This past weekend of Oct. 1 and Oct. 2 brought together a handful of elite polo players to the island of Jeju to compete in the Royal Salute Cup. The two day event was hosted by the Korea Polo Country Club and pitted two international-studded teams that had been organized just for this weekend. Both teams, Team Royal Salute and Team BMW, were filled with friends and former teammates of the club’s president, Lee Joo Bae, who also competed in the event.
“The Korean polo community is such a tiny world,” says Lee, “that I often have to call on international friends to make these events happen.”
▲ Photo by Adam Montgomery
This was the ninth event hosted by the Korea Polo Country Club since its inception in June 2010 and the final one of the year. While attendance at the events has been low and growth of the sport has been limited, Lee seems to be encouraged by the reception and interest of those who have attended.
Says Lee, “It is important for us to host these events so that people can develop a sense for the sport. For polo to take off in Korea, people need to experience live matches. We are hoping that the experience will result in an interest for the sport.”
He added, “At least, that is what happened to me. After watching one game, I was hooked.”
Part-time polo player, full-time explorer Tom Claytor
On hand this past weekend to compete in the Royal Salute Cup was travel extraordinaire, and close friend of Lee Joo Bae, Tom Claytor. Representing Team BMW, Tom had flown in from Thailand to support Lee and also to indulge in one of his many passions, polo. He is a regular on the Asian polo scene and spends part of his free time jetting around the continent to compete in events. Not just limited to horse polo, he has dabbled in other factions of the sport by participating in exotic events such as camel polo in Mongolia and elephant polo in India.
Tom’s hobby of polo seems tame when compared to his full-time work of bush piloting and exploring. Currently based in Thailand, he stays busy by flying a small plane, working on National Geographic projects, and planning his next adventure. After more than 20 years of traversing the globe in his small plane, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Tom to find a place that he has not explored.
Looking to the future, Tom has decided to devote more of his efforts to giving the gift of travelling to others. With that in mind, he founded the Timmissartok Foundation in order to assist those with similar adventurous mindsets and projects. Follow Tom’s travels and learn more about his foundation at www.claytor.com
It was while working in Singapore that Lee was first introduced to the sport. He began playing at the Singapore Polo Club soon after witnessing his first match. The interest soon developed into a full-blown passion and he found himself devoting all of his free time to the sport. Fortunately, the success of his oil company was following the same trajectory as his interest in polo and he was able to retire young, partly to devote even more time to his passion.
The sport is experiencing a boom in several Asian countries that are eager to show off their new-found wealth. Polo clubs in China, for example, are springing up in several major cities and are attracting top players from traditional polo countries such as England and Argentina. One such player is Argentinian Tomas Martinez, who competed in the event this past weekend and has been playing professionally in Shanghai for the past four years.
Martinez told The Jeju Weekly that “Right now there is a lot of money being spent on polo in Asian countries with strong economies like China and Singapore. For players like me, the opportunities are limitless there. With the emergence of polo in those countries, I predict that Korea and Japan will be the next Asian countries to catch the wave.”
Lee was betting on the same thing and that is why he decided to bring polo back to his country by opening the Korea Polo Country Club. The Busan native chose Jeju for its warmer climate, which allows for better grass maintenance and conditions for raising horses, as well as its status as a top Asian tourist destination. Also influencing his decision was the special place that Jeju held in his heart from a honeymoon taken here in 1988.
“My wife and I fell in love with the island and always wanted to come back,” explains Lee. “We looked at building the club on the mainland, but Jeju just seemed like the right fit.”
▲ Photo by Adam Montgomery
Chasing his dream, Tomas Martinez settles in China
For many, the country of Argentina conjures up familiar images of futbol, tango, and wine. However, for those who really know the culture, another image would have to be added to the list. The missing image is the sport of polo, which has become a cultural symbol for the country over the past hundred years. In fact, it has such a stronghold in the culture that Argentina is currently producing the top polo players and teams in the world.
This talented pool of players has led to fierce competition amongst polo clubs in Argentina. To the degree that only the most talented can make a living playing there. As a result, some players have been forced to look outside the country in order to pursue their dream of playing professionally.
Fortunately, China is experiencing a surge in the sport and many Argentinian polo players have found a home there. Thomas Martinez, who competed for Team BMW in the Royal Salute Cup, is a prime example of a player who left Argentina and discovered polo success in China.
Says Martinez, “I have been able to play and coach full-time in Shanghai for the past four years, which is a dream for me. I do not know if that would have happened if I had stayed in Argentina.”
Now that the club is established, Lee is focusing on growth opportunities and spreading awareness of the sport. As of today, it is the only polo club located in Korea or Japan and Lee is hoping that fact will boost membership from its current number of 25. He also hopes to pursue opportunities through international schools, such as the North London Collegiate School (NLCS), by offering polo and horseback riding classes to students. However, Lee feels that the most important factor for growth is the putting of on more events like the Royal Salute Cup in the coming years.
“I plan on hosting even more events in 2012,” says Lee, “and I really hope that locals and the international community will attend. For me, the sport itself is the best advertisement so it is important that I continue to find ways to bring polo matches to Korea.”
Lee and his fellow competitors at the event seemed to share the same sentiment. It was less about which team won or lost and more about the promotion of the sport. Throughout the event, a friendly vibe persisted amongst the competitors and attendees that no matter what the actual outcome, the sport itself would be the winner.
Competitor Tom Claytor summed it up best by saying, “Once you start playing polo, you never stop. But to start, you have to get a taste of the sport. That is what this weekend was all about; providing Koreans with a taste of polo.”
▲ Lee Joo Bae, far left, celebrating with teammates. Photo by Adam Montgomery
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