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Ali Abidi, polo player and coach at Santa María Polo Club

POLO+10: Can you tell us something about your background, about your polo career and how you came to polo?
Ali Abidi: I started playing polo seriously in England in 1976. Back then I was studying in England, originally coming from Iran, and started playing a little bit just before I went to England. I used to do a lot of show jumping, but when I picked up a polo stick I fell in love with the game so I got hooked. The first year I played in England, I started with a famous coach, called Sir Peter Grace, who unfortunately died a year ago. He is my mentor; I started with him my career in polo. He got the “Sir” title basically for doing lots of good for polo in the world. He is originally from New Zealand and he lived in England, a very good horseman. He became a good polo player and was a top coach. He became a senior coach and we worked together. We actually started the first polo school in England at Guards Polo Club, called Dragon Tiki Polo School. We started there together and I was coaching with him since 1978. When I finished the university I came here to Spain in 1981. There were nothing like this, there were only two polo fields, one on the beach and one in Sotogrande. It was fantastic as well.

POLO+10: Why did you come to Spain?
Abidi: I came here to play for one year and I fell in love with the place. I stayed here until 1988/89 when I went back to England again. I played there not professionally, but I got up to 4 goals. I was probably one of the highest amateur players to get to 4 goals. I have been 2 goals ever since I have been playing professionally. Mainly I had been coaching because I enjoy it; I like to teach people if they really want to learn. I’m here to help them and I’ve done it in many clubs in England. I have coached in Ascot Park, it’s a famous polo school, and also in Royal Berkshire, polo club in England and of course here in the Ayala Polo Club. We started the first polo academy here in Spain in 2002/2003. In Santa María we started the polo academy with another top polo senior coach from England. We still continue and do it more as freelancer now, but I collaborate with the clubs. I am a registered HPA coach, but because I don’t live in England I don’t renew it. I was one of the first coaches to get the title. That was long time ago, the first year they did it.

POLO+10: What makes you prefer coaching from playing?
Abidi: It’s not my preference; I like to play as well. Until recently I played at my own club and we are playing with my sons, but it’s also my age I suppose. You get to the stage that you are not young enough to seriously play polo. I still play a lot, friendly matches and tournaments, but not at a high level. I used to play a lot of medium goal polo in England, but that was in the 90’s. When I was a 3-goaler in England, I played a lot of 15-goal polo in England, semi-professionally. Generally I enjoy coaching, because it keeps me going with the horses and the polo, that’s what I enjoy a lot.

POLO+10: What are the main factors that make Santa María Polo Club different from other clubs in Europe?
Abidi: You’ve seen it a little bit yourself, it’s a paradise. We have fantastic weather here, a good climate and almost all year around you can play polo. It’s February and we have been playing since September nonstop. We had a few days of rain, but generally you can play polo here during the whole winter. And there are facilities in case it rains a lot. If it stops raining for a day, the next day the grass is all dry, because it’s very well drained. The ground is done for all weather. You even can play after a lot of rain. At Easter you sometimes get showers here, but the tournaments continue. We got good horses and good players, all year around. A lot of them are living here. We can provide very good polo at all levels, for complete beginners to good players as well.

The Santa María Polo Club has nine polo fields. They are scattered all over the place. There are clubs with more fields, but altogether in the radius of 10-15 km you got something like 20 polo fields here. So that is the first thing, you got a very good infrastructure for keeping the horses, fantastic stabling facilities and you also have got paddocks to turn the horses out. You got everything, even if it rains the paddocks are in a way that the horses are not staying in the mud for too long, like it is happing most European countries. Here a lot of the places are quite sandy and it’s much better for the horses. We let the horses here in winter and play as well. This it what we used to do a lot in the 90’s and 80’s and now we are trying to bring it back again. Bring back people to come here and play in winter, when they cannot play in the rest of Europe. You can play here six months of the winter until April/May. This is a big plus.

And you got the facilities to play on grass, even during winter. You have to go to Argentina, South Africa or the southern hemisphere to play in the winter or go to Palm Beach in Florida. Here you can ship your horses by lorry in two days from anywhere in Europe, within three days maximum they are here. All the time people bring their horses from Germany and from England. They come in the summer and so they can come in the winter too. The transport is not a problem. There is polo in other destinations in Spain in winter, but then you have the problem of transport. In Ibiza or other islands you have the problem of shipping the horses. In three days you are here in Sotogrande and the horses don’t suffer, they travel very well from England to here. They can come in two days, but we prefer in three days. They sleep over in France, sometimes they sleep in Madrid as well and then they come down. And it’s quiet a regular trip, lots of people have been doing this for many years. The people who are doing this are transport specialists, they have to look after the horses.

Apart from that, the club is well organized. They can organize all levels of polo, from low goal to medium goal to high goal, there are a lot of regular tournaments here. So the people have sort of a fixture list with which they can plan ahead. All these things we don’t get in many places. It’s been going on for many years like this, for over 30 years the club exists as it is. In this area the polo has been going on for 40 years. It’s a well-established centre in Europe.

POLO+10: So you could say that here it is something for everybody. Whether you are starting to play or you already are a good player, right?
Abidi: Absolutely. We can provide all levels of polo here, for complete beginners and even for people who have never been on a horse. We have many cases of that, even non-riders. And sometimes it’s easier to teach them. If you have people who are riding a lot it’s harder sometimes to try to change their style to polo, than if you get people who are fresh. Polo style is a little bit different style of riding than normal riding. We got all kinds of people who come and we don’t have the high expanse of having your own horse, because we provide the horses, provide even the sticks for them. Sometimes even the helmet. So they can come and try it. They don’t have to go on and spend a lot of money. Come and try it for a week and see if it’s something for you or not. If it is a sport that you enjoy. Myself as instructor and the other instructors as well can help the guests with that when people try polo as a new sport.

POLO+10: Regarding the stables here, do you have your horses here?
Abidi: At the moment I don’t have any horses here, but I used to. There are a lot of facilities at the club for keeping horses. The club has its own stabling, which can rent out to visitors and outside the club there are also people who rent out paddocks. So the whole area is gear to horses and especially to polo. As I said, for more than 40 years polo has been around. So people are familiar with it and live off polo here. There are grooms and facilities for keeping horses.

And for people who come with their family in summer and winter there are a lot of other activities. Some of the best golf courses in Europe are here. We got tennis, water sports, sailing, surfing, you can do everything. You can even go skiing until April in Sierra Nevada, which is just 2 1/2 hours from here. For people who like to have a polo holiday like for a week, or ten days or two weeks, they can spend some time on horse riding and with polo while the rest of the family, who are not into polo, can do other activities. You don’t get that in many places. In spring and in summer you got the beaches. There is a bit for everyone. You can do family holiday as well. And you have very good top hotels around here, from 3-star to 5-star in the radius of 10 to 15 km. Then you got Marbella: Nightlife, best restaurants, all kind of activities for all tastes.

POLO+10: What are the biggest milestones in your polo career?
Abidi: My biggest milestone was when I got to 4 goals. I would have liked to go higher, but that was not possible as you have limitations of horses etc. My career was different as I was playing semi-professionally. But the main thing I think is to be able to play polo, it doesn’t matter what handicap you are. That’s the good thing about polo. It doesn’t matter what level and handicap you have, you can still enjoy it. Every time I go out there on a horse I still feel like I’m getting on a horse for the first time. Every time you are learning something new, because every horse is different and every ground feels different. That is why polo is so exciting and people get hooked very easily.

POLO+10: You come from old school polo and now it’s getting more and more popular. How do you feel about it?
Abidi: It’s fantastic. The more people play, the better of course. I have been coaching people from school in England, as schools come here, universities, all kinds of people. The more the better, because as you know polo was played at the Olympics. In Germany it was the last time they played. And this is what the aim of every polo player is, get it back to the public, bring it to the people to enjoy it. It’s probably not the easiest game to follow for people who are non-players. But I think until not long ago between the 2nd and the 1st world war in the U.S. for instance polo was a very public sport. Some of the players even were as well known as the best baseball or football players. Because they used to play a lot in the arena indoor polo, spectators were close to the game and they could see it much better. You can feel the polo if you are close to it or if you are a player. Unfortunately that’s one of the reasons why polo hasn’t picked up as a TV sponsored sport. It is not really a spectator friendly game, because everything is happening so far away. And people have tried to televise it, in Argentina all the time, but in Europe or in England they try a lot to get it to the level that it can generate sponsorship. For example snooker, it’s televised. It not exciting, but there are people who are sponsoring that, otherwise they wouldn’t put in on TV. But how come they cannot put polo on TV, I don’t understand it.

POLO+10: What do you think about the cloning of polo ponies?
Abidi: As long as it is not physically going to damage the horses in any way, I don’t see why it should be a problem. I don’t know what technically can go wrong, but as well as I know you can clone other animals too and nothing happens. But even if you clone a horse, I don’t think the horse is going to be exactly the same. Because it depends who has been handling it. Even if it the same guy, I don’t think the horse is going to come out exactly the same. I have never ridden a clone, but I can’t imagine it going to be exactly the same. Obviously a lot of the features, a lot of the traits the horse should be the same if this is a clone. Cambiaso probably has hundreds ponies and all those have similar features, so there are almost like clones. They might not be technically clones, but he always wants the same horse. Only people like him can afford to do that, if I had two similar horses I would be very happy.

POLO+10: What are your plans for the future?
Abidi: I’m based here, but I travel a lot. I still do a bit of coaching in England and for the last ten years I have mostly been here. But I’m quite open to travel. I would love to see more people playing polo all over the world. Even in my own old country Iran they have managed to keep the polo going which makes me very happy. Even with all the turmoil and problems they have had. At least this is a sport they managed to keep alive. So hopefully maybe one day I go back and play there again on the first polo field I played polo 40 years ago.

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