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She's the matriarch of Britain's most famous polo dynasty, but for Claire Tomlinson, it's all about the game.

By Gloucestershire Echo  |  Posted: June 11, 2011

Simon and Claire Tomlinson in the offices of the Beaufort Polo Club in  Westonbirt, near Tetbury

Simon and Claire Tomlinson in the offices of the Beaufort Polo Club in Westonbirt, near Tetbury

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IT'S tough to reconcile the tranquility of a late spring day in rural Gloucestershire with the maelstrom of activity behind the scenes at Down Farm, home to the Beaufort Polo Club.

Claire Tomlinson, the chairman of the club and polo's most influential female player in the history of the game explains.

"There's certainly plenty on right now," she says.

"For a start, this week we've launched the first games of the 2011Arthur Lucas Cup, the club's first big tournament of the season.

"Then later today we've got six hundred or so coming to a charity event in aid of Plum's cancer fund and on top of it all there's only a few days to go before the Beaufort Country Fair and International Test match."

Beaufort, in Westonbirt, near Tetbury, hosts one of only three full England International test matches in the UK – the others being at Cowdray Park and the Cartier International at Guards Polo Club. This year at the Beaufort, England will take on New Zealand next Saturday.

The Beaufort Country Fair, which runs next Saturday and Sunday, is one of the ways Claire tempts newcomers to join the converted, offering top-flight polo alongside a packed programme of children's entertainment, traditional fairground attractions, rural skills, artisan treats and a country market packed with quality stalls.

"I make no bones about it," says Claire. "Polo is a passion I want others to share. Last year we had four or five thousand people over the country fair weekend, and many had never experienced a game of polo in their life.

"It was great to see so many families enjoying the matches and gratifying to discover afterwards a good many of them were hooked."

Claire is admired in the polo world for her determination, sheer love of the game and for her willingness to innovate.

In recent years, this has seen the Beaufort club – which often sees Prince William and Harry on the field – leading the way in making the sport more accessible to all by creating a new three-a-side playing league, County Polo.

"One of the big problems for inexperienced players is that, regardless of how enthusiastic they are, in four-a-side matches they simply don't get enough time on the ball," Claire explains.

"In three-a-side games everyone can get more involved. Tactics become easier to read and newcomers to the game get a real chance to develop their skills."

County Polo has already been endorsed by Hurlingham Polo Association and its growing popularity sees polo taking yet another step into the mainstream.

"County Polo is moving the game in the right direction" says Claire.

"The format is more attractive and less intimidating for novice players – and we need new blood coming to the game. This will help remove the elitist image of the sport and make it, like other sports, accessible to all."

Claire's commitment and competitiveness have never been in doubt. Even while studying agricultural economics at Somerville College she managed to scoop a squash blue, a fencing blue and get herself short-listed for the Olympic fencing team, and earn a half-blue captaining the Oxford Polo team of '66 that beat Cambridge 7-0.

"I'm someone who believes in absolute commitment whatever I'm engaged in," she says.

"When I was younger I enjoyed and played a wide range of sports but decided fairly early on it was polo I wanted to focus on."

Claire's contribution to the game has been considerable. As a player, she's still the only woman in the world to rise to a five-goal handicap, and as an evangelist and coach she has had a significant impact on how polo is taught and played.

In 1993 with Major Hugh Dawnay, she developed a world-class coaching system for the Hurlingham Polo Association and is as enthusiastic about developing the potential of newcomers as honing the skills of professionals – she has coached the England team, as well as holding sessions for the HPA Junior Development Squad at Down Farm.

"At a professional level, I became involved in coaching because I believed it was important to bring discipline and consistency to the game," she explains.

"But I'm equally keen to brush aside the elitist image of polo by opening up opportunities to more young people. I find that once people get a taste of the game they find the excitement and challenge difficult to resist."

It's not difficult to see why the Tomlinsons – Claire, husband Simon, boys Mark and Luke and daughter Emma – are often referred to as the country's premier polo dynasty.

As well as Claire's personal achievements, the family is also the biggest breeder of polo ponies in Britain. Claire's father, Arthur Lucas, launched the breeding programme at Woolmers Park and the business has gone from strength to strength.

Much of its success is a result of the development of Beaufort Embryo Transfer, the UK's first commercial embryo transfer centre, by Emma.

"As a young girl Emma pretty much lived on a horse," says Claire. "Now she's a respected equine vet, a qualified polo coach and a skilled player. Emma met Fernando Riera in Argentina and he agreed to work with us to introduce the first commercial embryo transfer breeding programme of its kind in the UK."

Dr Riera is recognised as one of the world's leading authorities on equine embryo transfer and working with the Tomlinsons has pioneered a method of breeding commercially from active sport horses without interfering with their competitive programme."

The polo gene has also been passed on to Luke and Mark, both of whom represent England in polo, the former as the current captain.

"Luke wasn't that keen on riding as a child – probably as a reaction to Emma's passion for horses," says Claire.

"Then he became interested in polo in his teens and continued playing through university. But Luke's very self-critical. He decided after university that he'd give himself three years to excel at the game or move on.

"In polo players are rated from minus two for the most inexperienced player to 10 for the very best. He gave himself three years to achieve a seven rating, which he did.

"And since then he's become England captain."

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