Chukkas and Camels on the beaches of Sandbanks Dorset

Jeremy Miles meets the dashing army officer who brought ponies, camels and world-class polo players to the beaches of Sandbanks

Chukkas and Camels at Sandbanks

Jeremy Miles meets the dashing army officer who brought ponies, camels and world-class polo players to the beaches of Sandbanks 

It takes a lot to impress the residents of Sandbanks, that magnificent slice of Dorset coastal paradise, where the rich and famous hang out in their multi-million pound pads – they’ve seen it all. But even the locals turned out in their droves for the media launch of this month’s 2010 British Beach Polo Championships. Organiser Johnny Wheeler – the dashing Army officer who established this hugely successful event just three years ago, smiled broadly as he watched Sandbanks’ regulars jostling alongside the press to watch top international polo player Matias Ballesteros clambering uneasily onto a camel.Camel? Well, you have to ring the changes, and this year the addition of camel polo offers just one more intriguing attraction during what has become a prime event in the annual social calendar.Ballesteros, one of a series of big names along for the launch, offered to give it a try for the cameras. Initially, the beast looked disinterested but obligingly lurched into action, cantering slowly along the beach at Sandbanks as the Argentinian, in full polo kit with mallet aloft, got the measure of his new mount.For a man so at ease on horseback, this was clearly a new and slightly unnerving experience. Safely back on two feet, he diplomatically announced that riding a camel was different but great fun.Fortunately Ballesteros and other top polo players like Jamie Morrison and Jack Kidd (big brother of model Jodie) will not be expected to swap their ponies for these displaced ships of the desert during the championships, instead you’ll find them playing in a more conventional style, on horseback, albeit on the beach.

For Johnny Wheeler the idea of including camel polo, hugely popular in places like Dubai and Miami but never played in the UK before, is the latest move in an on-going bid to keep the event fresh and exciting.“It’s another element and it’s important to keep people’s interest going. It’s also enormous fun.” This is why a brace of camels has been shipped to Poole for the benefit of the waiting press. They are from the wonderfully named Joseph’s Amazing Camels, a Midland’s-based company that provides camels for films, TV, racing, exhibitions, publicity stunts and any other camel-related requirements you may have.Joe and his team had clearly thought of everything, even providing a choice of dromedary or Bactrian camel, presumably so that the upmarket riders could be asked in genteel fashion – one hump or two?They arrived with a pair of handlers who surveyed the hapless polo professionals’ efforts with interest. “It’s lucky we didn’t bring the fast ones,” one knowingly observed.

Visitors and residents alike will be able to witness some of the world’s greatest players engaged in two days of fast-paced, adrenaline-fuelled arena polo, before partying the night away with the stars at a series of glamorous evening parties, including one celebrity-studded event where Jade Jagger, talented off-spring of Mick, will be doing a DJ set.  “This year it is going to be bigger and better than ever before,” says Johnny, who stresses that his interest in presenting polo of the very highest standard is partly aimed at attracting new fans to the sport he loves. “There will be ‘have-a-go’ polo for those who have never played before. We’re really trying to make this an event that will be fun for people of all ages and interests,” adamantly adding that despite its elitist image polo is a sport for everyone. “Traditionally it’s a sport for farmers but unfortunately it has this reputation that it’s only for the super-rich. Of course the top players have the best ponies, which are worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, but competing in any sport at the highest level requires a lot of money. Most people who play polo do so on very ordinary horses.” As a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Household Cavalry, Johnny knows quite a bit about horses. Ironically he feels that the glamour of the beach at Sandbanks  is exactly the kind of environment that will attract a more egalitarian following. “Beaches are places where people generally feel very comfortable. Bringing a sport like this to Sandbanks makes it accessible to everyone. You can either pay to watch from the comfort of an arena seat, with a drink in your hand, or watch for free from the beach.”Harriet Kay, a resident of Sandbanks and a keen polo player, agrees: “One of the great pleasures of polo is that it attracts people from all walks of life.” The 23-year-old business student says she would urge anyone to give it a go. Her own introduction to the sport came during the first Sandbanks Championships in 2008. “I’ve always loved horses but had never given polo a thought before”. She went along and had a 30-minute lesson. “It was an amazing experience, and now it has become my passion!”So much so that Harriet even volunteered to take one of the camels for a spin. It was, she told me, quite a ride. “They don’t move in the same way as a horse, so when I leant forward to try and make it move a bit faster, it didn’t, and I ended up falling across its neck!” she laughs. “The other thing with camels is that they have this extraordinary ability to swivel their necks right around. There you are riding along and suddenly you realise it’s staring you straight in the eye. It’s really quite disconcerting!”


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