Playing with the Ponies

The centuries-old sport of polo brings together glamour and grit
lifestyle, culture, outdoors
Written By Patty Jensen
Photography By Matthew Stephan

Loving polo is easy. Playing polo is not.

There are other sports—horse racing, dressage, show jumping—that meld equine and human athletes into one. But what sets polo apart is that it’s a team sport, demanding dramatically synchronized moves as riders and horses thunder down the field at upward of 35 miles an hour, lengthy mallets swinging high over the riders’ heads and then plummeting down in pursuit of sending a small white ball across the goal. The rules are few, the teamwork constant, the outcome never assured.

Long known as the “Sport of Kings,” polo is not simply the genteel pastime of the privileged few often associated with the centuries-old game. Yes, its patrons are wealthy, its audience filled with fans dressed in their fashionable finest, its playing fields located at some of the most beautiful places on the planet. All of that is an important part of the allure—and certainly the charm—of polo.

“Polo is considered an elitist sport because it costs a fortune to transport the horses, enter the tournaments and obviously to have a polo team. You have to be pretty wealthy to indulge in it,” according to Richard Mineards, a journalist who started writing about polo in 1976 while covering Britain’s royal family. “It’s also a very fashion-conscious game, where everybody dresses to the nines and breaks out their best wardrobe.”

Yet sometimes forgotten in the game’s glitz is that polo requires immense athletic ability and superb equestrian skills to succeed.

People have this image of polo which has to do with the fact it is a brilliant spectator sport and a wonderfully entertaining way to spend your time. But it can also be brutally competitive and dangerous

“Polo is probably the most misunderstood sport on the planet,” says Leigh Brecheen, polo player and entertainment attorney and partner at Bloom, Hergott in Beverly Hills, California. “People have this image of polo which has to do with the fact it is a brilliant spectator sport and a wonderfully entertaining way to spend your time. But it can also be brutally competitive and dangerous to some degree.”

Chasing a Trophy Classic

The Gulfstream Pacific Coast Open trophy tantalizes players seeking to claim it for their own.

To the locals, it was just another day in paradise. But to the fans and players attending the final match of the Gulfstream Pacific Coast Open, held at the historic Santa Barbara Polo Club late last August, this was polo-playing weather at its finest. The Southern California club had cheerfully provided clear-blue skies, highs in the sublime 70s, low humidity, and a perfectly groomed field that glistened with the greenest of grass and the highest of hopes.

“Polo is an addicting sport,” claims Mindy Denson, a Montecito, California, resident and polo fan, who was at the event to celebrate her 10th year attending the Pacific Coast Open. “I have watched families grow up here, with the kids of players now playing the sport themselves. The atmosphere is like an extended family, and everybody feels it and loves it.”

The Gulfstream Pacific Coast Open is the club’s most prestigious and anticipated tournament of the year, a series of 16-goal games stretching over the final three weeks of summer. Some of the sport’s best teams of polo ponies and players had gathered for the matches preceding the final in an attempt to obtain the coveted Pacific Coast Open trophy, considered the most classic and beautiful in all of polo.

Now it was down to just two—the Alegria/Valiente team, composed of Julian Mannix, Rob Jornayvaz, Santi Torres and Sterling Giannico; and the Lucchese team, with players John Muse, Tete Grahn, Facundo Obregon and Jeff Hall.

Winner Takes All

On Sunday, August 30, promptly at 2 p.m., a dignitaries-filled Maserati led the event’s opening parade, followed by the two teams astride their tail-braided mounts, players wearing uniforms of logo-emblazed jerseys, white pants, tall black boots, knee guards and protective head gear looking remarkably like 19th century pith helmets.

For the audience, the final match was a symphony of the senses. The incredibly fast play made the motion of pony and player almost a blur at times as they raced down the gigantic regulation field, the equivalent of nine U.S. football fields. At other moments the horses came so close to the sidelines spectators could see their heaving sides and flaring nostrils. The excited chatter and clapping cheers of the crowd were accompanied by the staccato beat of thundering hooves and the blare of horns announcing the end of each chukker, during which the horse athletes were led to one end of the field to be substituted by another.

“This is the only sport where they don’t substitute the people, just the horses,” wryly observed Ed Hogan, 87, a Westlake, California, resident who became a polo aficionado in Hawaii 20 years ago.

During the traditional halftime “stomping of the divots,” fans were encouraged to go on the field and tamp down the clumps of sod flung up during the action. The crowds poured out of the stands, many holding glasses of champagne while they merrily stomped away, with women forsaking possible damage to their designer shoes in order to share in the fun.

At the conclusion of the exciting and hard-fought six-chukker match, the Lucchese team would come out victorious with a 13-10 win to claim the prestigious Gulfstream Pacific Coast Open trophy. Making the day even sweeter were two more recognitions for the team: Lucchese’s Grahn was named MVP and Hall’s gelding, Rocky, was crowned Best Playing Pony.

Muse, patron and playing member of the winning team, and president of the Santa Barbara Polo Club board, was asked whether home-field advantage helped lead to the win.

“Home-field advantage?” he laughingly responded. “I live in Texas.”

Location, Location, Location

Situated 90 miles up the coast from Los Angeles, framed by the sparkling Pacific Ocean on one side and the foothills of the craggy Santa Ynez mountains on the other, lies the famed Santa Barbara Polo Club. Its pristine location, along with a storied history, makes this one of the most beloved polo clubs in the world.

Founded in 1911, the Santa Barbara Polo Club is the third oldest United States Polo Association club still in existence. From its beginning, the area’s moderate climate, charming surrounding towns and captivating landscape made the club a desirable destination for polo patrons, players and aficionados.

“Santa Barbara and Montecito are small but incredibly sophisticated, so I can’t imagine someone coming to Santa Barbara and not falling in love,” says polo player Brecheen, who serves as a board member for the club. “It’s a vibrant community in terms of the arts, the food and wine, and the natural resources. It’s such a beautiful area and unusual in the sense it has a lovely clubhouse, with access not just to the club’s three fields but an additional four within a mile. I’ve never seen a place with a better setup for polo than Santa Barbara.”

Situated along the Pacific coast, Santa Barbara is often referred to as the “American Riviera,” with a climate similar to the northern Mediterranean seacoast. That makes the locale even more enticing for the players.

“Of all the places for me to play polo around the world, Santa Barbara is the best place I can imagine,” claims club president Muse. “It is absolutely beautiful, absolutely fantastic weather, and importantly, the horses like it there. The weather is very conducive to the sport. The humidity takes it out of a horse and rider. We’re both mammals; that’s how we react.”

Teams, horses and players would arrive by train, unload from the stock cars, and walk through downtown Santa Barbara all the way to the club.

Goldern Era

By the 1920s the Santa Barbara Polo Club was hitting its stride. Throughout the next dozen years, Sundays at the club were the highlight of the social scene, where everybody who was anybody came to see and be seen.

“The late ’20s and the mid-’30s saw the Santa Barbara Polo Club into its golden era,” according to the club’s website. “Teams, horses and players would arrive by train, unload from the stock cars, and walk through downtown Santa Barbara all the way to the club.”

Spreading blankets out on the field, spectators—dashingly dressed in the haute couture of the day—would gather to watch the matches, gossip a bit, and enjoy a picnic lunch served by staff. Adding panache to the crowds were Hollywood luminaries such as Spencer Tracy, Douglas Fairbanks, Leslie Howard, Will Rogers, Darryl Zanuck, Jack Warner and Walt Disney.

The Santa Barbara Polo Club was also drawing national and international teams, featuring some of the sport’s best players including Robert Skene, Elmer J. “Long Legs” Boeseke Jr. and Tommy Hitchcock. The games were “riveting, fast and furious.”

Eventually World War II did what the Depression could not—suspend polo at the club. From 1942 to 1946 the club’s fields were converted for training and stationing soldiers, leaving the fields barren and battered. Following a long renovation period, the fields and club were revived and polo again reigned, notably with the prestigious U.S. Open tournament hosted by the Santa Barbara Polo Club in 1963 and 1966.

Dark Skies

But by the mid-1970s troubles were brewing. Developers were lusting after the seaside location, with talks of building tract homes, mobile parks, a shopping center and even a miniature golf course. With the club constantly shifting from one owner to the next and struggling to meet expenses, the outlook looked dim.

“The club was really in trouble,” recalls Pat Ringer in the book “Polo in Paradise,” which chronicles the club’s history. “To be blunt, the club had a bad reputation around town for owing people lots of money and for not paying the bills. The club owed the hay guy, the horseshoe guy … a lot of people. And the facilities had become very run-down.”

Just when the end seemed inevitable, three club members—U.S. Ambassador Glen Holden, Dr. Norman Ringer and Kenneth Walker—had the courage and vision to turn the situation around. In December 1975 the club was put into their trusteeship, placing the club into perpetuity and thwarting the developers’ ambitions, ensuring the club would forever remain a place for polo. The three would go on to restore the club and its reputation by eliminating the debt—often at their own expense—and developing the physical assets the club boasts today.

“Within about three years we had the club running break even, at which time we formed what is now called the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club,” says Holden. “The club is now overseen by its own board of directors. I’m awfully proud of the club and what we did. I hope when I’m gone these guys will do the same.”

Princely Play

Holden’s contributions to the club have continued, most notably leading up to the Santa Barbara Polo Club’s centennial season in 2011, when he coaxed a prince and his new bride to attend the celebration.

“I wrote a letter to my friend Prince Charles and asked him if Prince William could come over. That was two years before the anniversary so it would have been in 2009,” remembers Holden. “I got a nice letter back from Charles. He told me he didn’t know his schedule and wasn’t sure of William’s schedule, but he said he would pass it along and in about a week I was contacted by the palace. They invited me to come over and talk about the idea.”

It must have been an incredible conversation.

On July 9, 2011, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge—popularly known as Prince William and Kate—arrived at the Santa Barbara Polo Club for a fundraising tournament to benefit The American Friends of the Foundation of Prince William and Prince Harry. The newlyweds enchanted the thousands of guests and media in attendance with their genuine smiles and graceful manner. William would prove to be as great a prognosticator as a polo player when, during his remarks at the luncheon preceding the match, he referred to the Foundation Polo Challenge Cup, teasingly adding, “which I’ll be picking up later.”

To the delight of fans, William’s team would eventually triumph. The final score was 5-3, with Kate presenting her prince with the trophy—and a kiss.

“It was a great event. The three teams played very hard,” Holden says. “They were terrific games and very close, but William was actually the high-scoring player of the day. Best of all, we raised $1.8 million, which was three times more than any other polo event that Prince William or Prince Harry had ever raised, so we were heroes.”

To the delight of fans, William’s team would eventually triumph. The final score was 5-3, with Kate presenting her prince with the trophy—and a kiss.

Olympic Aspirations

The club’s presence on the world stage extends beyond hosting the future king of England, with ties reaching all the way to the organization that represents the national polo associations of more than 80 countries.

“Of the seven people who have served as president of the Federation of International Polo, only two have been from the United States—Ambassador Glen Holden and Dr. Richard Caleel—and both are members of the Santa Barbara Polo Club,” states Charles Ward, managing partner of Dallas-based Idea Works and the club’s marketing director for corporate sponsorships. “Santa Barbara has not only taken a role in leading its own club, but in leading the world of polo.”

Founded in April 1982, the Federation of International Polo was created with “a desire to broaden the scope of international polo, as well as to restore the sport’s Olympic status,” according to FIP’s website.

Polo was an Olympic sport from 1900 to 1936, but looming hostilities would bring an end to polo’s presence at the world games.

“The last time polo was in the Olympics was in 1936 in Berlin. Actually, Hitler was in attendance at those games,” says Caleel, who currently serves as FIP’s secretary general. “Once the war broke out, international polo really stopped. There was still polo in the U.S., but of course, with all the young men going into service and all of the war effort, the sporting world took a back seat.”

Bringing polo back as an Olympic sport is now looking more possible than ever. At the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, the General Assembly of the International Olympic Committee granted polo the status of an IOC Recognized Sport and accepted the Federation of International Polo as the worldwide governing body for the sport of polo.

“There’s a new ruling from the IOC that host countries can invite a sport that belongs to the Association of Recognized International Sports Federation,” Caleel explains. “We applied for the 2020 Olympics in Japan, but unfortunately polo isn’t that big of a sport there, so not surprisingly they picked baseball. However, two of the cities up for consideration for the following Olympics are polo centers. I think we’ll have a much better opportunity to apply for the additional sport and be accepted.”

Game Changers

Rob Jornayvaz, 22, represents the face of polo’s next generation. A +1 player, he was a member of the Alegria/Valiente team, finalists in last summer’s Gulfstream Pacific Coast Open tournament. He’s a senior at the University of Virginia and will graduate this spring with a degree in media studies with a focus in film. He also runs what he modestly refers to as “a small production company, Horseplay.tv,” streamed on polochannel.com.

“We started the company as three guys who really cared about the sport of polo and wanted to change it,” says Jornayvaz. “A lot of our audience are young polo players. We’re also getting a fan base that is very young and excited about what we’re doing. It’s all very different from how polo was perceived in the past.”

Polo can be intimidating to people not brought up in it, according to Jornayvaz. But he passionately believes that by telling the stories of the sport’s history and personalities, sharing polo’s connections with nature, and describing details of the game from the handcrafted mallets to the relationships forged among riders and horses, the sport will continue to grow, becoming more relatable and more inclusive.

“There’s a sense that exists that polo is the sport of kings. My hope is that at the end of my polo experience, if I can change one thing, it will be that misconception,” he says.

The 2016 Gulfstream Pacific Coast Open will be held August 12-28. Santa Barbara Municipal Airport (ICAO: KSBA) is 18 miles from the polo club.



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