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Conjure a single athletic pursuit for society’s uppermost crust, and you’ll likely come up with polo. Golf and tennis have their effete qualities, but both those games attract too much of the hoi polloi.
Hands down, polo is classier than the rest. In the late ’70s, Ralph Lauren knew what he was after when he launched his first scent for men. Besides, “Tractor Pull by Ralph Lauren” didn’t test quite so well in the designer’s target market. Likewise, when director Garry Marshall wanted to heighten class-differential hi-jinks in Pretty Woman, he didn’t send Julia Roberts to a racket club or the linksthe hooker at the polo match offered much deeper ironies.
Nothing so much as polo’s singularly prissy image led me to attend my first match last weekend, held at the gorgeously manicured Kent Field in gorgeously manicured Middleburg. Polo, it turns out, is very big here. I learned that, along with everything else I now know about the sport, while watching Cottswold Polo Club vs. Glenlivet Middleburg.
I can now impart, for example, a thumbnail history of polo (which, like baseball’s history, can be disputed, but only for wholly nationalistic reasons): Various Asians on horseback liked whacking balls for fun back in the days B.C. But 19th-century Indians get credit for the current version of the game, its name derived from the indigenous woodpuluthat balls were then made of (plastic orbs are now favored). Merchants and military men exported polo from India around the world, and the imperialist British did the most exporting. Argentinians and us Yanksthe game came to America in the 1870snow rank as the most successful polo poachers, though Englanders still love to play. (After all, the most famous player in the world, and the only one I could name before this weekend, is Prince Charles. I also now know that everybody in polo has a P.C. story, and too many devotees claim to have been at the Palm Beach Polo Club that special day when Charles collapsed after a match.)
I can also now confirm that the most popular lay description of polo”hockey on horseback”is flawed. The no blood/no foul clause that is hockey’s raison d’être has no place in polo. “Safety first” is polo’s basic tenet, which is why any rider who comes close to violating another player’s right of way, even when their ponies don’t come within yards of hitting each other, gets flagged for a foul. Safety concerns aren’t unwarranted: Polo ponies aren’t ponies at all, but horses, generally thoroughbreds 5 years old and older standing around 15 hands, weighing 1,000-1,200 pounds, and capable of 30-mile-an-hour sprints. But those concerns complicate the viewing pleasure. Even seasoned polo aficionados have trouble detecting infractions from the grandstand.
Games are played on a field exactly three times the size of a football gridiron: 300 yards long and 150 feet wide. Each team consists of four rider/horse combos. Jersey numbers, 1-4, are assigned according to position. Basically: Player No. 1 is an attack man, No. 4 guards the rear flank, and 2 and 3 play the midfield. Only right-handed play is allowed. The main aim is to whack the ball between two 10-foot-high sticks set 15 feet apart. Teams change goals after each score. Games consist of six periods, or chukkers, lasting seven minutes each.
But to this neophyte, the game’s history and rules were far less engrossing than the fact that darn near every polo player and spectator thinks that the public’s concept of the game is way out of whack.
“I was playing polo on the mall a few years ago, and I saw this big helicopter take off from the White House and just start circling over top of us,” recalled Bill Ylvisaker, captain and patron of the Cottswold team and one of polo’s living legends. “I imagined President Clinton was up there the whole time shaking his head and saying, ‘Why are they allowed to play such an elitist sport on our parks!’ But that’s wrong! It isn’t elitist. Not at all.”
And from the sidelines, Doug Meick of Capitol Hill spoke for the mislabeled fans.
“Polo is known only as the rich man’s game, but polo is for everybody now, really,” said Meick.
Fine chaps, both Ylvisaker and Meick, but methinks they doth invest too much to make such an argument.
Ylvisaker, for example, decides where he’ll reside based only on where the best polo can be found. When he was younger, he was a proven winner in the tennis world and he has brought his victorious ways to polo as well. He spends each June and July in the D.C. areaat 74, he plays twice a week in Middleburgbefore moving his stables to Saratoga in August for polo season there. He’ll bring his own team to New York this year. Ylvisaker winters in Florida, where he founded the Palm Beach Polo Club, the world’s pre-eminent hangout for polo players. He brought six animals to Kent Field for the one match, so he could change rides after each chukkeralmost all players brought as many horses for the same reason. Polo ponies cost an average of $10,000 apiece, though an old pro like Ylvisaker spends top dollar on Argentinian-breds. And don’t even mention care and feeding fees.
Meick, by all appearances, would also make a poor choice as voice for the common man. He didn’t bring any ponies with him to Middleburghe doesn’t even play the gamebut he traveled to Kent Field from D.C. in a stunning cream-colored Rolls-Royce, and his accouterments included white bucks, white slacks, a seersucker jacket, and a catchy lid. In this setting, and probably only in this setting, neither his wheels nor threads seemed the least bit garish. At Kent Field, a site formerly known as Phipps Field but renamed for the recently deceased owner of the land it sits on, Jack Kent Cooke, Meick positively blended.
I never really did. At the start of the day, me and my commoner roots felt as much kinship with this blue-blooded bunch as Madonna at a Promise Keepers rally. But by game’s end, it all seemed well and good that the filthy rich would have their own socioathletic outlet, and not just because without it they’d have even more time to crush “us.” Truth be told, although most everybody in Middleburg for the game appeared to know most everybody else by name, class conscious or cliquish they weren’t. Nor prudish! Over at the hospitality tent, free glasses of scotch on the rocks were handed to all comers, and nobody was asked for a recent tax return or about their family tree. Want some turkey sausage with your ham sandwich? Have at it.
“Polo comes down to a reason to party, just like everything else,” explained Tom Hulfish, a longtime local polo organizer who helped put together the Middleburg match. Watching the food and booze giveaways, Hulfish distilled what Ylvisaker and Meick were trying to say about their favorite sport’s potential inclusivity. Hell, for a ham sandwich, I could learn to love anything. Even polo.Dave McKenna
Polo matches are held in Middleburg on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons. For further information call (703) 777-0775.