courogen communications

Polo is someone else’s life . . . but for one afternoon it was mine

Note: Sometimes doing “chores” is not so bad. I recently was reminded of that after I was given marching orders by my wife and daughter. “Clean up the mess you call your home office,” they demanded. In the process, I started going through a bunch of old, unlabeled CDs to see what they contained. On one I stumbled across this story, written I am not sure when, for Harrisburg Magazine. I always remembered it as one of my favorite pieces. But opening the file I was filled with trepidation. Often stories written, as this one was, a decade or so ago, don’t stand the test of time very well. What you remember as something you thought showcased your abilities too often turns out to just show how much you have grown since. This one, though, did not disappoint.

My interest in polo began with an excerpt published in Rolling Stone from Hunter Thompson's unpublished novel "Polo is my life." This is a Ralph Steadman illustration intended for that book.Steadman illustration intended for that book.

My interest in polo began with an excerpt published in Rolling Stone from Hunter Thompson’s unpublished novel “Polo is my life.” This is a Ralph Steadman illustration intended for that book.Steadman illustration intended for that book.

A buddy of mine tells me polo originated in ancient Asia, where Mongolian warriors, fired up on some primeval elixir, celebrated great victories by knocking about the severed heads of conquered rivals. I don’t know if that is true, but it’s a good story.

The game’s P.R. folks have been trying to clean up that image ever since. There’s only a vague reference to Asiatic nomadic warriors on the history page of the U.S. Polo Association’s Web site. A lot more space is devoted to the exploits of gentlemen cavalry officers, debonair psuedo-Gatsbys and dashing Argentinean vaqueros from polo’s modern era.

These days the game is considerably more civilized. The severed heads have been replaced by a plastic ball. No unruly mobs either, not even in the stands. If soccer hooligans represent one end of the sports fan spectrum, polo patrons are the opposite extreme. Games no longer stretch on for days, across miles and miles of tundra, or whatever-the-hell you call the wide-open spaces of Mongolia. Nowadays, they play six seven-minute chukkars (periods) on a 300 by 160-yard field edged by boards to keep the ball in play and ringed by tailgating partiers, most of whom pay little actual attention to the game.

It’s a crisp fall afternoon in Rothsville, near Lititz, and Lancaster is battling Rabbit Hill for the coveted Log Cabin Cup, a classic piece of sterling hardware that sits on a small table next to the announcer’s booth at the Lancaster Polo Club’s Forney Field. Lancaster versus Rabbit Hill is a little misleading. It’s actually two teams of Lancaster club members, split into Red and White teams for what is essentially a pick-up game. It’s sort of like Penn State calling its spring Blue-White scrimmage Penn State versus State College.

Not that who is playing matters to most of the folks in attendance anyhow. After all, polo is a social event, not a not a sporting event. It’s a tailgate party with horses. Polo isn’t a sport; it’s an excuse for a party. It’s the way for young professionals and business folks to let loose now that they’ve outgrown frat house mixers.

Patrons, or non-playing members of the club, pay $200 a year for a reserved, field-side, tailgating spot. At the Lancaster club, close to 200 patrons equates to most of the prime, mid-field spots on both sides of pitch. Non-members pay $5 per person, or $15 per carload (kids under 12 are free) to get in, and are free to claim the remaining spots at the ends, or to park in the lot behind the field.

It makes little difference where you park. Few people bother to watch the on-field action anyway. Club founder Ben Forney had the foresight to ring the field with maple trees, so there’s no shortage of shade. Besides, just because you park at one end, doesn’t mean you have to stay there the entire game. This is a party; mingle.

“We have a whole crew up in our spot,” says club secretary Bob LeMin with a laugh. “I don’t know who half those people are.”

The crowd is decidedly upscale. Even the amazingly clean porta-potties are high end, with waterless hand-cleaner dispensers and paper towels. The parking lot is heavy on Mercedes, Volvos and sports cars. At the same time, though, it’s not the crew of swells a first-timer might expect. Mine is not the oldest VW in the parking lot. There are Hondas, Tauruses and Toyotas in the mix and the only Celebrity around is a beat-up old Chevy. Even though my polo shirt has a J.C. Penny logo where the little pony ought to be, I don’t feel underdressed, which is unusual for us sportswriters.

The night before I’d fretted to my wife about what to wear to a polo match. If I wore a polo shirt, was that like wearing an Orioles jersey to Camden Yards? In reality, polo players don’t wear polo shirts. Their jerseys look more like jockey silks, with numbers. Nobody in the crowd wears the jersey of their favorite polo team, though. It’s mostly what you’d call golf club casual, nice shorts, khaki pants and polo or oxford shirts for the guys; a few of the women sport casual dresses or skirts, but most of them opt for shorts or slacks as well. A few brave souls even show up in jeans.

At halftime, rock music blares from the P.A. system as fans stream on to the field for the traditional stomping of the divots. They do this between each chukkar, replacing the clomps of turf that have been kicked up by the horses or dug up by errant mallet swings and pushing them back into place with a heel. It’s kind of like letting the fans drive the Zamboni between periods of a hockey game.

Even the Queen of England stomps divots, I am told. My, those crazy royals do know how to have fun.

This is not a sport for poor folks. For starters, you need a string of ponies (actually, they are horses, not ponies), usually four for beginners (at $3,000 to $5,000 each), six or more (medium and high goal ponies go for as much as $30,000) for advanced players. Equipment for the horse runs around $2,000; a rider’s uniform and gear will add $1,000 more to the tab. A trailer to haul the horses to matches will set you back another five to 10 grand, and we haven’t even begun to consider the costs of club fees, boarding, feeding and shoeing.

Hard to believe they can’t afford a grounds crew.

Polo has been called the sport of kings, but it’s no longer only for the super rich. According to Polo Magazine figures, from a study taken before the stock market woes of the past year, most players are college-educated professional males between 35- and 44-years old, with an average net worth of $966,000. In other words, while the demographics skew decidedly upscale, it’s not strictly the province of millionaires.

“We all work for a living,” laughs club manager Ken McSherry between periods. McSherry finances his polo habit with his day job as an executive with Clipper magazine.

It’s also not exclusively male. Three of the Lancaster club’s dozen playing members are female. On this day, Melissa Harrington, who ventures up from Dover, De., joins them for the afternoon’s match. Melissa’s husband, Colin Bomini is running for reelection to the Delaware State Senate.

“He’s a Republican,” says Harrington, during a visit between chukkars as her pony deposits a souvenir that adds an air of authenticity to the rest of the afternoon.

“I guess that is to be expected at a polo match,” I reply.

“Yeah,” laughs Harrington. “I guess it kind of goes with the territory.”

Not that it matters here. When polo fans ask about party affiliation, they’re referring to which patron’s tailgate you’ve migrated from.

As the second half gets underway, the action on the field is entertaining. Juan Vidal, the highest-ranked player on the field is keeping the white squad (is that Lancaster or Rabbit Hill? Who cares?) in the game.

The white team is awarded a penalty shot, which is taken by Vidal. Between Vidal and the goal lies 60-yards of turf. Three Red players form a gauntlet strung across the mouth of the goal, ready to stop Vidal’s shot.

“That’s not a scoring opportunity for most players,” announcer Ben Smith tells the crowd, most of which don’t bother to look up from their drink. “But Juan Vidal is one who can score from there.”

Vidal drills it like well struck three-iron. The ball sails over the heads of three Red defenders, splitting the uprights to cut the Red lead to 4-3. The applause is louder at a golf tournament.

Polo players are assigned a handicap rating between C and 10, with C being equivalent to minus two goals and 10 being the highest ranking a player can attain. To make for even play, teams are spotted goals when their combined handicap numbers are less than the opposition’s. For instance, a team with a total handicap of 10 would spot an 8-handicap team a pair of goals to begin the game. Most players carry rankings of 2-goals or less. It is rare to advance higher than a 3. A 5 rating or better usually belongs to a professional, and only 11 players in the U.S are currently rated 10s.

“He’s officially a two, but he is playing like a three this year,” says LeMin. “He’s been on fire.” In other words, Vidal is, on paper, at least two goals better than every other player on the field. On this particular day, that leads to him being teamed with two B (-1) players, giving both teams team handicaps of 0 goals.

As the 0 goals ranking indicate, these are, for the most part, relative beginners. Play tends to bunch around the ball like it does in U-10 soccer or Mites hockey.

“When pros play, they spread the field more,” says Smith.

The pros also strike the ball better. As you might expect of a sport where players try to hit a rolling ball with a narrow, nine-inch long chunk of wood attached to the end of a four-foot long bamboo pole, all while perched on the back of a horse galloping at breakneck speed, it’s not easy to master. Often what seems to the uninitiated like a slam-dunk opportunity ends with a whiff or a mishit.

With the Red team leading 6-3, Vidal sends a beautiful pass up field, springing Harrington on a breakaway, but her point-blank shot goes wide left.

Nobody groans. Nobody boos. Almost nobody notices.

They’re paying more attention to their white wine and the perfectly cooked tenderloin being served under the Chukkar Club tent.

That’s one reason the P.A. announcer gives a running play-by-play of the match. It’s partly to educate the fans watching the game, many of which are new to the sport, and partly to let the tailgating partiers know what is going on.

Despite the fact that almost everybody of legal age seems to have a drink in their hand all afternoon, the atmosphere is decidedly family friendly. There’s none of the antics of the 700-level drunks at an Eagles’ game. Decorum is maintained throughout. Between chukkars Smith leads the crowd in singing Happy Birthday to a 6-year-old in attendance. The birthday girl is not alone; there are kids of all ages roaming the club grounds. Look up good, clean, fun in the dictionary and it’s liable to say “see also: polo.”

Vidal chips a short penalty shot over the Red defense to keep the White team close, and gives his side a chance to cut the lead to one when he plays a beautiful drive up the middle of the field. His less-skilled teammates are unable to capitalize, though, with two White players fanning on shots as the ball rolled past them.

Red breaks out on a two-on-one, with only Vidal to beat. Vidal momentarily slows the charge by poking the ball away from the first man, but the trailer follows up by sending the ball through the wide-open goal to push the Red lead to 7-4, with the clock ticking down. Red adds a pair of goals to make the final 9-5.

The end of the game brings the loudest applause, with the revelers setting down their drinks to salute the players of both teams as they parade around the field, a Lancaster postgame tradition. Then the party resumes, with the players joining the festivities after they have tended to their mounts.

Befitting the social nature of the match, the teams opt to forgo any ceremonial awarding of the cup. That decision doesn’t disappoint any of the players. Word that the keg is kicked is not taken as civilly.