The scene looked as though it was directed by Ralph Lauren. Young girls played croquet in Polo shirts and multi-colored leggings. Bright blue and red tents dotted the field. Tailgating meant fully set tables complete with glassware and wine bottles. A Rolls Royce drives across the field to signify the start of the game. On Sunday, January 29, hundreds of fans gathered for the SMR Cup put on by the Sarasota Polo Club in Lakewood Ranch, Florida.
The club hosts a match every Sunday. However, many of the attendees have formed a club of their own in which more come for social hour than for the love of the sport.
“Look around and you will not see anyone watching the game,” said Michael Smith, who was attending his second polo match.
Polo is essentially hockey on horseback. The game is divided into periods called chuckers, each lasting seven and a half minutes. There are five players to a team and an umpire. However, this means little to fans, even those in the VIP sections who have been members of the club for years.
“I don’t even know what a chucker is!” admitted one member.
“Ask me why I’m here, and it has nothing to do with polo!” said another.
Polo is a notably expensive sport. Although general admission tickets are available, many opt to have VIP pads. Each pad, which is a personalized plot and parking space, costs between $1200 and $1500 per year. It is even more costly to play. In addition to training, John Shelton, a fan and former polo player, explained that it is necessary for each player to own five to seven horses.
“You have to switch out because you run them to death,” said Shelton.
Many have jokingly dubbed the Polo Club teams “Sarasota’s Football.”
“Now I come to have fun, tailgate, and hang out. It’s a good excuse to get together with friends we haven’t seen in a few months,” said Shelton. “The sport is family-friendly and civilized.”
While there are several fans who attend matches every weekend, others were there for the first time to get a taste of something new.
“I had only watched it on television, and I figured it could be an exciting sport to watch. Plus I like the idea of tailgating,” said newcomer Jackie Galarza.
Polo coach Casey Haskins believes that the calming effect of the horses, no matter how fast-paced the game can get, keep fans and players returning to the field.
“Everyone from CEOs to doctors to teachers is involved both on the field and on horseback,” said Haskins.
When a lesson or a game comes to a close, Haskins likes to ask people what was on their mind.
“Usually, they pause and then say ‘Nothing. Nothing was on my mind,’” said Haskins. “It relieves stress and pressure no matter what your day job is. It’s the best drug out there.”
At half time, fans gathered around a team of Clydesdales and watched fashioned cars parade the outside of the field.
“I love to come because there is nothing quite like this up north,” said Gwen Mooney. “Even the polo matches near my town in Newport, Rhode Island, did not have the same spirit as these in Florida.”
The field is a melting pot of both young and old and men and women. Members of the philanthropic women’s organization P.E.O. brought their friends and husbands to the match to help raise money to support women pursuing a higher education. Another group rented the field’s clubhouse for a Sweet Sixteen birthday party.
At the close of the match, many attendees turned to other members of their parties asking “Wait, who won?” Many had lingered away from the field to the vendors selling hats, Polo shirts, and cigars.
“What keeps this going is that everyone leaves feeling like they are part of a society or club, whether or not they know much about polo, “ said Haskins. “Some even actually enjoy watching the game.”
To find out more about the Sarasota Polo Club or to see about purchasing a ticket to the next match, visit www.sarasotapolo.com