I used to be. When I joined Usman Dantata after finishing school in Ibadan, I was an Assistant General Manager with Dantata group of companies but at anytime we will just go to England or America and stay for three to four months playing polo. That was how I met some of these professionals abroad and we used to buy horses from them and send to Nigeria. So, I can tell you that polo is half of my business now.
In Nigeria, is there any player that depends solely on polo, who doesn’t do any business but earns his living by playing polo?
Yes, we have professionals that actually live on polo. If you are a professional like in football, you will stick to one team at least until your contract expires. But in polo, the professionals play for different teams in every tournament. It is not all the tournaments that we all go to; the horses need to rest. If you play in Kano this month for example and the next tournament is in Lagos, you have to rest your horses. You have to select where you go to. We have professional players that live on polo. We have the likes of Tijani Hassan, Bello Buba, Ibrahim Mohammed and so many of them.
Polo is often referred to as king of games or game of kings. Does it mean that one has to be wealthy or an aristocrat before one is eligible to play the game?
The names of the professionals that I have just mentioned are all from humble backgrounds. But because they are gifted, they play even better than rich players. That is why they are being sponsored; they buy the horses, kit them, take them abroad and so on; just the way I started as well.
Do you mean that I can just decide to play polo?
Yes. And there is no age limit, once you are strong and healthy, you can join us when you decide to.
But the kits and horses are very expense…
On that one I can tell you that polo is expensive. That is why we have to solicit for sponsorship in order to stage a tournament. The cost of an Argentine horse is about N2.5 million. The cost of flying it alone is about N300,000 by air. Apart from buying it and paying import duties. The complete saddle and the bridle is about $1,400 for one horse. To play in tournament you need at least six horses and you need to kit them with the saddles and everything. Apart from the horse, you need a helmet, a pair of boots, sticks, hand gloves and so many other things that will cost you two to three million naira. A local horse that can match an argentine horse costs between N1 and N1.2 million. The so-called local horses are from Chad and Sudan. They are stronger than our Nigerian horses because they have been trained for racing, so when they come here we just train them for about a month or two in order to fine tune them for polo. It is not everybody that can afford argentine horses; most of them use local ones. We don’t have polo horses in Nigeria. Most of the horses that we have are from Maigatari and Jibiya and these are the ones that the emirs use during festivities. But I’m not scaring you away from polo… (General laughter).
How many horses do you have?
Now, I have 22 horses. Ten locals and 12 argentines. I don’t keep the horses here (in the house); they are at my farm. The name of my farm is Dee Bee farms, it is so named after my initials.
What is the cost of their monthly upkeep?
Argentine horses cost us more than local ones. This is because the local ones are used to our weather. We also have a doctor who is on retainer ship and he has to examine the horses at least three times every week; whether they are sick or not. In a month, to keep a one horse cost N15,000. That is the cost of keeping a local horse. An argentine costs like N20,000 to N25,000.
What advantage does an argentine horse have over a local one in polo?
Let me ask you this question; what is the difference between a Lexus and a Volkswagen beetle?
The difference is clear. How many workers do you have to take care of these horses?
I attach four horses to a person. In the farm now, I have seven grooms. I’m breeding cattle as well. In all we have 22 staff, including security men, Fulani herdsmen, tractor drivers etc.
Do you just grow crops in order to feed your horses, or you sell and feed on them?
Usually, I give out land to my workers to farm and feed themselves. The farm is just to keep my horses; I buy all their food from outside.
Do you hire your horses out?
Yes I do. I used to hire out to only somebody that I know takes good care of horses. Even in the last tournament in Kano, I hired out five argentine horses to someone whom I had invited. They played only three matches. It depends on the type of horse, an argentine costs more while a local horse costs less. For the five horses, we charged him N300,000 each. So, they paid N1.5 million for the five horses, this is including transporting the horses to Kano.
Do you hire them out for racing?
Racing, no. We race them ourselves. I have two of my horses that will be racing tomorrow (today) that is why I’m going to Gumel for the Sardaunan Sokoto Cup. The difference between a polo and a racing horse is the training. Race horses are used for flat races; that is from point A to B but polo is like football. If you miss the ball you have to turn and run back and try to retrieve it. So, the training is completely different but we used to convert racing horses to polo horses, especially the local horses. I have four race horses.
Apart from fellow polo players, do emirs or chiefs come to hire horses for their durbars?
Yes, they used to hire local ones that have somehow outlived their usefulness in polo. The horses that can not play good polo, we used to give to our grooms so that they can be hiring them out and be getting money by the side. So, these are the ones that some emirs used to hire but not argentine horses.
How long have you been playing polo and what is your present handicap?
Actually, I can’t tell you when I started playing polo because my father used to play it; it’s a family game. My first tournament was when I was in the School of Forestry in Ibadan; that was in 1982. And my present handicap is four. It used to be five, ten years ago but now that I’m very busy, it has come down. I’m getting old as well. I had handicap five in 1988 and I had for 10 years I was there until 1998. Then I came down to four, dropped again to three and I went back to four two years ago.
What is the highest handicap in Nigeria and who has it?
The highest is five and we have only Bello Buba.
How many trophies have you won in the course of the game?
They are uncountable. But I have played polo in 23 different countries. For Nigerian teams, I have played in 6 different countries and the rest are from sponsorships from other countries and on my own as well.
Which team do you play for now?
I play on my own now but teams like Fifth chukker, El-Amin, Trappco or any team do invite me to play, and I used to honour such invitations if I want to play. But before, I used to play for Usman Dantata, I played for him in America, England and Brazil and so many other countries. Then when I left him, I joined Allied Ranch of (Senator) Muktar Aruwa and I played for him in America, England and Nigeria as well. After Aruwa, I have been on my own since then.
You mean that you have a team now?
I used to sponsor a team, yes. Now that my son is just graduating, I want to start to actively sponsor my team as from the next tournament.
Now, a little bit about yourself…
I was born in Maiduguri metropolis, Hausari ward on the 24th February , 1959. I’m 50 years now. I attended both primary and secondary schools in Maiduguri. Then after that, I went to School of Forestry Ibadan for my Ordinary and Higher National Diplomas. After he watched me play in Ibadan, I join Usman Dantata because he liked my game. That was when professional polo started in 1982. I have played with him both here and abroad, coming into contact with professional polo players from Argentina, Malaysia and people like Prince Charles of England.
Tell me more about your father, which team did he play for?
The team was called Lake Chad and it was in Maiduguri. That time, the Native Authority used to sponsor them and if you have enough, you can buy two or more horses on your own. They used to transport them in business class by train to Lagos. The business class was complete with every luxury, including a restaurant.
Did you say that one of your children has started playing polo?
Yes. He just came back from UK. He did his first degree in Malaysia and then he got admission to do his Masters in England. He is in Abuja now, he will start his NYSC in a few weeks to come. He played in the Kano tournament last week, he was luky that they won their first tournament. I just wanted him to finish school first and if he wants to pursue polo, fine.
I used to know one polo player when I was a child. His name was Collin Edwards, where is he now?
Colin died about 15 years ago in a car accident in Abuja. He’s British. He used to speak Hausa very well because he was born in Katsina and he grew up in the palace. He was a very good player, he went up to plus five handicaps, he and late Col. Ahmadu Yakubu. That’s the highest that any player has gone in Nigeria.