human partnership rests. The rider must understand each horse and its strengths and weaknesses in order to get the best out of him.
Of course, horses are not simply majestic and genteel animals—they are athletes, with determination, grit and hearts bigger than any contenders in the world. Generally, at the 14-goal level, we like to keep 6 horses for each player over four chukkers (periods). Because of the intensity of the game, we often change horses once every half-chukker and have to be strategic about which horses play when. This is why riding and forging a relationship with each horse is so
important. Outside of the actual game, we ride our horses a lot and tend to them off the field as well.
To be any good at polo, you really have to love it. You have to live it, with everyone playing to their strengths. To be able to excel as an individual, and also as part of a team, that is what great sport is all about.
To keep up with the author’s latest adventures in polo, visit Ameer Jumabhoy’s Chukkerboard blog.
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