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Polo field of dreams
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승인 2010.05.14  13:07:27
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▲ Lee Joo Bae built this massive Polo field in Haengwon village with hopes that those with deep pockets, a love of horses and an eagerness to play will come Photo courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province

“Polo? On Jeju?!” joked Lee Joo Bae, the president of Korea’s first and “probably last” polo equestrian resort, located on the north-eastern coast of Jeju. He has certainly heard the flabbergasted question before, but did not let doubts hinder his dream of bringing polo and the accompanying lifestyle to Korea. With construction nearly complete, Lee looks forward to hosting Korea’s very first international polo competition this coming June.

Lee first visited Jeju during his honeymoon in 1988, and at that time he and his wife dreamed of someday retiring here. Now a half-retired oil tycoon living in Singapore, the Busan native began playing in 2004, and after visiting an Australian club in ‛05, decided he wanted to build his own. Five years later, he now looks forward to returning to Jeju to live and launching his retirement project, the Korean Polo Country Club.

Hidden among the farms of Haengwon, Lee’s polo resort emerges as a surprise. The grounds of the estate include a regulation-sized outdoor field covered in Bermuda grass – ideal for sport turfs due to its quick recovery time and dense mat like quality. Under the field lies 30cm deep of North Korean sand, which allows for play to resume less than an hour after any heavy rain. An irrigator from Australia parks on the grass, with a wing span so large “workers initially thought it was some sort of glider,” Lee said.

A trek around the grounds reveals a smaller regulation-sized covered field for four seasons of play. The field is the first of its kind in Asia due to the expense and difficulty of construction without the use of support beams in the middle of the field. Next door is a riding area, and nearby a moving wooden horse to practice striking the “pulu,” or polo ball, into a net.

After five years of construction, the finishing touches on the Itami Jun designed clubhouse are all that remain before the resort is up and running. By September, Lee hopes to add 20 bungalows and 13 townhouse condominiums. His original plan was only to build the polo facilities, but he was encouraged by the government to turn the grounds into a resort.

▲ Left, Lee Joo Bae Photo by Song Jung hee, right, a Polo game in action Photo courtesy Lee Joo Bae

Currently, the stable houses 17 horses – 12 from Argentina, three from Australia and two from the mainland. Argentine horses are known to be some of the best in the sport, combining the speed and grace of a thoroughbred with the Criollo’s tireless work ethic. Certain horses are trained to match the varying abilities of their riders. “Some horses are like Mercedes, comfortable for passengers. Others are like a Ferrari, which reacts fast to your order,” Lee said.

The selection of polo horses is not an easy task. “You can’t just pick them off the Internet,” Lee said. Along with a professional from Singapore, He traveled to Argentina to hand select the horses. They rode about 20 a day, and sampled five or six in practice “chukkers” – the periods of play in a polo match.

“After three days of this we chose the horses we wanted. It was very tough, and we were very sore,” Lee said.

A single Argentine polo costs a minimum of 15 million won, and with transportation and taxes, amounts to more like 30 million won. Multiply that number by 17 and throw in 400 million won for the North Korean sand, and suddenly the cost of the resort begins to raise some eyebrows.

“My wife thinks I am spending way too much money on this project,” Lee said.

High membership costs come as no surprise, as the Polo Equestrian Resort is not intended for the average Kim. With fees in the range of 150 million won for the year, Lee is looking to create a sort of “noble society” where members can be together for sport, and rub shoulders afterwards during parties. “I think the spirit lies not only in the game itself, but also in the casual parties afterwards,” he said. “The world of polo is a family event with spouses and children always coming to watch. This atmosphere exposes the children to the society of their parents, and we learn manners, attitude and spirit through this great sport.”

In addition to the use of the facilities, membership benefits will include 30 days of stay in the clubhouse per year, stable lease for the member’s own horse, and a seat in the polo academy during the summertime. Lee plans to offer a reciprocal membership with clubs in Singapore and China and for the youngsters, yachting, golf and English lessons will all be a part of the fun.

▲ The Polo field during construction Photo courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province

As to whom his target market is, Lee is a bit uncertain. “That is a very good question. This is the first time so who knows,” he said. “First and foremost, the person should be a horse lover, and second they should have some money to spend.”

Lee hopes the novelty of polo will attract others the same way it did him. He finds the adrenaline rush that comes with playing allows him to forget everything else and focus solely on the sport. “The point of polo is the challenge, not only with the other players but also with myself,” he said. “The accomplishment you feel after you play should be a reason for people to want to learn and teach their children.”

Lee expects to be playing on the field in May, and will host Korea’s first polo match on June 12, although for invited guests only. On June 13, the public is welcome from 5 through 7 p.m. for a match and award ceremony. The competitions will feature professional riders from Singapore, Thailand and Argentina. With the Korean Polo Country Club nearly complete and the first match scheduled, Lee shows that with the right amount of passion – and of course cash – anything is possible, including polo on Jeju.



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