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Playing Polo

Born 2,000 Years Ago on the High Plains of Asia, Polo Thrives Today at Exclusive Clubs Around the World
Donna Morris
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

For some people, galloping is enough. The strength of the horse carries them through, sates their desire for speed and wind and the thrill of the ground rushing away beneath their feet. For others, chess is sufficient. Facing the board, they delve deeper and deeper into the realm of strategy, planning attack and counterattack, surveying their opponent, waiting for the fatal move to seal a victory.

Those who yearn for both, play polo.

At its most simplistic, polo is nothing more than two teams, a stopwatch and a ball. And yet this game, played on the high plains of Asia, on the royal fields of England, in Argentine stadiums and American polo clubs, has captured the imagination of horsemen and generals, kings and cowboys for more than 2,000 years.

Polo players are a surprisingly diverse lot, ranging from weekend warriors who stable a few horses at a local club to professional high-goal players who play in the world's most prestigious tournaments. What is it about polo that has entranced players from writer Hunter S. Thompson to the Prince of Wales?

"It's the most exciting game there is," says Craig E. Liebel, a member of the United States Polo Association's Board of Governors. "Regardless of what level you play, if you've watched any local polo, they're out there trying as hard, and it's as intense as it is in the high-goal. If you compare it to golf, the enthusiasm that just a hacker-type golfer has for the game is equal to what Greg Norman has. The proficiency isn't there at the same level, but the interest and the dedication is certainly there."

Tim Gannon, senior vice president of Outback Steakhouses and an enthusiastic polo player, puts it this way: "Here's what I like: I'm a businessman, building 100 restaurants a year. There is tremendous stress and tension. And it's hard for me to go and do something and get all of the issues of the day off my mind. By playing polo, it's like a giant eraser, and it erases every issue that I've got going on in my life so I can focus purely on [the game].

"Number one is the speed, the danger, the amount of concentration, how you have to ride and the level of skill you need just to be able to hit the ball," says Gannon. "For me, it's a real way to get out there and forget about all the issues, really get out of my own body and mind for a while and totally immerse myself."

Whether it is weekend polo at a small club in the United States or professional, high-goal tournament play in Argentina, there are a few absolutes at the end of a big match: oats for the horses, beer for the grooms and fine cigars all around. And why not? After all, cigars and polo have a long history together.

Polo is thought to be one of the world's oldest team sports. An early form of the game was played by nomadic barbarians on the plains of Asia. References to the game appear in the writings of Alexander the Great.

The word "polo" is derived from the Tibetan word pulu, a term that described the willow root from which Tibetan horsemen carved polo balls. Some historians believe that polo spread throughout Asia as a result of the military conquests by Alexander the Great and other conquerors of his time, who may have used polo as an exercise to perfect the equestrian skills of cavalrymen. By the Middle Ages, polo was played from Constantinople to Japan.

The game had spread into northern India by the 1800s, and it was there that British tea planters and cavalrymen first encountered the game. By the 1870s, returning British cavalrymen formed the Hurlingham Club in England, thus introducing the sport to the British Isles. Popular with British colonialists throughout the world, polo spread quickly throughout the British Empire.

In 1876, James Gordon Bennett, publisher of The New York Herald and one of the most colorful adventurers of his time, attended a match at Hurlingham. Bennett quickly became enthralled with the game and introduced the sport to the United States.

Private clubs flourished on the East Coast from New York to South Carolina. Harvard formed a polo team in the 1880s, as did Yale, thus extending their rivalry to the polo field. Polo caused such a furor in the East that devotees of the game formed the United States Polo Association (USPA) in 1890 to regulate matches and handicap players.

Early in this century, Gen. John J. Pershing persuaded the U.S. Army to include polo as part of its training of cavalrymen. By the 1930s, polo was an Olympic sport, wildly popular with wealthy spectators and amateur players. Crowds in excess of 30,000 regularly attended international matches at the Meadow Brook Polo Club on Long Island. Scions of industry such as John Hay Whitney and W. Averell Harriman played the game, as did Hollywood royalty such as Louis B. Mayer, Walt Disney and Will Rogers.

Public interest in polo waned after World War II and the game went virtually unnoticed until the 1980s, when the Prince and Princess of Wales paid a royal visit to a tournament at the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club in West Palm Beach, Florida. More than 500 journalists crowded the sidelines, royalty watchers craned their necks to get a glimpse of the Princess and die-hard polo fans groused about the uproar. In the end, following a handy victory by the Prince's team, the Princess presented the trophy and, for better or worse, polo's fate as the modern province of the rich and famous was sealed.

The game is simple. Polo is played on a level grass playing field roughly the size of nine football fields. Though field conditions vary from club to club, Bermuda grass is the preferred field cover. The field is clipped short, much like a golf course, and its condition does much to determine the speed of the game. With that in mind, great care is taken to maintain the field. Divot-stomping, in which divots (clumps of sod) disturbed during the game are pushed back into place by eager spectators, is a traditional halftime activity at polo matches.

A polo field is usually bordered with wooden planks less than a foot high. The field is clearly marked at the center (where the game begins), at all boundaries not designated by sideboards and at the 30-, 40- and 60- yard lines on each end of the field. Goalposts, set eight yards apart at each end of the field, are built of a light plastic or wood that breaks easily should a horse and rider collide with them.

The object of polo is to score goals by wresting possession of the ball from the opposition and guiding it through the goalposts with the aid of a flexible wooden mallet. It's an objective that would not be outrageously difficult were it not for the clock. A polo match is comprised of six chukkers, or periods, each of which lasts seven minutes. There is a four-minute rest period between each chukker, as well as a 10-minute halftime. It is a fast-paced, demanding game for both horse and rider. Each player rides a new horse for each chukker of the game, thus necessitating at least 24 ponies to equip a team.

A polo team has four players. Each wears a numbered jersey that corresponds to his position on the team. The number one player is usually the lead offensive player, focused on scoring. The number four player is usually the most defensive player, focused on defending the goal. Players two and three are the strongest positions on a polo team, responsible for turning the tide of play--passing the ball, planning and implementing strategy.

A polo mallet has a flexible bamboo handle and a nine-inch wooden head. There are several different mallet styles, one of which is known as cigar-head, owing to its shape. Mallets vary in length according to rider preference and the height of the horse, weigh about one pound each and have a leather wrist strap at the end of the handle.

Each shot in polo is described in relation to the side of the pony upon which the shot occurs. Horsemen use the term "near" for the left side of the pony, "off" for the right side. Hence, there are four basic shots in polo: the near-side forward, the near-side back, the off-side forward and the off-side back.

Players may also take shots under the neck of the pony, across his tail or under the belly and may hook the mallet of another player to prevent him from striking the ball. Unacceptable shots include those that present a danger to horses and riders.

The concept of the line of the ball is crucial to the game of polo. When the ball is put in motion, players imagine a vertical line drawn through the ball. Play follows the natural course of the ball on either side of this line. Opposing players may attempt to wrest the ball from the player who is following the line of the ball and is in a position to play it, but they may not traverse his course to do so. Fouls in polo are levied upon riders for dangerous riding and other maneuvers likely to injure other players, with penalty shots awarded to the opposition according to the severity of the infraction.

Some of the most exciting moments in a polo match come during a ride-off. A ride-off is a maneuver in which one player tries to steal possession of the right of way by galloping his horse shoulder-to-shoulder with his opponent in an effort to move the latter off the line of the ball. Bumping is allowed in polo as long as it does not present a threat to the safety of the other players.

For many people, the horses are the most exciting part of the game. Frederic Roy, editor of "The Morning Line," a twice-weekly newsletter that reports on polo tournaments around the world, says, "I love the way the game is made for the horses, meaning that all the gaits, all the turns and everything, are the same that a horse would do in a paddock by himself. He accelerates fast, he stops, he turns, he is very athletic. [Polo] is really for the horses. Unless the player is really not careful, the horses shouldn't get hurt, because it is within the parameters of their ability."

Polo players are assigned a handicap to rate their relative value to a team. This handicap, assigned by a USPA committee that observes each player in action on an annual basis, is based upon the player's understanding of the rules, horsemanship and sense of strategy. Handicaps range from C, B, A (-2 through 0) to a high of 10 goals, which is a handicap carried only by the world's most exceptional players. The handicapping system is important to the organization of polo tournaments because it allows teams of similar ability to be grouped with one another.

There are three types of organized tournament play in polo, known as low-, medium- and high-goal tournaments. Though the definition of low- and medium-goal polo is open to quite a bit of personal interpretation, most players agree that high-goal play starts at the 16-goal level.

To play in a 16-goal tournament, a team must have a cumulative handicap of 16 goals. For example, a team could have two players handicapped at eight goals each and two at zero goals (or four players at four goals each). Any combination is possible as long as the team handicap adds up to 16 goals.

Most players in the United States carry a handicap of two goals or less, and few will ever advance beyond three-goal status. (75 percent of USPA members are considered low-goal players.) Low- and medium-goal teams are usually informally assembled.

High-goal international polo is very much a horse of a different color. Here, teams are made up of high-goal professionals who are paid for their services by an individual or corporate sponsor. The sponsor is known as the patron (pronounced "pa-TROHN" in the Spanish style, as a nod to the continuing Latin influence on the game). A patron, who may or may not play on the team, assembles the best players he can find to play on his team during a particular season or tournament--at considerable expense. Many professional players make well into six figures annually and often have their pick of ponies and tournaments.

High-goal polo is truly global in scope. It is played in Australia, continental Europe, England, Mexico, Costa Rica and throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. With a bounty of polo farms (known as estancias), a plethora of high-goal players and a near-obsession with horses, Argentina is considered the premium spot in the world for high-goal polo.

Modern polo is more accessible to new players and fans than ever before. Though there are clubs throughout the world that remain stalwartly private, most of the clubs in the United States welcome spectators and daredevils with an interest in the game. A survey conducted by Polo Magazine suggests that polo players in the United States bear a striking resemblance to enthusiasts of other luxury sports such as golf. Most are college-educated professional males between 35 and 44 years old, with an average net worth of $966,000.

No one will argue that polo is an inexpensive game to play. If you're serious, it's possible to sink millions into the game. Weekend warriors can get by with a lot less. So what does it cost?

Let's start with the horses. Anyone who has ever considered buying so much as a Shetland pony for a child's birthday party, to say nothing of a string of 24 polo ponies, knows that horses cost money. Polo ponies, with their specialized schooling, optimum physical conditioning and refined breeding, can cost every bit as much as a good show or race horse. (To clear up one misconception: Polo ponies are not ponies in the strict sense of the word. They are full-sized horses, and the traditional term "polo pony" has nothing to do with their size.) A suitable pony for a beginner could be had for $3,000 to $5,000; horses for medium- and high-goal polo could cost as much as $30,000.

Not surprisingly, the best ponies often end up in the stables of the best players, as high-goal ponies are often traded among patrons or offered in a payment package to professional players.


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