The Origins of Polo
Two Heads, Four Legs and One Heart
The origins of polo are in the inspirational relationship between humans and horses. Sustaining this special bond is the fundamental reason polo has enjoyed 2,000 years of recorded history. The unique blending of athletic talents between horse and rider helped polo evolve into The Sport of Kings.
Somewhere in the distant past, an ancestor decided that riding a horse was a good idea. Four legs had an advantage over two. Early cave-dwellers must have been painfully aware of their pokiness when chasing a fleet-footed meal. Perhaps more important, humans on horses could avoid being caught by hungry, four-legged predators.
No one knows what horses thought when humans proposed a partnership. What a sight it must have been when that first intrepid rider tried to climb aboard an eohippus (small four-toed horses from the Eocene era). After a turbulent honeymoon, human and horse trusted and respected one other.
Thousands of years of this symbiotic relationship sped the pace of civilization. Humans could travel farther, faster, could till the fields longer and more efficiently, and could open important avenues of world trade. Four-legged speed was also an advantage in war. Polo may have evolved from the military training maneuvers of the fierce warriors of Central Asia. Humans had become, in spirit and reality, the mythical beast called centaur.
Chaugan sticks, pulu and ponies
Man is a Ball tossed into the Field of Existence, driven hither and thither by the Chaugan-Stick of Destiny, wielded by the hand of Providence.
Unknown Persian Author
Before history became a written endeavor, polo already covered a vast area from Constantinople to Baghdad, from Persia to China and Japan. The area was so vast that historians have been unable to establish where the sport originated or whom to credit for its invention. The earliest written accounts, more than 2,000 years old, were in Persian, Arabic, Byzantine, Chinese and Japanese. Polo was not mentioned in any early Greek or Roman documents, so the game may have been confined to Asia.
Records hint that polo stories had a long, oral tradition before the time of Alexander the Great of Macedonia. One tale told of Persian King Darius (370-330 B.C.E.), who refused to pay Alexander tribute for not attacking. When Alexander threatened retribution, Darius sent him a chaugan stick and ball, indicating that they were better-suited to Alexander's level of maturity and inexperience in war and diplomacy. Alexander was said to have replied, "The ball is the earth and I am the stick." Alexander went on to glory as King of Asia while poor Darius was murdered, perhaps by his own men, a year later.
Historians have conjectured the sport originated in either Persia or amongst the Iranian tribes of Central Asia. Polo was no mere game for the Iranian horsemen; it was a way to prepare young leaders for the rigors of war. In Persia, polo flourished through the 16th and 17th centuries. The Chinese, who gave us some of the earliest written records about polo, may have been the next to pick up the mallet, perhaps followed by the Japanese. The first record of a polo match held in Japan refers to the year 727 C.E. The word "polo" is of Tibetan origin, being derived from "pulu," their word for ball.
Polo was probably introduced to India from Persia by the early Mohammedan invaders in the 13th century. Indian polo records are scarce concerning activity during the 16th and 17th centuries, though by the 19th century the game was played throughout the land. It was not until the mid-1900s that the British saw pulu for the first time. Bengal Army Lt. Joseph Sherer, played his first game of pulu in 1859. According to J.N.P. Watson, in his excellent book on the history of polo titled The World of Polo, "Joe Sherer was to become the Father of Western Polo."
From India, the game spread to England through mostly military channels. The first recorded game in England was played in 1869 and was billed as Hockey on Horseback, and the first tournament was played in 1876. John Watson was one of the founding fathers of English polo. Watson perfected the backhand while stationed with the military in India. Watson would lead Great Britain to victory over the United States in the first Westchester Cup, played in 1886. The year 1876 was significant in American history as Civil War hero Gen. Ulysses S. Grant served his final year of the presidency; Gen. Custer rode into infamy against the Sioux Indians at Little Big Horn; and newspaper tycoon James Gordon Bennett watched a game of polo at Hurlingham, England, and decided to take the sport of polo home with him.
Let there be polo: 1890s
James Gordon Bennett is credited with importing polo from England in 1876. The game was a confusing affair that had eight or more players per side and matches lasting the afternoon. Over dinner one March evening in 1890 a few sporting gentlemen, including H.L. Herbert, John Cowdin and Thomas Hitchcock, formed the Polo Association, now the United States Polo Association (USPA). June 6, 1890, seven clubs joined the association, headquartered in New York. Soon, 100 handicaps were assigned to members, including future President Teddy Roosevelt.
The association standardized rules and set pony size limits to 14.1 hands and decreed that the ball would be made of basswood. The length and number of periods were set for teams of two, three or four players, and players were fined for being late to matches. H.L. Herbert was elected chairman, a post he held for 31 years. He developed the handicap system and an American set of rules.
By 1894, the USPA included 19 clubs, the farthest west in St. Louis, the farthest south in Philadelphia. In 1892, ponies from Texas were selling for $115. The oldest U.S. polo club is the Meadow Brook Polo Club.
Developing polo power: 1900s:
Though polo was relatively new in the United States, it was catching on fast. The British had soundly defeated the Americans in the first Westchester Cup in 1886, yet they were somewhat surprised when they lost a match to the Americans in the three-game series in 1902. If the 1902 series was a surprise, the shock of losing the Westchester Cup to the American team called the Big Four (Harry Payne Whitney, Devereux Milburn, Larry and Monty Waterbury) in 1909 must have made for a long, sad voyage back across the Atlantic.
In 1904, the Wanderers won the first U.S. Open Championship, defeating the Freebooters 4½ to 3. The next Open was not to be played until six years later. Meanwhile in New York City, a man by the name of Henry M. Earl organized indoor polo at Squadron A Armory, where in 1904 players could rent horses at $1 each for the afternoon. In 1908, more than 20,000 fans crowded the racetrack infield at the Vermont State Fair to watch an exhibition polo match. In 1908, the USPA included 37 clubs, 500 players and 25 Army players. 1909 marked the first time Californians started joining the Polo Association in lieu of playing by British rules under the auspices of the California Polo Pony and Racing Association
Matches indoors and out: 1910s
In the Westchester Cup matches of 1911 and 1913, the Big Four, who to that point had never lost an international match, ensured American dominance over Great Britain, whose polo prowess was fading. When Harry Payne Whitney retired in 1914, however, the American team lost two games and the Cup returned to England.
Polo games were being played throughout the United States, including the territories of the Philippines and Hawaii. In states such as Texas and Oklahoma, ranch hands were playing polo in Western saddles. The USPA created the West and South circuits in 1910, though the most active polo center remained Long Island, home of the premier club, Meadow Brook. Brooks Brothers developed the button-down collar in 1913, patterning it after a polo player's jersey.
The Indoor Polo Association was formed in 1915 and named George C. Sherman its first chairman. The National Polo Pony Society was formed in 1919 to "stimulate and encourage the breeding of polo ponies." The 1914 USPA membership roster consisted of 835 players and 52 clubs. In 1916, the standard size for a polo pony was raised to 15.1 hands, but the restrictions on the size of horses were not usually enforced.
After the 1921 series of matches, the United States team brought the Westchester Cup back to the west side of the Atlantic. Polo was gaining widespread acceptance as a big-league sport, drawing tens of thousands of spectators to the Meadow Brook Polo Club's International Field. More than 35,000 people witnessed the playing of the 1924 Westchester Cup on Long Island, N.Y. After an Argentine team won the 1922 U.S. Open, however, it was fast becoming apparent that the tide of polo power was perhaps not flowing east to west but more to the south. In 1924 Argentina won the Olympic gold medal in polo.
Women began to take their turn on the polo field, largely through the efforts of Mrs. Thomas Hitchcock Sr., eventually leading to the formation of the U.S. Women's Polo Association.
Golden Era: 1930s
Even though the market had crashed, polo's stock continued to rise. Matches were played from coast to coast with the game rapidly expanding into the West and Southeast. In 1933, the West rose up and successfully challenged the East's dominance of the sport in the first series of legendary East-West matches played near Chicago.
The United States swept every match in the three Westchester Cup meetings against Great Britain in 1930, 1936 and 1939, playing before crowds of 40,000 at Meadow Brook Polo Club. U.S. teams dominated world competition until Argentina, fresh from winning the Gold at the 1936 Olympics, defeated the U.S. 21-9 and 8-4 to capture the Cup of the Americas.
In 1935, the USPA listed 65 clubs and 2,500 players. Mallets cost $4.50; spurs, $5.50; polo caps, $17.50; moleskin breeches, $25; and saddles with fittings, $117. Cost of a typical annual polo club membership varied from $5 in New Mexico to $350 at Piping Rock, Long Island.
Equine stars of the decade: Elmer Boeseke's Red Ace, best playing pony of the 1933 East-West games; Tommy Hitchcock's Katrina, who played for 12 years and in 30 international matches, and his paint gelding Tobiano; and Jack Whitney's Socks, a Texas-bred who played two courageous chukkers in the 1931 U.S. Open.
There is no doubt that the use of horse quickened the pace of civilization. True, there were other beast of burdens, such as oxen and donkeys, perhaps better suited to the strenuous agricultural tasks of pulling a plow across a field or pulling a cart filled with supplies to and from the market. It was the partnership with the versatile and noble horse, however, that allowed us to perfect one of humankind's favorite pastimes-war.
Before horses were used extensively, an army traveled only as fast as soldiers' feet could carry them. Military maneuvers were slow and ponderous as masses of soldiers lined up and advanced toward one another. Over the centuries, the mounted soldier learned the advantages of speed and maneuverability, making the cavalry one of the most feared or prized components of any general's army. Two horses, later four, were hitched up to chariots as well as supply wagons, allowing faster, more efficient deployment of troops. Records indicate that around 750 B.C.E. the horse, originally about 13 hands, was bred to a size where it could be ridden. According to records from Xerxes' Greek army, in 450 B.C.E. the Persians, Medes, Sagartians and Scythians were all mounted. In the 4th century B.C.E., the historian Xenophon recorded a complete dissertation on horsemanship and the duties of a cavalry officer.
The power of the horse propelled notable world leaders like Alexander the Great, Caesar, Attila the Hun, and Napoleon to fame and glory. The Spanish conquistadors, looking for new lands to exploit, imported the first horses to the Americas in the middle of the 16th century. Mighty empires such as the Aztecs and Incas were no match for the ironclad men mounted on their fearless war-horses. Ever adaptable, horses soon became an important part of American Indian life as well as essential components for hunting and fighting during early Colonial times in the American colonies. Volumes have been written about the importance of horse-driven society throughout the Civil War years, as well as the taming of the American West. In 1876, the year polo was first introduced to the country, also marked one of the rare Indian victories over the U.S. Cavalry when Gen. Custer fought at Little Big Horn.
The U.S. Army's reliance on horses continued through the Spanish American War as Teddy Roosevelt led the charge up the hills of San Juan. Horsemanship became synonymous with leadership, and polo was an efficient way to train soldiers and officers in the art of war. At Fort Riley, Kansas, Army polo was given its start in 1896. Cow ponies were bought for $15 a head and teams were assembled, schooled and sent on the road to compete against other teams in Fort Benning, Georgia, Fort Bliss and Kelly Field in Texas, Fort Douglas, Utah, Fort Monroe, Virginia, and the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
In 1902 the Army Polo Association became part of the United States Polo Association, and by 1914 there were 17 Army stations playing polo. By 1928 there were 47 Army posts scattered throughout the country as well as the territories of the Philippines, Hawaii and Panama. As the nation braced for the Great War, the Army chief of staff advised, "U.S. cavalry fighters are going to play polo in order to obtain poise in the saddle." Gen. Pershing, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Army, invited the British Army to a series of matches in 1923 and '25. One of the requirements was that all horses be owned by officers on the active list or property of the War Department.
In the 1930s, at the height of polo's popularity, there were 1,500 military players-far outnumbering civilians playing the sport. All these soldiers needed horses, and that's where the Army remount service provided a valuable resource-not only to the military but to the sport in general as well. The remount service began around 1912 and supplied horses for the Army from four main military installations, in Virginia, Oklahoma, Nebraska and California. The Quartermaster Corps acted as purchasing agents for the Army and would meet any demand made for horses. The remount depots also became involved in a country-wide breeding program for the Army horses.
When the National Intercollegiate Polo Association was formed, two of the six original were military schools-Pennsylvania Military Academy and West Point. West Point's last team, the Black Knights, played in 1946. During World War II, high-goaler Cecil Smith and Stewart Iglehart did their part for the war effort by participating in the all-star Bundles for Britain benefits in Washington D.C., witnessed by many people, including Supreme Court justices and Cabinet officials. America gained a war hero when 10-goal player Tommy Hitchcock volunteered to be a test pilot, but the world lost a special person when his plane crash-landed during a test flight, killing him in 1944.
The military's reliance on the horse diminished just prior to World War I. Horse power was replaced by horsepower. The advancements in automotive sciences, particularly in developing faster engines of war, created a more mechanized cavalry, not to mention a automated American society. The Army, however, continued to use horsemanship and polo to train officers until the advent of World War II. Eventually, the remount depots were closed and horses were sold, causing a marked decline in the number of horses available for post-war polo. Stories of heroism, such as the Polish mounted cavalry meeting Hitler's mechanized Panzer units, proved graphically that the 3,000-year era of the horse at war had truly ended.
Post-World War civilization evolved from needing the services of horses in peacetime and war to desiring the company of horses for pastimes and sport.
Take cover: 1940s
Playing polo was far from the minds of men and women in the 1940s. Just prior to the war, the roster of USPA member clubs stood at 78, not counting the Army and colleges. Early in 1940, games were played in six rather than eight chukkers, and players were required to wear chin straps on their helmets. The Camacho Cup, honoring Mexico's polo-loving president, was inaugurated in 1941 in Mexico City. The U.S. swept all three games in 1941 and six more in two series played in 1946. After Dec. 7, 1941, organized polo came to a halt and no players were handicapped from 1943 to '46. The all-Gracida team redeemed Mexican pride by winning the 1946 U.S. Open at Meadow Brook. Stewart "Laddie" Sanford's Hurricanes won back-to-back U.S. Opens in 1948 and '49. USPA Blue Books were not published until 1949.
Over the long duration of the war years, fewer horses were being trained for polo. The Army had disbanded its remount service, further reducing the number of horses available for mounting players and polo teams. Many of the polo centers across the country lost players and many of the players had lost interest. By 1949, the USPA had 48 clubs but no Army or collegiate clubs. Postwar equipment prices were inflated somewhat, with a Barnsby saddle costing $217; bits between $10 and $11; and girths, $21. There were only four 10-goal players during the decade: Tommy Hitchcock, Stewart Iglehart, Mike Phipps and Cecil Smith.
In the latter part of the decade, there were sure signs of polo's revival. Dedicated individuals, such as Joe Rizzo and Phil Iglehart in New York, Pete Bostwick in South Carolina, Stewart Iglehart in Florida and Willie Tevis in California, began the process of developing new players by organizing post-war polo clubs. Willie Tevis, who served in both World Wars established the Eldorado Polo Club and was president of the San Francisco Polo Club for 56 years.
Continuing to recover from the effects of wartime austerity, the sport of polo had to find a new center when the Meadow Brook grounds were sold and the last U.S. Open was played there in 1953 and won by Henry Lewis, Philip Iglehart, Alan Cory and Pete Bostwick. The hub of polo moved westward to Paul Butler's Oak Brook Polo Club in Hinsdale, Illinois. Polo furthered its postwar recovery there and at other centers in Boca Raton, Florida; San Antonio, Texas; and Norman and Tulsa, Oklahoma. A new generation of polo sponsors stepped forward during this decade, including John T. Oxley of Oklahoma, Robert Uihlein of Milwaukee, Don and Bert Beveridge of Texas and Pete Bostwick of New York and South Carolina.
Beverly Hills Polo Club in Santa Monica hosted the West Coast's first U.S. Open in 1952, but the club was soon lost to development. In 1954, Oak Brook is officially the new home of the U.S. Open, but a team called C.C.C. Meadow Brook won the event that year and the following year. Ray Harrington played brilliantly for Brandywine as the team defeated Aurora 11-10 to win the 1956 Open. There were but three 10-goal players during this period: Stewart Iglehart, Robert Skene and Cecil Smith.
By mid-decade, the Indoor Polo Association had merged with the USPA. In 1955, USPA Chairman Devereux Milburn made an impassioned plea for support of younger players, particularly in arena and collegiate competition. Milburn knew the future of polo would be secured only by training a whole new generation of players. Indoor polo allowed players to play with fewer horses and was less expensive than the outdoor version of the game, thus permitting more players to join the sport. The game needed players, ponies and venues.
In 1951 Clarence "Buddy" Combs of New Jersey became only the second arena player to reach 10 goals indoors (the first and only up to that time was Winston Guest). In 1959, the polo world bid a mournful farewell to Paul Brown, well-known illustrator and author of 33 horse books.
Momentum change: 1960s
Polo's leanest years were ending and the sport was definitely on the upswing. If 2,000 years of recorded history proved anything, it was that the sport was resilient enough to continue to attract new players with the desire to mount up on trained polo ponies. The USPA began to take a strong role in not only the preservation of the sport, but in making it prosper and grow. New tournaments, such as the 10-goal Governor's Cup in 1962 and the National 16 Goal Tournament in 1964 were created to maximize participation in a variety of locations through the county.
During this decade there was a revival of high-goal polo. In 1964, the Sunshine League was established at the Royal Palm Polo Club in Florida, and after a 10-year hiatus the Cup of the Americas series resumed in 1966 and '69. The U.S. Open returned to the West Coast briefly, in 1963, but Oak Brook remained the center of U.S. polo, especially after the USPA moved its headquarters there in 1968. The leadership pursued a new agenda: creating the Polo School Committee in 1966 and the Polo Training Foundation (PTF) in 1967. The Hickox family of Long Island donated a substantial sum of money to jump-start the (PTF), which was organized by William Ylvisaker. For yet another decade there were but three 10-goal players: Stewart Iglehart, Robert Skene and Cecil Smith.
Sick ponies and a harrowing plane trip beset the U.S. team as it visited Argentina for the 1966 Cup of the Americas. The team returned again in 1969, but proved no match as they lost both series. Northrup Knox captained the teams and wrote two journals of his experiences playing in the matches. Riding for the U.S. were Knox, Dr. William Linfoot, Roy and Harold Barry, and, in 1969, Bennie Gutierrez.
Indoor polo continued to attract new players to the game, and in 1966 the Houston Polo Association formed. It used the Houston Astrodome for some memorable arena polo. Arena polo at the college level was in back in full swing. In 1967, Yale beat arch-rival Cornell in the Intercollegiate Championship in a battle between the Orthwein twins Steve (Yale) and Peter (Cornell). Arena polo suffered as armories across the county, such as Squadron A in New York, were demolished to make room for housing developments.
In 1965, horseman Willis Hartman inaugurated an annual trophy bearing his name to honor the U.S. Open's Best Playing Pony.
Full speed: 1970s
The era of the '70s brought tremendous growth and change in the sport. By the end of the decade, American polo embraced corporate involvement and big budgets to field high-goal polo teams. Many of the professional players were lured by fame and fortune from a variety of countries, particularly from Mexico and Argentina. There was plenty of polo on all levels, as USPA membership levels rose and a number of top pros were available, imported from all corners of the globe.
In an effort to promote the top players and attract corporate sponsors, dedicated poloists built and subsidized elaborate polo clubs. Though John T. Oxley's Royal Palm Club remained the center of high-goal polo during much of this decade, the late 1970s saw the rise of William Ylvisaker's Palm Beach Polo & Country Club. These two sites joined the Gulfstream Polo Club as South Florida's triumvirate of high-profile clubs. Meanwhile, Texas had two new polo sites after Steve Gose built the Retama Polo Club in San Antonio and Norman Brinker started Willow Bend near Dallas. Eldorado Polo Club continued to flourish in the California desert, and Santa Barbara Polo Club featured all levels of competition.
Ami Shinitzky began Polo Magazine in 1975. It would soon became the voice and memory of the sport in America. As the decade closed, the U.S. Open moved to Retama and the World Cup to Palm Beach.
In 1975, Will Farish and Chuck Wright launched a national polo pony auction called the Houston Pony Sale. The first recipient of the Hugo Dalmar Trophy for sportsmanship was Allan Scherer, in 1977. The all-brother team of John, Jake, and Rob Sieber won the National Intercollegiate title for Xavier University in 1976 and '77. William Ylvisaker inaugurated the first $150,000 Gould World Cup played at Oak Brook in 1977. It was won by four Argentines. Carlton Beal funded the prize money, which drew six teams ranging from 25 to 38 goals. This decade features no U.S. 10-goal players.
Three different series were featured on the international scene during the decade. In the 1979 Cup of the Americas, played in Argentina, Coronel Suarez, with 40 goals worth of Heguys and Harriots, overwhelmed the U.S.entry of Tommy Wayman, Red Armour, Charles Smith and Joe and Roy Barry. The Americans had better luck in England, where they won the 1971 Coronation Cup. They also succeeded in Juarez, Mexico, to win the 1974 and 1975 series of games played for the Camacho Cup. Mexico recaptured the Cup in 1976.
Golden era II: 1980s
The Golden Era of the 1980s differed in form and in substance from the golden memories of the 1930s. Professional players from around the world, vying for corporate sponsors and prize money, had replaced the talented amateurs from polo-playing families as the mainstays of high-goal polo. The major polo clubs offered big prize money to attract high-goal talent, and team sponsors hired the best players to compete on the most expensive horses. In the 1930s a large number of quality horses came from the Western U.S., while in the 1980s it was Argentina supplying the country's pony demand. Companies like Rolex, Cartier, Johnny Walker, Boehm International, Cadillac and Cellular One were attaching their names to tournaments from coast to coast. Polo became big business, even on the local level, rather than a way to pass the time with friends and horses.
Polo's increasing professionalism created a problem for the largely amateur, all-volunteer USPA. With more at stake in each game, issues such as the quality of umpiring and valid handicapping of the players became more problematic throughout the decade. The handicapping system was altered, expanding to two levels below zero (-1 and -2). Tommy Wayman was the only American-born 10-goaler of the decade, though, in time, 10-goal brothers Memo and Carlos Gracida, native-born Mexicans, were considered U.S. players.
The sport was no longer solely a pastime for the rich and famous as USPA membership increased to all-time highs. In late 1989, there were 3,042 players, 208 active clubs and 25 colleges and universities. Women became a significant percentage of the players participating in intercollegiate as well as tournament polo, and many were finding jobs as instructors, team managers, club managers and pony trainers. Indoor polo was given a high-profile forum with the creation of an all-professional arena league played at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center (LAEC), and later a league formed in Texas. Top stars, including Joe Henderson, Tom Goodspeed and brothers Bil, F.D. and Rob Walton, all rose to the prominence playing before SRO crowds.
As in the 1930s, polo was not without its celebrity players, including: Bill Devane, Doug Sheehan, Alex Cord and Pamela Sue Martin, who traveled the country playing for Chukkers for Charity. Many polo celebrities were on hand at the 1986 unveiling of Polo Magazine's Polo Excellence Awards. Developed by Ami Shinitzky, these bronze statues of Tommy Hitchcock became polo's answer to the Oscar Awards. A publication named Sidelines, published by Samantha Charles, made its debut in 1987.
Peter Brant's White Birch team was considered the team of the decade by winning 22 high-goal titles, including six Gold Cups and four World Cups. Brant was also responsible for the 1986 Americas Polo Championship, featuring a 39-goal, all-Argentine team against a 38-goal North American team. CBS cameras recorded the action. In 1981 Joe Muldoon began the International All-Star Benefit, featuring 30-goal matches played by superstar lineups.
After a 25-year absence, the U.S. Open returned to California in 1987, and Bob Fell's Aloha team took the title. Tom Goodspeed tied Winston Guest's record by winning his fourth National Arena Open in 1988. Memo Gracida set an all-time record for U.S. Open titles when he won his eighth in 1989 at Lexington, Kentucky, which was where the USPA moved its headquarters from Oak Brook.
America's frustration over the Cup of the Americas continued in 1980 when a 40-goal Argentine team defeated a 35-goal American team at Retama Polo Center. Mexico won the 1981 and 1988 Camacho Cups, and Great Britain won the 1988 Coronation Cup after a U.S. victory in 1987. Australia lost to the United States for the Westchester Cup in 1988. The crowning achievement for the United States came in 1989 when Julio Arellano, John Wigdahl, Horton Schwartz and Charlie Bostwick won a world championship in the 14-goal Federation of International Polo's World Cup in Berlin, Germany.
Centennial perspective: 1990's
In honor of its 100th birthday, the United States Polo Association established the Centennial Cup tournaments to encourage club competition. Over the past century, the USPA governed the sport in fine fashion by refining the rules for greater safety to players as well as horses, assigning fair and valid handicaps and generally serving as the guardian of the sport. The USPA membership entitlements grew over the century from merely getting a handicap and a set of rules to also include official publications, sanctioned events with USPA-provided trophies and liability insurance coverage.
In 1990, induction ceremonies were held in Palm Beach, Florida, to honor the first six members of the Hall of Fame. After 17 years of planning, groundbreaking for the National Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame took place in March 1995 and the facility was completed two years later. The Polo Training Foundation named Danny Scheraga as executive director and opened an office in upstate New York. U.S.P.A. Properties Inc., a licenser of USPA products, was organized under the guidance of Merle Jenkins and provided a boost to the USPA budget. The USPA itself grew from an all-volunteer organization to one employing an administrative staff that included an executive director, field director and a chief umpire. The demands of a once-amateur sport had changed significantly to deal with professionalism and the big business of polo.
The start of the 1994 winter season found a new breed of official on the South Florida polo fields: certified professional umpires trained to officiate high-goal polo played by predominantly professional players. The long tradition of having fellow players officiate matches of all levels no longer was suitable for high-stakes competition. Throughout the decade, professional umpires were in demand in the polo centers of California, Texas and along the East Coast. The USPA Rules Interpretation Manual grew out of the efforts to improve umpiring at all levels.
The Empire Polo Club hosted an exhibition match in 1990 called the Master of Masters, featuring eight 10-goal players. It was the first time in the United States that 80 goals worth of players competed on the same field. Eldorado Polo Club was the scene of the 1992 and '93 U.S. Open Championships. In 1994, the U.S. Open returned to its original venue at Long Island's Meadowbrook Polo Club after a 41-year hiatus. Eleven teams entered the event, won by a team captained by Open record-setter Memo Gracida. Outback Steakhouse, led once again by Gracida, won the 1995 Open as well as the 1996 Open, played for the first time at Palm Beach Polo & Country Club, Wellington, Florida. It was not until 1998 that Gracida broke his string of consecutive Open titles.
Kimberly Thomas of El Macero, California, became the first woman to serve on the USPA Board of Governors. Over the decade, total membership in the USPA flattened out to an average of 3,000 players, reaching an all-time high of 3,078 in 1995. The good news was that youth polo programs across the country, many sponsored by the Polo Training Foundation, continued to grow dramatically.
For the first time, the U.S. hosted the Federation of International Polo (FIP) World Championships and American Glen Holden was elected president of the FIP at the Santa Barbara Polo Club. Former USPA Chairman Stephen Orthwein and Executive Director George Alexander represented the United States when representatives from Argentina and Great Britain met in a series of meetings to write an international set of rules.
Joe Henderson became only the third player in history to earn a 10-goal arena handicap from the USPA. In the 1990s, American players earning their 10-goal status were Owen Rinehart and Mike Azzaro.
The sun of a new millennium is shining upon polo as we begin another thousand years of the sport. Polo games of the future will most likely resemble polo games of the past. Fundamental changes to the game have been few, though there were a few innovations, such as the use of plastic for polo balls and helmets. The essential elements of the game have resisted change. The game has been and always will be played by men and women who possess a zest for adventure and challenge. More important, polo has been and always will be characterized by the athleticism and beauty of the horse.
As long as horses are available we will have polo. Indications are that there are more horses alive today than at any other time in the history of the United States. When the human population grew, so did the number of horses used for business, leisure and sport. Horse racing, the polo industry and a wide variety of performance horses, including hunters, jumpers and dressage horses, have increased the use of our equine partners throughout the country. Millions of horses are owned by men and women of all ages, races, religious affiliations and economic backgrounds. Horses are kept in a wide range of conditions-from stables resembling palaces, to simple stalls in suburban backyards, to under a tree in a pasture. With all these horses and polo players, are there no worries for the future of the sport?
There are no worries, just challenges, among them:
Where will polo ponies come from? For the past decade or so, the majority of the top quality polo horses, as well as horse trainers, have been imported from other countries, especially from Argentina. Gone are many of the American horse-breeding ranches and gone are many of the cowboys of the old West. Training a horse for polo takes both time and money-horses may take two or three years to train and cost several thousand for upkeep. An old polo pony trainer's adage is: Many horses are called but few are chosen. One horse in 10 makes a polo pony and only one in 100 polo ponies becomes a top pony. With those kinds of odds, not to mention the prospect of getting bucked off daily, no wonder there are few breeders and trainers in the world, let alone the United States.
Where do the grooms come from? There are no college courses for being a professional groom. There are plenty of animal science and management programs, but there is no way to learn how to become a groom without on-the-job experience. Presently, the majority of polo horse-care specialists originate from such places as Mexico and Argentina. While the pay and housing conditions are rather good for most grooms, it is a nomadic occupation with little in the way of health-care or retirement plans. Many players across the country take care of their own ponies, but grooms are an essential part of polo and are truly the unsung heroes of the sport.
Where can we play? It takes 10 to 12 acres, lots of capital and an engineering company to build a polo field. Polo field owners face many problems, including high maintenance costs, irrigation requirements, and most important they must maintain a high level of liability insurance. The following is the usual pattern of polo club development: A polo enthusiast decides to build a field or two and creates a polo club. The club is generally located on the outskirts of town. Soon, urban sprawl envelops the club, making the fields valuable pieces of prime real estate. The owner is forced to sell, and with luck the club relocates farther outside of town. The cycle repeats itself until population centers expand and merge, forcing the acreage-intensive sport to look for a new place to settle.
Can anyone and everyone play? The word polo has conjured up clichéd images of exclusivity-from movie stars, to royalty, to the fabulously wealthy. Before World War II, those images were not clichés, they were truth. Since that time, the sport has been played by a wide variety of characters without regard for wealth or class distinctions. Players now come in all shapes and sizes and economic backgrounds. Prior to the 1940s, all the top players were amateurs. Beginning in the late 1970s, the vast majority of skilled players are professional players who work dangerous hours for little income, especially when compared to other professional sports. Future polo stars are playing polo in today's junior leagues sponsored by the Polo Training Foundation as well as in many high schools and universities across the country.
For thousands of years, polo players have asked similar questions. The game has survived the rise and fall of civilizations, has thrived in diverse and often hostile locations, and has overcome the debilitating effects of war and industrialization. Automotive devices have provided faster and more efficient means of getting around in business and war, and surely future technology and computerization will speed things up even faster on our journey to new frontiers.
Horse owners and polo players will continue to be anachronisms, content to travel as far and as fast as four legs, two heads and one heart can go. This wonderful combination of horse and rider, this meaningful relationship of willful people and willing horses, continues to be the immortal soul of the sport called polo.
|© 2002 - 2006 Museum of Polo & Hall of Fame||
Design by Siddha Sites