The International Club for Rolls Royce and Bentley Owners — Desk Diary 2008
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The King Of Sports

Don’t let anyone tell you polo isn’t a violent game. On a dusty summer Sunday – the second day of a weekend tournament at the Wine Country Polo Club, in California’s Sonoma Valley – Christine Finerty sprawls in a lawn chair next to her trailer, where a line of tethered horses look upon her with expressions that could be interpreted as apologetic. Yesterday, during a match, one of these horses lost its footing and rolled onto her ankle before she managed to wriggle free. “I heard some popping sounds,” she says. “But after a while I could walk on it.”

Now she sits with her boot off, her foot dangling over the dust, while her partner, Tracy Conner, pours a stream of industrialsmelling horse liniment from a jug – prominently labeled “For Veterinary Use” – over her ankle and rubs it in.

Finerty, a production manager for Apple Computer, and Conner, the owner of an appliance parts distributor based in San Jose, drive three hours to the club every Friday from their home, towing a trailer carrying a dozen horses and a locker room’s worth of tack and polo gear. On Sunday, usually within an hour of finishing their final match, they load up and drive back home. Otherwise, the two don’t get out much.

Some might consider it an obsession, and neither Finerty nor Conner would argue. Conner, who grew up on a horse ranch and has played for more than 20 years, jokes that polo is often called “the Cocaine of Sports,” and given the amount of time and money he’s poured into it, it’s fair to consider him at least slightly addicted.

A view from the sidelines offers some insight into the fascination: Probably no other activity could legally produce so much adrenaline. In the heat of a match, when the tiny ball is knocked free from the pack and the players give chase, several tons of horseflesh bear down, hooves thundering over the turf. For the spectator, it’s hard to resist the primal urge to flee the stampede. Polo is a fast game, and it’s rough; it may be the most dangerous sport played today. And in the last two or three decades, despite the inherent difficulty for the average American to play, it has enjoyed a kind of resurgence, both among those with the means to take it on, and those who are content to simply watch.

To the outsider, polo’s appeal is hard to explain. At first glance, it’s a fairly simple game, played by eight mounted riders (six riders in the indoor version), four to a team (three to a team indoors), whose aim is to drive a ball into the opposing team’s goal with a long-handled mallet. In both versions of the sport, a match is divided into seven-minute periods called chukkas, or “chukkers” to North Americans who have adopted the English pronunciation. Six chukkers is considered the norm, though some leagues use four or eight chukkers per match.

Polo rules are pretty straightforward, most designed to protect riders from the obvious risks associated with playing a game while mounted on half-ton animals running at top speed. The governing concept of polo is the “line of the ball,” a rightof- way established by the path of the traveling ball. Within the limitations established by this line, defending players can hook an opponent’s mallet to prevent a shot, push him or her off the line in a “ride-off” or a “bump,” or steal the ball outright. Penalties are awarded as free hits toward the goal. For reasons that become obvious as one watches a match, riders are not allowed to swing mallets with their left hands. Teams switch sides after every goal is scored, to even out any advantages offered by field and wind conditions, and every game is played either “on the flat” or handicapped. Every registered polo player is handicapped, assigned a skill level from -2 to 10. When the term “high-goal polo” is used, it usually refers to a match among players whose average rating is six or higher. Only a handful of American players today are six-goal players or better.

A polo match is anything but simple, however, and it’s often a difficult sport to watch. Many spectators today will admit they’ve given up trying to figure it out – they attend matches largely as social functions. Because the game is so fluid, with breakneck changes in momentum, there are few set plays. A player’s skills, and a spectator’s enjoyment of the game, are determined largely by the ability to anticipate what’s coming.

A key source of polo’s charm is its deep cultural roots. It’s a truly ancient game, likely played more than 2,600 years ago among nomadic Central Asian tribes who passed it on to the earliest documented practitioners, in Persia and Baltistan, a province in the modern-day Kashmiri region of Pakistan. The word polo is derived from the Balti word “pulu,” meaning “ball;” “chukka” is a version of the Sanskrit word “chakra” – in yogic philosophy, one of the human body’s seven centers of spiritual energy. Today in northern Pakistan, polo is still played in something resembling its original form, a freestyle variant known as “chaugan.”

Polo flourished in Persia during the 16th and 17th centuries, when it was popularized as a game for training young cavalrymen. These training matches featured as many as 100 players on each side, lending each the air of a small battle. Polo’s spread throughout Asia seems to have occurred along with the use of light cavalry units for conquest. After reaching as far as China and Japan, polo was a royal pastime at imperial courts for a period of several centuries.

The most likely reason for polo’s failure to migrate from Asia Minor into Europe was that European armies depended on heavy armored cavalry, rather than the light, highly mobile cavalry Asian armies had used since before the days of Alexander the Great. Polo would have to wait until the 19th century to be discovered by Westerners, when British tea planters and military officers saw villagers playing in the Manipuri hills of Assam, in eastern India. By 1859, British officers had established the first polo club, the Silchar Polo Club, in Assam. One of the club’s founders, a Bengal Army lieutenant named Joseph Sherer, became known as “the Father of Western Polo” after bringing the game home to England, where the first polo match was played on Hounslow Heath in 1869.

From Great Britain, polo was introduced to the United States by James Gordon Bennett, Jr., socialite and publisher of The New York Herald, who saw a match played by British cavalry officers at London’s Hurlingham Club in 1876 – the same year one of North America’s most notorious cavalry battles was fought in the valley of the Little Bighorn River. Some time after the first American match was played – indoors, at Dickel’s Riding Academy at 39th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City – Bennett and some friends founded the Westchester Polo Club, the first in America. In 1881, another club, Meadow Brook (today spelled “Meadowbrook”), was established in Nassau County, on Long Island; it remains the oldest continuously operating club in the nation.

The United States became a polo powerhouse in 1909, when the Americans won the transatlantic series known as the Westchester Cup. By World War I, polo matches were being played throughout the United States, including the territories of the Philippines and Hawaii. However, the balance of polo power soon shifted to the southern end of the Western Hemisphere, where the “gaucho” horse culture of the South American pampas, especially in Argentina and Uruguay, produced increasingly fine players. In the 1936 Olympics – the height of polo’s “golden age” and the last year in which polo was played at the Olympic level – the Argentines won the gold, playing in matches that drew 50,000 spectators. Today the sport continues to be dominated by players from this region, where family names such as Heguy and Astrada, having achieved generations of success, carry royal connotations.

Modern Polo

After a war-years lull, high-goal polo was revived in the United States in the 1960s. In 1964, the Sunshine League was established at the Royal Palm Club in Florida, and the Cup of Americas series – long dominated by Argentina – also resumed in 1966 and 1969. In the 1970s, in an effort to promote the top players and attract corporate sponsors, dedicated promoters in South Florida built and funded elaborate clubs, such as John T. Oxley’s Royal Palm Polo Club in Boca Raton, which remained the center of high-goal polo during much of the 1970s. In the late 1970s, William Ylvisaker’s Palm Beach Polo & Country Club joined Royal Palm and Gulfstream Polo Club as South Florida’s triune of high-profile clubs. Worldwide, the sport continued to regain its prominence in the 1980s; the Federation of International Polo (FIP), the first global governing body for the sport, was established in 1985, with a goal of restoring polo’s status as an Olympic event.

With major clubs offering big prize money to attract high-goal talent and team sponsors hiring the best professional players to compete on the most expensive horses, polo has become big business in certain parts of the world. It remains so in South Florida, where the best players in the world continue to match up, as well as in isolated clubs in New York, Texas, Virginia, and California.

Despite its glamorous-sounding name, the Wine Country Polo Club, where Christine Finerty and Tracy Conner spend their summer weekends, is probably one of the least glitzy clubs in America – and its president, Roger Schaufel, is proud of it. “We’re very folksy, very family-oriented,” he says. “Very low-key. And we try to keep it that way . . . We have a number of father-son or brother-sister teams playing.” There is no grandstand at the Wine Country Polo Club; spectators sit at a row of picnic tables on a mulberry-shaded embankment overlooking the field and the mountains beyond. It is a club for players, rather than anyone interested in “The Scene.”

Despite the glamour of a few Western clubs – including the regal Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club, the nation’s third-oldest, which in 1998 became the first U.S. polo facility to host the first FIP World Championship – The Scene today is defined in South Florida, specifically Palm Beach County, where the Royal Palm and Gulfstream clubs still operate. The Palm Beach Polo and Country Club – once the winter capital of U.S. polo – recently ceded its polo operations to a new club, the International Polo Club Palm Beach, a half-mile away.

The International is a world-class facility, with a big grandstand, a swimming pool, and dining facilities, designed to showcase the world’s finest players in prestigious high-goal tournaments. A unique feature of polo is that in high-goal tournaments, amateur players are often seen playing alongside the most accomplished professionals. Typically, this is an arrangement in which a wealthy patrón – such as Hollywood actor Tommy Lee Jones, rated a 0-goal player on the International Club’s Web site – hires teammates at the going rate. Jones’ 26-goal team, San Saba, is rounded out by famed Argentines Javier N. Astrada, Paco de Narvaez, and Toto Collardin. At these events, some professionals can earn as much as $100,000 in a weekend.

The horse culture of Palm Beach, explains Gulfstream Polo Club’s general manager, Marla Connor, is driven by economics: “Polo is a very wealthy person’s sport, as is show jumping, and when people winter here, they just have their horses here. There is an influx of about 50,000 horses in the winter in this county alone. It’s really remarkable what goes on here – there’s nothing like it in the United States. It’s absolutely unbelievable.”

Connor – who used to manage the Palm Beach Polo Club – says that though matches are played daily at most clubs in the area, offering visitors a chance to see polo at any level for free, all eyes are drawn to International on Sundays. “They only charge for the Sunday three o’clock game,” she says. “So that’s when you go and get tickets, sit down, have some champagne, wear a hat, and watch good polo.” All the other South Florida clubs shut down for these three o’clock matches, says Connor. “If we offered polo [at that time], people would stay and begrudgingly play . . . But we all want to go, too. It’s a great atmosphere.”

The atmosphere at the International Polo Club certainly is a far cry from the pick-up matches Joseph Sherer and his teaplanter friends watched in the villages of Manipur, but the world has changed, and the sport has largely regained its status as the “Game of Kings.” It requires some means both to stage it and to play it.

For one thing, polo requires the largest field in organized sport. At 300 yards long and 160 yards wide, it is slightly larger than nine football fields – almost 10 acres in size. Where wealthy people live and play, such as Palm Beach, there is an increasing premium placed on available land, so much so that even a local legend such as Gulfstream – a 640-acre parcel that houses about 900 horses – was nearly bought out last year to make way for housing developments.

For players, polo requires a stable full of highly trained polo ponies – “ponies” in name only, as most are thoroughbreds or thoroughbred/quarter horse crosses. A well-bred polo pony can cost $50,000 or more, though entry-level players can find one for a few thousand. During a fast polo match, a pony can cover as much as two to three miles per chukker. While rules allow a pony to play two chukkers per game, most players take it easier on their mounts, using one each period.

The saddle, tack, and other gear used to outfit a rider often costs as much as – or more than – the horse itself. Even for recreational players such as Finerty and Conner, who do all the work – grooming, shoeing, stabling, and caring for their horses – a single polo match requires an astonishing logistical trail. “It’s very hard to start in this game,” says Roger Schaufel, “because of the horsemanship that’s required, the athletic skill that’s required, the amount of horsepower and equipment that you have to accumulate within a fairly short period of time when you’re beginning.”

At Schaufel’s Wine Country Polo Club, the challenges haven’t been enough to discourage Finerty, a relative newcomer to the sport. A Massachusetts native who grew up, in her own words, “horse crazy,” and an avid fox hunter, she found herself not getting quite the same kick out of pursuing the local California vermin – coyotes and wild boars. So she switched to polo. “What’s fascinating for me,” she says, “is the athleticism that the horse and rider need to have to play the game of polo. The rider needs to be aggressive to go at speed, turn, and stop. And I’ve always been an aggressive rider. It seemed like a natural progression to try my style of riding – challenging both the horse and the rider to the best of their abilities at speed.”

Her partner, Tracy Conner, says polo still gets his pulse racing, after all these years. “I just like flying down the field, running and hitting the ball. And I like playing with Christine a lot. Even though I get a thrill out of running up and down the field, I want to play with somebody I know and enjoy being around. That’s what I’m in it for.”

On this Sunday in August the weekend is almost over, and Finerty – her ankle soaking in liniment, still throbbing from being underneath a horse yesterday – could be forgiven if she packed it in early for the long drive home. But she doesn’t. She pulls on her boot with a grimace, a modern-day horse soldier, and gets her pony ready for the next match. It’s as if she doesn’t have a choice – as if the ancient Persian proverb was written for her:

“Man is a ball tossed onto the field of existence, driven hither and thither by the chaugan-stick of destiny, wielded by the hand of Providence.”