Known as the “Sport of Kings,” it’s inherent that polo is not for everyone.
It’s expensive. It’s high maintenance. A perfect day of polo requires a well-manicured lawn stretching three football fields, a stable of spry ponies raised and trained for quick bursts of speed and infinite maneuvering, and perhaps the factor that keeps polo furthest from the reaches of commoners are sponsors with deep pockets who can assemble a team of all-stars and provide them with the sport’s elaborate regalia and faculty.
In Ohio, it’s certainly not a common sight, but on this, the first Sunday of June, in the shadow of Granville’s famed Bryn Du Mansion, the Columbus Polo Club begins its season. Today, the grass is too high for long shots, the field about 120 yards shy of regulation, there are few spectators in attendance, and each team is mounting three players instead of the usual four. Despite the shortcomings, the club makes due if only for the love of the game.
While the Columbus Polo Club may lack the pomp and circumstance found in more luxurious climes such as Palm Beach, Long Island, or Buenos Aires (Argentina is the world capital of polo), there’s a rustic charm and a sense of tradition that pervades the day. Jack Dill sits atop a flatbed trailer announcing the match, clad in a white Stetson hat. When the action halts, the feisty octogenarian is happy to answer any questions about polo’s intricate rules. He demonstrates the proper way to hold the mallet, discusses how a point is scored, and reminds us more than once of the danger involved. Among his many years in polo, he’s witnessed two deaths.
“Hold your ears,” he says, blowing an air horn to signal the end of the chukker (polo jargon for the game’s seven minute periods).
At halftime, Dill encourages the small crowd to walk the grounds and replace divots made by the horses. A few riders bring their ponies to the sidelines to give a closer look. One even offers a business card in case anyone would like to join – no experience necessary. You don’t even need to know how to ride.
Above all, they want to squash the notion that polo is a game of privilege.
“The people in our club are not millionaires. We aren’t rich. We are just working-class people,” said Troy Everett, who’s acting as the club’s de facto president this season. “In the movies, it comes off as snobbish, but we aren’t like that. There’s even a club we play against in Pennsylvania that call what we do ‘redneck polo.’”
The “redneck” version of polo reached a peak in the 1930s and ’40s, when farmers and their sons learned the game, but in the advent of WWII, and the request by the government to stop playing, clubs (of which there were many across Ohio) disappeared from the landscape. A small number survived as extensions of hunting clubs. Two in particular, in Rocky Fork and Harbor Hills, decided to join forces in the early-’80s to start what eventually became the Columbus Polo Club.
Indeed, times have changed. Since the game isn’t passed through generations like it once was, these days the club has a “come as you are” membership, with anyone regardless of age or gender encouraged to join. Everett is 62 and still playing. This season he’s not only the president but also its benefactor. His Frazeyburg horse farm provides the club with their ponies, and his wife Sheila runs Alpine Polo, a training center for aspiring players and beginners alike.
“A lot of our horses are rescued from the racetrack and it takes a while to re-train them as polo ponies,” said Everett. “We like to think we are giving them a second life, as opposed to being sent over the border to the meat markets.”
Should one want the full pro experience, Everett suggests a trip to Aiken, South Carolina, where polo has achieved a sort of renaissance in recent years. But again, not only does it take a good amount of skill, it also takes finances most of us can’t imagine for such an ascension. For the Columbus Polo Club, it’s not champagne wishes and caviar dreams – they’re just happy if you show up, bring your family – hell, bring a grill if you want. Just respect the game. •
The CPC take on Cincinnati’s club July 13. For more information on the Columbus Polo Club and a schedule of other matches, visit www.columbuspolo.com.