Adolfo Cambiaso made Sotogrande and Santa Maria Polo Club the playground for his exquisite skills once more in the European finale to the polo season as the Dubai Polo Team ended the month-long tournament as champions of the Bulgari Gold Cup.
But behind the scenes at this exquisite club nestled in huge grounds near the coast of southern Spain, there are huge development plans for the future: many of the best players in the world embark on the sojourn to Spain at the end of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Gold Cup in England, but patrons playing in England could soon be preparing their teams in Sotogrande ahead of the English season. There are also plans for wider equestrian pursuits there, as expansion grows.
The Bulgari Gold Cup final lived up to all expectations, and although Dubai defeated Lechuza Caracas 12-10, it was a fitting finale to the European season, Ali Albwardy’s team the winners of the most important trophy of the 44th Land Rover International Polo Tournament, his team, featuring his son Rashid Albwardy, Martín Valent, Alejo Taranco and Cambiaso, capturing both High Goal trophies – the INDI Silver Cup and the Bulgari Gold Cup.
In a back-and-forth first half, Dubai were up 6-5 after three chukkas, with Lechuza having brought it back to 8 apiece after 28 minutes. It was neck and neck thereafter until the final hooter, in spite of Dubai having gone 11-8 up in the sixth, and final, chukka. In those closing minutes, as the digital clock ticked away, after missing a penalty, Lechuza’s Julian Lusaretta then scored and Juan Martin Nero missed a bobbling ball in front of the uprights which would have taken the score to 11-10.
But when Dubai then hammered home a penalty the result was all but nailed down, in spite of a last minute goal from Lusaretta. The final klaxon confirmed Dubai as the ‘double’ winners, and, for the record, netted Cambiaso’s fifth consecutive title in the Spanish season. The Best Playing Pony, sponsored by the Argentinian Embassy, went to the mare Yun Yun, ridden by Cambiaso in the third and the sixth chukka of this match.
Jose Donoso, the Chilean who was once a fixture in the English season, battled hard for Lechuza with his team-mates.
He told The Telegraph: “It felt like it was going to be one of those days. But we slipped away at the end and of course when it’s Cambiaso you are playing against, you can’t miss your opportunities.”
“We had opportunities and we should have taken them. But it was a great game. We gave it our all. We are upset but we know we gave it all, so we are satisfied.”
Donoso believes Sotogrande is one of the world’s great locations for polo. “It’s really good weather on really good fields and there is excellent organisation from the clubhouse and the people. It’s one of those special places.”
“I’ve played for 22 years and I decided to change direction and move my horses to the States and went to California and some other destinations I always wanted to play in. It was great. I met some great people and ended up finding this job (with Lechuza) which is probably the best job I’ve ever had. It’s a huge organisation. I’m very, very happy.”
Donoso will now head to other new sites. “We will play in America and Venezuela, where Victor lives, and he’s also going to pay three months of 20 goal polo in the Republic of Dominica. That’s something that is very interesting and I think it’s going to be great.”
Patron Victor Vargas was also disappointed, but explained why he had moved his European operation from England to Spain. “We don’t have any rain here,” he explained with a smile. “That’s the first important difference. We’ve played for five weeks here in Spain and had no rain.”
“You play three times a week. I love England and I played there for six years. I’ll go back to Venezuela after this. Our plan in the Dominican is to start a league of 22 goals and be playing in January, February and March. But I love coming here.”
For the player revered by many, Cambiaso, there was a deep sense of satisfaction after the match. The 40-year-old symbol of the great qualities polo has both on and off the field, lingered longer than is his custom to talk with media, pose for ‘selfies’, and enjoy the moment.
Cambiaso looked as aggressive and determined as I have ever seen him in a polo match. “We needed to win,” he told me afterwards. “We knew that their team was going to play us better (than in the Silver Cup) and they did play us better. We won the Silver game by six and this team depends a lot on me – the goals I score – compared to last year.”
Last year Cambiaso had the young, vibrant 21-year-old Santiago Torres, who is a story himself. “Santi scored a lot of goals for me. This year they needed me at my best. I’m happy that for a few years here in Spain I did very well.”
Santa Maria Polo Club is undergoing major changes as it thrives on the burgeoning success, year-on-year, of its Sotogrande tournament, every August. Almost 80,000 spectators visited the venue last month, with matches being played every day in near-perfect conditions.
The umbrella change is a major sports tourism project, underpinned by local business and government, the ayuntamiento in the region mindful of the iconic significance of the horse in Andalusian culture.
Already, Sotogrande has approval – from the Junta de Andalucia – for improved access to the club from the A-7 motorway servicing the major cities either side of it.
There are also plans for a new polo clubhouse, and more than 200 hotel rooms, distributed in a five star polo hotel, alongside twenty-five exclusive apartments. Both the hotel and apartments will overlook the polo fields and will be managed by agreement with the Santa Maria Polo Club.
With 11,000 square metres of tertiary trade area for offices, shops and restaurants, and 22 premium residential plots beside the polo fields, the expansion will see the biggest polo complex anywhere in Europe.
This means that patrons, and their teams, can be housed close to the nine polo fields for competition, and in and out of season training. Given the enhanced facilities, it could clearly lead to an extension in the season.
A collaborative group involving local government and local interest groups is currently also considering detailed plans as they reposition Sotogrande as an ‘Equestrian and Polo resort’, therefore creating an ‘Equine’ district in the Guadiaro valley, following on the lines of the Palm Beach and Wellington models.
It would give the estate the wherewithal to host accredited competitive events in dressage, show jumping, eventing and endurance riding. The terrain, indeed, would reflect the climate in a unique way for eventing.
Santiago Torreguitar, the Argentine who has been polo manager for 16 years at Santa Maria Polo Club, told The Telegraph that success in polo comes from the venue itself, and those whose ambitions is delivering year after year.
“I think the secret is Sotogrande itself. The conditions here are fantastic to play on. And if you put the right conditions and the right organisation together, it’s a combination for success.”
“It’s been sixteen years here and every year it’s growing. We have new sponsors, the fields are fantastic, the teams are the best in the world, the referees are the best in the world. If the organisation goes alongside all of that, you can’t lose.”
Torreguitar refuted any notion that it conflicted with the English season: “They have the Queens Cup and the Gold Cup that are held on different dates. Then it’s the bronze, silver and gold here at Sotogrande. We have some teams that don’t play in England and England has some teams that don’t play here. There are some teams that play in both. But it’s not a real competition.”
“Sotogrande follows the English season and after Sotogrande the season starts in Argentina. So it’s a natural way of developing the European season.”
Torreguitar has an eye on development, and he insists that the polo world has to act in union to keep the sport strong. “The community of polo is very small. As far as young players, this year we had a tournament with eleven teams and 44 kids were playing. It was at three different levels – from five year olds to sixteen and seventeen year olds.”
Notable by their absence after a powerful English season, King Power were not in Sotogrande this year. “They played last year,” added Torreguitar. “It was a good team. They came last year but were not in the final. We have Dubai who are a very successful team in the UK and Sotogrande. I think King Power will come back. They’re a new team and they’ve had a couple of seasons playing together now.”
“This is an amazing place. I’m sort of used to it now, but the first season I came here it was unbelievable. There’s polo every day. One day it’s low goal, the next day it’s medium and the next it’s high goal. It’s a very concentrated season and you can’t blink because there’s a polo game somewhere.”
“I think what we have here at the club are conditions for a fantastic month of polo. Argentina has the conditions for developing young players. The way of living in Argentina is very agricultural. There is a lot of agricultural land and every family with some land in Argentina has some horses.”
“Kids go on vacation to the farm instead of the beach. They get bored so they put them on a horse in the morning and tell them to come back in the afternoon. They learn how to ride and if there are two kids they are playing a game and if there are four kids they’re playing a game as well. They learn very young to ride and to play and it’s almost a whole year because of the weather. Here we are limited because in Argentina any piece of land that you buy is sort of flat. Here it’s tougher finding the right flat lands in Spain. But these are the best fields in the world – alongside a few in Palm Beach and Argentina.”
While Torreguitar’s concerns are with the polo, Oscar Nieto, General Manager of Premium Sports Marketing and the Santa Maria Polo