Creating the Ultimate Playing Field…
By DIANE HENSLEY
INDIO –- For polo players, the grass fieldsthey play on are everything but ground cover.
“It can make thedifference between life and death in some cases,” said polo manager and horsetrainer Vicky Owens of Indio.“Polo ponies are athletes, but the grass has to have the perfect combination oftraction so they don’t grab too hard or slip too much, because that’s when it’sdangerous. The correct shoes help, but the grass is the key to safety.”
Turf science and turfculture, behind golf, and every other field sport, is big business—and an areaof increasing concern to polo club owners and managers worldwide. Of the morethan 275 polo clubs nationwide recognized by the United States PoloAssociation, most have multiple fields, that when combined, cover an area aslarge as a small state. A single field comprises about 11 acres, and that’s alot of pitch.
Field sports that hadturned to artificial turf are rapidly replacing it with natural turf to stemhigher injury rates on synthetic surfaces, which are less forgiving and moreabrasive.
However, preparing theground, specifying grasses, planting, cultivating and maintaining turf forprofessional sports use requires scientific exactitude depending on the climate,environmental conditions and geography. Advanced science and technologies oncedominated by golf course developers have migrated to other field sports; namelysoccer, cricket and polo. Russian officials invested $3 million and hiredBritish specialist Matt Frost to create a showcase pitch for Manchester Unitedand Chelsea’s Champion League final in May at Moscow’s Luzhnikistadium. World class cricket doesn’t begin without a daily “pitch report” inwhich analysts examine and analyze humps and holes in the pitch and postulatehow the ball will react.
Polo player and realestate magnate Alex Haagen III, who developed one of California’s largest special eventdestinations, looks at his renowned Empire Polo Club fields with the samecritical eyes. The club’s 200-plus acres of manicured landscape features fivefields, polo arena and stabling, a lake and sculpture garden, an expansive rosegarden, restaurant, bar, indoor and outdoor event facilities and is home to theannual Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals. Haagen harnessed the latest intechnologies and applications from turf scientists, plant biologists, chemistsand manufacturers who develop ever more effective fertilizers, herbicides,pesticides and agricultural equipment in the unending quest for the perfectpitch.
“My goal has always beento produce the most beautiful and best maintained polo fields anywhere in theworld. We spare no expense when it comes to the safety for the horses and theplayers, and at the same time, creating the best possible environment for ourmembers and customers. That’s priority one.”
Haagen relies on the helpof Indio’sDavid Nolasco, Empire Polo Club’s superintendent charged with managing groundsoperations for the past 16 years. The veteran landscaper brings the latest insoil and turf science to the club and is currently immersed in the months-longprocess of resurfacing the fields, an exercise that must be carried out atregular and frequent intervals to keep the grasses healthy and strong. As ingolf course management, seasonal Rye and Bermuda are the staples of polo turf.
Nolasco has his work cutout for him. He studies soil composition, grass types, seeding techniques, weedand worm control, diseases and disease remedies. He is concerned with properirrigation and nutrition, field construction, flatness and drainage. He employssophisticated machinery used in cultivation to aerify the soil and build properroot structure. Even a task as simple as cutting the grass must be done withprecision mowing equipment to assure proper blade length and control turfgrowth.
“All of these things areimportant to create proper footing. Attending to them eliminates a lot ofinjuries to the horses, and of course, the potential to injure the player. Alot of clubs are doing the same kinds of things, but none of them that I knowof are going to these lengths,” Nolasco said.
Scalping the fields helpsreveal the uneven terrain, eliminates bumps and irregularities and allows thegrass seed to germinate in the soil, Nolasco said. Deep aerification followsusing both solid and hollow tines to increase oxygen and water. The processimproves deep root growth for a more dense turf, allows proper drainage andhelps to alleviate compaction on the surface. A sweeper helps to remove heavythatch and loosen the top surface. A layer of clean sand with seed, and topdressing from our own compost is applied and then the fields are dragged toallow the material to get into the bored holes. Finally, the field is irrigatedlightly and frequently.
Key to the success in someof Nolasco’s turf science involves a little magic by an aerating machine calledthe Verti-Drain. Also used on football, soccer and baseball fields, theSportsground Verti-Drain 7626 is Redexim Charterhouse’s top-of-the-lineaerator. It’s become an indispensable tool, he said, that has already made anappreciable difference on one completed field. It’s cost: $40,000.
“You have to have theright tools for the right job. This machine penetrates the surface of the fieldfor anti-compaction. It can pierce 10 inches into the soil with a solid or ahollow tine. What it does is allow air, water and organic matter to go all theway into the roots. It also breaks up the profile of the soil. It’s the latest,the biggest and the best,” Nolasco said.
The greening of EmpirePolo Club extends way beyond the polo fields, Haagen said.
“Doing our part to gogreen, we’ve begun recycling all of our own green waste. We believe this kindof composting is not only good for the environment by using a renewable resourcebut it’s more efficient and natural way to supply indigenous nutrients forfertilization.”
Green waste is collectedduring gardening from clippings and trimmings of grass and thousands of plants,trees, and flowers on the grounds. They are then aerated and “baked” toeliminate weeds and bacteria and then ground up into mulch.
“We use the finermaterials for the fields and the coarse material in the rose garden. There areabout 8,000 rose bushes there, so there’s plenty to go around,” Nolascosaid.
Empire Polo Club’s fieldprojects will be completed before fall. Although an arduous undertaking,Nolasco said he enjoys the art in landscaping as well as the science of soil,because it pairs imagination and skill.
“I love to see peopleenjoying what my team and I have helped to create. I’m also hearing good thingsfrom the players about the fields and how they are better. That tells me whatwe’re doing is working.”