HORSEPLAY:

Polo in the USA

 

Stephanie Hadik

in collaboration with the United States Polo Association.

One of the oldest team sports, polo is an exhilarating combination of horsepower, athleticism and control; a sport unlike any other, it showcases the powerful bond between players and their equine partners.

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Believed to have been invented sometime between the 6th century B.C. and the 1st century A.D., an ancient version of polo was played by nomads in Central Asia, in part as training for war. The sport was introduced to the United States in 1876 by the publisher of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett. After attending his first polo match in England, Bennett returned with balls, mallets, and a copy of the rules used by the Hurlingham club. Hosting a dinner at his estate in Westchester County, NY, for a select group of sportsmen he thought might take to the game, Bennett and his guests excused themselves after the meal to try their hand at this demanding new sport called polo, atop ranch horses delivered that very day from Texas. They took to the sport immediately, soon after founding the Westchester Polo Club, which played that spring on a field in the county just north of New York City; a few months later, the club established playing fields near the members’ summer residences in Newport, RI. Westchester became the first U.S. polo club, with the sport catching on in the following years, notably on the east coast and in particular, on New York’s Long Island.

Above: Eye on the Ball: Patrick Uretz (left) playing in the FIP World Championship Credit: Elizabeth Headley

In 1881, the Meadow Brook Club was established in Westbury, NY, amidst Long Island’s prime fox-hunting territory. Though established in connection with the Meadow Brook Hunt, the club’s founders set aside 20 acres to be used as polo grounds. At the time, the game had no standardized rules, and in May of that year, Rules Governing the Game of Polo were composed and approved for use at the club. There were eight regulation fields in total, with Field #1 ultimately becoming known as the International Field after the first Westchester Cup series to be held in the U.S. was played here in 1911. The field was considered one of the preeminent sporting and social sites in the country, with the Long Island Railroad operating a special train to transport fans from the city and surrounding areas to the field. In 1912, the Piping Rock Club opened in Matinecock, NY, offering polo, steeplechase races, golf, squash, and tennis. Piping Rock also was one of the first polo clubs to offer club ponies for use, advantageous to its members who didn’t own a horse but wanted an introduction to the game. In 1936, Bostwick Field, built and run by Dunbar Bostwick and G.H. Pete Bostwick, opened to the public. Located in Old Westbury, NY, the Bostwick brothers constructed it with the intention of bringing 

Below: Gillian Johnson, winner of the U.S. Open and a top female sponsor/patron, out front, taking the ball to goal. Credit: Alex Pacheo

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polo to the masses, an affordable summer afternoon for all. Although no businesses aside from the Old Westbury General Store were allowed to operate within the village, the brothers ran their field with no objections; games were played each Sunday from its opening year until 1954.

Polo grew in popularity during the 1900s, its viewership exceeding tennis and golf, both popular sports of that time. In 1924, 35,000 fans watched the international matches between the U.S. and Great Britain, more than the crowds of tennis’ Davis Cup and golf’s Walker Cup; 20,000 spectators at polo’s Open Championship matches surpassed the viewership of both the National Open Golf Championship and National Amateur Tennis Championship. United States Polo Association membership during the era of the first and second World Wars even included over 1,200 

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Above: The Meadow Brook clubhouse in Westbury, NY. Credit: The Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame and Yale Polo.

 

Below: 1922 Official Souvenir booklet. Credit: The Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame and Yale Polo.

players from the U.S. Army, encouraged by the government to improve their riding ability via polo. Great strides were made around this time period as money was made available by sponsors for horses and professional players. Major polo centers could now be found in California, Florida, and Texas, as polo evolved from a society sport to include a far broader base of horsemen, professional players and commercial sponsorships.

Polo Goes South

 

In the late 1800s, a “winter colony” was established in Aiken, SC, by prominent and wealthy northeastern families in search of a warmer climate to pursue equestrian sports during the winter months. Aiken Polo Club was founded in 1882, and attracted some of the best players of the time, both nationally and internationally, and continues to do so today. Florida dates back to the 1920s as another southern center of polo, with the formation of the Flamingo Polo Club in Miami Beach. As land prices skyrocketed, polo aficionados moved north to the West Palm Beach area, where the Gulfstream Polo Club was established by the Phipps family near Del Ray. The Royal Palm Polo Club, founded in 1956 as the Boca Raton Polo Club, and renamed in 1959, has organized numerous tournaments, hosting the

US Open in 2002 and 2003. Bill Ylvisaker founded Palm Beach Polo & Country Club in the 1970s, which would become a mainstay of Florida polo and helped establish South Florida’s dominance as a winter polo destination until its closure as a polo club in the early 21st century. The International Polo Club Palm Beach was established in 2002 in Wellington, and is considered the home of American high-goal polo.

Polo has a long and illustrious history in California, beginning around 1876 with the founding of the California Polo Club. Though initially the sport, and consequently the club, didn’t quite catch on in popularity, the California Polo Club made its return in the modern era, reopening in Los Angeles in 1995 and hosting the U.S. Arena Polo Open, the most prestigious arena polo event in the world, in 2007, 2009 and 2011; its team won the event in 2011. The Santa Monica Polo Club was established in 1888, followed by the Riverside Polo Club in 1891. By 1909, polo clubs were active in Burlingame, Coronado, Los Angeles, San Mateo, and Santa Barbara. The sport migrated to the Palm Springs area in 1957, when a group of 11 polo players purchased desert land that would become the first home of Eldorado Polo Club; it eventually moved to its current home in Indio, and has hosted the U.S. Open Polo Championship in 1987, 1992 and 1993. Established in 1987, Empire Polo Club, adjacent to Eldorado, has grown over 30 years to include 12 polo fields, an indoor arena, and the only fully lit grass polo field in the United States for night polo. The club operates year-round, and also hosts numerous non-polo events, including the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

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Above: Chairman of the U.S. Polo Association Joe Meyer (far right) presenting the 2016 111th U.S. Polo Open Championship to (l-r) Steve Van Andel, Julian de Lussareta, Juan Martin Nero, Facundo Pieres. Credit: Alex Pacheo

Top Tournaments

 

Polo in the U.S. is typically played locally with friends and family, though if a player is so inclined to play at a more competitive level, they may travel to Florida or California in the winter, Santa Barbara or New York in the summer, and Aiken in the spring and fall shoulder season. There are 13 regional circuits in the USPA; tournaments are held within these circuits, each with varying levels of competition. The majority of tournaments are open to teams that meet the particular tournament’s handicap and are in good standing with the USPA. Professional polo players will play throughout the year, competing both stateside and internationally. The USPA sends an American team around the globe to compete in famous cups, including the Westchester Cup, played between U.S. and England, and originally hosted in Meadowbrook, NY. The highest goal polo in the U.S. is played

in Wellington, FL, with a season that lasts from January through April. Although there are many tournaments played around the country, notable competitions include:

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Above: Goose Creek’s Maureen Brennan and Beluga’s Tommy Biddle on the field at Bridgehampton Polo Club. Credit: Marcelo Bianchi

U.S. Open Polo Championship

The U.S. Open dates back to 1904, when it was first played in New York at Van Cortlandt Park, and has been hosted at the International Polo Club Palm Beach since 2004. Considered the most prestigious polo tournament in the United States, the U.S. Open Polo Championship is the final leg of the 26-goal tournaments held during the Florida high-goal season that attracts polo enthusiasts from more than 50 states and 30 countries.

 

Silver Cup

The oldest American polo trophy is the Silver Cup, which was the prize given to the winner of the Junior Championship, dating back to 1900, in Philadelphia. The U.S. Army was dominant in the earlier half of the 20th century, capturing the most wins with a total of seven, sweeping the field in 1922, 1923, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1930 and 1932. In 1938, the competition was renamed the Twenty-Goal Championship, reflecting the highest handicap allowed to enter the tournament.

 

Almost 20 years later, the opening match of the 1957 National Twenty Goal Championship was the first complete outdoor polo match to be televised. Known as the Silver Cup since 1974, more than 15 different polo clubs have played host to the tournament.

 

C.V. Whitney Cup

Originally known as the U.S. Handicap, the C.V. Whitney Cup was first competed for in 1979 by handicap, and played in conjunction with the U.S. Open Championship. In 1988, the tournament was renamed for C.V. (Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny”) Whitney, an avid polo player and three-time winner of the U.S. Open. Now played as a stand-alone tournament, the C.V. Whitney Cup is the first of four 26-goal tournaments at the International Polo Club Palm Beach, its home since 2003.

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Above: Harvard vs. Yale at the Metropolitan Club Intervarsity Polo Tournament in Tianjin, China. Credit: Susan Meyer

USPA Gold Cup

 

The USPA Gold Cup is the second 26-goal tournament of the Florida high-goal season and runs from March 12 to March 26. Established in 1974 at Oak Brook Polo Club in Illinois, its first edition featured four teams. The following year, the USPA Gold Cup was moved to Milwaukee Polo Club, where it was played from 1975 to 1978. In 1979, it moved to Florida and became the crown jewel of the winter season. In its heyday during the 80s and early 90s at the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club, the USPA Gold Cup was the tournament to win, attracting anywhere from 11 to 20 teams. After a 17-year stretch at the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club, the tournament was hosted by several clubs over the years until 2007, when it was played at the International Polo Club Palm Beach, and where it has remained ever since.

 

U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship

 

The U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship has a rich history dating back to California in the 1930s, with the first women’s U.S. Open tournament presented by the United States Women’s Polo Association (U.S.W.P.A) in 1937 at the Golden Gate Field in San Francisco. The U.S.W.P.A., the first and only women’s polo association in the history of American polo, created a women’s handicapping system mirroring that of the men. The U.S.W.P.A. played eight to ten tournaments a year, accumulating 25 clubs and 300 members in its decade-long tenure, until members’ attention shifted to the war effort at the onset of World War II. Women were officially welcomed into the United States Polo Association in 1972, with Sue Sally Hale becoming the first woman member. A devoted advocate of women in polo, Hale was alleged to have disguised herself as a man in order to compete in tournaments throughout the 1950s and 60s. U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship competition did not resurface until the early 1990s. A U.S. Women’s Open was officially sanctioned and held at Empire Polo Club in Indio, CA, on the centennial anniversary of the USPA in 1990. Now the largest annual women’s polo event in the United States, it was officially recognized in 2011 as a national tournament, and has been hosted for the past six years at the Houston Polo Club.

Notable Clubs

As with tournaments, there is a vast number of polo clubs in the U.S. A select few include:

 

International Polo Club Palm Beach (Wellington, FL)

The International Polo Club Palm Beach is the home of high-goal polo in the United States. Established in 2002, it is home to the most prestigious 20- and 26-goal polo tournaments in the U.S. and has hosted the U.S. Open Polo Championship for over 10 years. Located in the heart of the horse centric village of Wellington, FL, polo enthusiasts visit the club to witness top-level polo competition during the winter season, which begins in January and runs through April.

 

Myopia Polo Club (South Hamilton, MA)

Myopia Polo holds the distinction of being the oldest active polo club in America, and is one of five charter members of the United States Polo Association in 1891. Club players have competed on summer Sundays on the original Gibney Field, named after the farm that occupied the site, since the first game in 1887. Gibney Field hosted the first formal intercollegiate polo game, Harvard vs. Yale, in 1907. In the past, it hosted the U.S. Senior Championship, the equivalent of what is now the U.S. Open championship. Polo scenes from the 1967 film classic The Thomas Crown Affair with Steve McQueen were shot on the site.

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Above: Joe Meyer riding Manola, playing with friends at the farm in Palm Beach. Credit: Alex Pacheo

Aiken Polo Club (Aiken, SC)

Founded in 1882, Aiken Polo Club is one of the oldest and most historic clubs in the United States. In 1899, the club officially joined the USPA, and in the early 1900s polo in Aiken prospered, due in large part to the influence of the Hitchcock family. During this time, Aiken became the winter home to numerous polo legends, including 10-goalers Tommy Hitchcock, Devereux Milburn, and Harry Payne Whitney. Aiken Polo Club has since become one of the best polo venues in the spring and fall, with a calendar that caters to all levels ranging from 4- to 12-goal tournaments. Its location makes it is a convenient middle point for players and teams traveling to Florida for the winter and summer clubs in the Northeast, West and Midwest.

 

Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club (Carpinteria, CA)

Located between the Pacific coast and the Southern California foothills, Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club was established in 1911 and is one of the oldest USPA Member Clubs still in existence. Santa Barbara Polo Club offers over six months of polo each year at a variety of levels. Their season begins in mid-April, when local California players are invited to play in casual club chukkers before the start of the spring season. Their 12-goal season runs from May to June, followed by their high-goal season in July and August, which features a field of intensely competitive 16-goal teams vying for the Belmond El Encanto Mayors Cup, Robert Skene Trophy, Engel & Volkers USPA America Cup, and the Gulfstream Pacific Coast Open.

 

Houston Polo Club (Houston, TX)

Established in 1928, HPC has been providing the Southwestern Circuit with not only world-class polo, but the opportunity to learn and progress as an individual player with their nationally acclaimed Polo School. The club has proven to be a mainstay in American polo since its inception and has hosted and produced its fair share of notable professional players over nearly a century. Polo is played almost year-round, with the club offering a fall and spring season, followed by summer leagues, winter arena and interscholastic polo. During the fall, HPC hosts numerous tournaments, including the USPA Keleen and Carlton Beal Cup, USPA Regional President’s Cup, the USPA H. Ben Taub Memorial, and a week of women’s tournaments that culminates with the U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship.

 

Greenwich Polo Club (Greenwich, CT)

Nestled in the beautiful backcountry of Connecticut, Greenwich Polo Club was established in 1981. The club is home to the legendary White Birch polo team, one of the most successful in polo history, having won the most high-goal polo tournaments of any team over the course of the past 25 years. Each spring, players descend on Greenwich to compete for some of polo’s most prestigious cups, including the Monty Waterbury Cup, Silver Cup, and East Coast Open.

Take the Reins

Polo, originally called “the sport of kings,” is, in reality, a sport that can be played by people of all ages and backgrounds. Many clubs offer lessons, and there is no prerequisite for taking up the sport. Athletes with show jumping or other equestrian backgrounds may have an easier time transitioning to the sport, but previous experience on a horse isn’t required. “That's the beauty of polo,” says Mariana Castro of Greenwich Polo Club. “You can have a 14-year-old and a 68-year-old on the same team and win tournaments… Anybody can play at (mostly) any age, it is just about putting in the time and effort to develop the skills and enjoy the game. Kids can start as young as six years old. There is no age limit. There are people who have started in the sport, without riding experience, at 60 years old and developed skills to play USPA tournaments.”

 

The USPA has many certified programs and instructors to help beginners around the U.S.; with more than 250 clubs in the USPA and over 5,000 registered members, most players spend their entire lives having fun and playing club polo. “Polo is a welcoming sport, just ask any polo player how you can begin to play, or go to the www.uspolo.org to learn more… you can find certified

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Above: The prestigious Copper Cup from the 2013 U.S. Polo Association National 12-Goal Championship. (l-r):  Joe Meyer, Will Tankard (d) Nick Snow and John Gobin. Credit: Alex Pacheo

instructors and they will put you on a horse… you’ll be hooked.” says Joseph P. Meyer, Chairman of the USPA and Vice President of FIP (Federation of International Polo). The USPA has been a champion of the sport, notably encouraging the next generation of polo players with its Junior Polo program, providing children across the country with the opportunity to participate in polo clinics, tournaments and even international competitions. Additionally, there are numerous programs for high school and college students to learn the game, with colleges throughout the U.S. involved in competitive play. In 2010, the USPA created Team USPA to provide training, mentoring, and playing opportunities to players selected through a rigorous try-out process.

One doesn’t necessarily need to have picked up the game as a child, as Mr. Meyer can attest. “As an armor/cavalry officer in the Army, I always admired General Patton, who was considered the grandfather of mechanized cavalry/tanks. He was also a renowned polo player and fox hunter, playing all over the world and based mostly out of Myopia Hunt Club, north of Boston. When our daughter began to take an interest in riding at five years old, I mentioned to my business partner that I always wanted to play polo because of General Patton. To my surprise, he called his brother-in-law in California, and within a few weeks, two polo ponies arrived. I learned to ride and play with Adolphus Orthwein Jr. at the Atlanta Polo Club. I had my Jeep Grand Wagoneer and a three-horse trailer. I was hooked.”

 

Meyer’s daughter has competed for many years in showjumping and equitation; his son started on the sidelines watching him take up the sport in Atlanta, and himself began fox hunting and playing polo at a young age, now playing on the collegiate level for Harvard. According to Meyer, his son “really enjoys the camaraderie and friends he has made playing at school and all over the world, playing in international matches in England, France, China, and Argentina.”

 

He continues, “I have had the good fortune to play in many places. I play shoulder seasons in Aiken, winter in Palm Beach. We travel to Argentina in the fall, and typically groups of friends travel and play together in each other’s countries. This is the true essence of polo, when you share your love and passion with friends and family and horses… spending time together on the field and off the field. Susan [Meyer’s wife and dedicated behind-the-scenes supporter of their equestrian family] and I travel with our friends, which takes us all over… polo is part of our family.”

 

“The higher goal and that level of horses has changed a lot over the last 125 years, but at the end of the day, it’s about being on a horse, hitting the ball… spending time and having fun with your friends and family, whether it’s locally or around the world.”

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Above: Jeff Hall, playing for Team USA at IPC, avoiding the hook. Credit: Alex Pacheo

Polo 101

• Competing on a 30-by-160-yard grass field, players score by driving the ball into the opposing team’s goal using a bamboo mallet while riding at speeds of up to 35 mph.

 

• A match consists of six periods knows as chukkers, each lasting seven and a half minutes. A player may ride at least one horse per chukker, typically bringing four to seven horses per game. In higher levels of competition, there may be as many as eight to ten horses per player.

 

• A team consists of four mounted players and can be a mix of both men and women. Players are handicapped on a scale of -2 to 10, as determined by a player’s horsemanship,

hitting ability, quality of horses, and team play.

 

• The team handicap is the sum of its players’ total handicaps.

 

• A team is usually created by the Sponsor/Patron, which is the team owner. They choose their team to add up to a particular handicap based upon the handicap of the tournament they want to enter.

 

• A player’s jersey number reflects the position they play, with each number indicating a different objective.

 

• The "main player" on a team often acts as a manager of the team and is referred to as the "main pro.”