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By: Kevin Gray
BUENOS AIRES, Jan 6 (Reuters) - As eight horses and riders galloped in pursuit of a wooden ball one recent afternoon, U.S. movie director Robert Duvall rubbed shoulders with Argentine former soccer star Gabriel Batistuta.
The celebrities were on hand to help promote a multimillion dollar project aimed at capitalizing on Argentina's position as the world's top destination for polo, a game that could be described as field hockey on horseback.
Argentina has dominated the sport for decades, but development really took off in the last few years after a currency crisis in 2001 and 2002 made it cheaper for foreign players to come here to play.
Now, the global financial crisis has thrown some of these projects into question as even the super-wealthy, who make up most of polo's players and spectators, tighten their belts.
Adolfo Cambiaso, widely recognized as the world's top player, is undeterred by the economic slowdown as he promotes the latest project with a game at his private ranch in November, attended by Duvall, Batistuta and other celebrities.
Cambiaso's plans call for ground to be broken later this year on a polo village in which each home will have its own polo field and stables, right next to his own ranch in the city of Canuelas, outside Buenos Aires.
"Here in Argentina it is easy to practice and play because we have the horses, the land, the players -- everything," said Cambiaso, who already has his own line of polo clothing.
Another project is the Culu Culu Polo Resort backed by about $80 million from Dubai-based hotel operator Jumeirah Group, which is set to open in the the town of Lobos within the next two years.
It includes a polo hotel and private residences built around 8 polo fields, which typically are around 300 yards (274 metres) long. Four-bedroom houses will go for more than $2 million.
"Our targeted public is still living the way they always have despite the crisis. It's not that they mind losing money. But there is always a public for a high quality product like this," said Chief Financial Officer Carlos Urriza.
"CATHEDRAL OF POLO"
First played in Asia centuries ago, polo was westernized by British colonialists in India. At a furious pace, two teams of four people, each on horseback, use long mallets to knock a wooden ball between two posts to score goals.
It has been long embraced by elites in Europe, the United States and parts of Asia, and has seen its popularity grow in recent years in China, South Africa, Japan and Australia.
But Argentina, where it was introduced in the 19th century by the British, is its undisputed center, home to polo's premier tournament, the Argentine Open Championship, and most of the sport's top players.
England's Prince Charles and Prince Harry played polo during visits to Argentina in recent years. Actor Tommy Lee Jones, a polo enthusiast, owns an Argentine ranch and makes an annual trip to fine-tune his game and buy horses.
In the recent boom, many Argentine players have sought to build off the country's rich polo tradition, breeding and selling polo ponies, with some of the best going for more than $50,000. Others have turned to making polo-related goods like saddles or clothing.
Polo tourism has developed on a smaller scale in South Africa and India, but Argentina is out to glamorize a polo lifestyle on the country's famed Pampas grasslands alongside the world's best players.
The big-ticket projects target polo fanatics and experienced players who travel the world to see and play the sport.
Many of the top teams are funded by patrons who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, on horses and players, flying them around the globe to compete in tournaments.
Argentine executives say they hope the new projects will appeal as an attractive investment for the wealthy at a time of financial uncertainty.
They play up Argentina's distance from any global conflicts or terrorist threats and say as far as ultra-luxury real estate investments go, prices remain relatively affordable.
"We are the cathedral of polo, and many people understand that offers business opportunities," said Urriza of Jumeirah Culu Culu Polo Resort.
Clive Reid, the managing director of a trading company based in London, was among those who traveled to Argentina for polo despite the economic downturn.
Polo in Argentina is a way of life, he said. "If you ask anybody where are the best horses, the best players, they would say Argentina."
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