By Eric Barton
There are two ways to spend a Sunday afternoon at a polo match.
The horse lovers, the true followers of the sport, they watch the game. It’s simple-enough to follow, even for newcomers; essentially a game akin to field hockey – except played on horseback. But it’s also an intricate sport for the regulars. They relish the strategy behind when players switch horses. They’ll watch subtle movements that indicate how riders control the speed and direction of their sprinting ponies. And they will marvel at the stars – Argentines mostly – who mount charges like cavalry attacks.
Or, just as respectably, polo is a great excuse for an outdoor party. Tailgating doesn’t just end at the start of play – here, the champagne flows and caviar is spread on crackers as the horses run. Coordinated outfits are catalog ready. And selfies may or may not include a celebrity who happens to be sitting right next to you.
Whichever your style of polo fun, we’ve got you covered. What follows is a guide to the players, the parties and the tailgates. Oh, and also the game.
Let the divot-stomping begin.
The game of polo is simple enough: one team of four wins by scoring the most goals. Newcomers can figure out the basics in minutes.
Then, the first thing you notice about polo is just how fast it is. The svelte polo ponies are picked for acceleration, so they will often seem at full speed as soon as they start.
Riders use that speed to try to score on an opponent’s goal using mallets, often in circular, overhead swings that seem impossible to time. “Most polo players are scratch golfers, because it’s the same hand-eye coordination,” says Marla Connor, general manager at Gulfstream Polo Club. “People may not realize just how hard it is to hit a ball while sprinting on a pony.”
All that speed must last for six periods, called chukkers. Fouls occur most often when a rider has crossed the path of another, which is banned to make the sport safer. There are collisions, but it’s legal only at an angle to prevent riders from getting crushed.
Newcomers should bring binoculars, Connor suggests, to help keep track of the ball, which can travel at a 100-plus mph. This is, after all, a game of speed.
Surely you’ve seen that part in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts’ character joins spectators out on the field to replace torn-up turf. It’s true to life: at every halftime in polo, spectators are asked to come out and replace patches of grass that came loose in the first half. Even if you’d rather those new shoes stay turf-free, take a flute of champagne out on the field at least once, because there’s nothing else like it in sport.
Many of the world’s best polo players come from as far as Argentina and Spain to compete in Palm Beach each winter. Here are a few to watch this season.
Dolfi, as he’s known, has been regarded as among the best polo players in the world for the past two decades. He’s also got a softer side: Queen Elizabeth presented Cambiaso with an award for his work to promote violence-free horse training.
Arellano is the hometown hero of Palm Beach polo. He grew up in Boca Raton and has become this country’s top player. He’s a graduate of Cardinal Newman and Florida Atlantic University and climbed from the lowest rungs of polo to become a star in countries where players are royalty. Watch him on penalty shots, his specialty.
Born to a legendary Argentine player, Pieres and his two brothers were polo prodigies. It’s easier to name the awards he hasn’t won, and he’s currently the world’s No. 1 player. He may be a shy star off the field, but on it he’s known for his intensity.
Imagine a baseball game where the team owner covers shortstop. That’s how it works in Palm Beach polo, where typically the team’s owner, or patron, takes the field as one of the four players. Typically they’re the lowest-ranked players, but a rare goal from a patron is always a treat.
WHERE TO WATCH
Polo in Palm Beach County ranges from international tournaments with at-capacity grandstands to casual games where anybody can watch for free. “It’s a sport enjoyed by families and really people from any walk of life,” says Aurora Goldstein, a polo photographer for wellingtonpolo.com. “It can be a big social thing or all about the game.”
These three polo grounds cover all of that, from fancy to casual.
International Polo Club Palm Beach
3667 120th Ave. S, Wellington, 561-204-5687, internationalpoloclub.com
Many of the best players in the world come here every winter and compete before capacity crowds of tailgaters and brunching spectators. If you want big play, or simply a big polo party, this is the place. The season runs Jan. 4 to April 19. Tickets range from $10 for a bleacher seat, $20 for lawn access, and $300 for veranda seating for two and a bottle of Veuve Clicquot.
Grand Champions Polo Club
13444 Southfields Road, Wellington, 561-644-5050, grandchampionspoloclub.org
Owners Marc and Melissa Ganzi describe their club as a place for “community polo,” which means a far more laid-back atmosphere. You’ll still see spectators picnicking by the sidelines, but with far fewer ornate hats and seersucker suits. And maybe the best part? Admission is free. Grand Champions attracts medium-goal players, meaning one step shy of the sport’s top stars; and it also hosts tournaments for women and gay polo players.
Gulfstream Polo Club
4550 Polo Club Road, Lake Worth, 561-965-2057, gulfstreampolo.com
The most laid back of the polo clubs is frequented by medium- and low-goal players and spectators who mostly aren’t bothered with the pretenses of the fancier clubs. Don’t mistake the free admission and laid-back atmosphere for shabby – the grounds here are a stunning stretch of green. Now in its 92nd year, Gulfstream is the only polo club where players can exercise, play and practice in the same location, meaning spectators can watch how players get ready for games.
There is no other sport in the world where spectators look so good. Even if you’re not into fashion, you’ll surely enjoy the people watching.
For a few tips on what to wear, we turned to Michelle DiMarco, owner of the Lilac And Lilies Boutique in Fort Lauderdale and lover of a polo outing.
“First and foremost,” DiMarco warns, “do not wear heels.” Walking the field to stomp divots will be a nightmare, so instead come in a dressy sandal or wedge.
From there, match your outfit to the importance of the match. For a simple Sunday game, go casual, with a pair of jeans, T-shirt and blazer. For a big tournament, it’s time to break out the linen pantsuit or sundress.
Hats aren’t a mandatory accessory, but if you’ve got a floppy favorite, here’s your time to wear it.
A linen suit that’s classy or relaxed is a sure winner, although a nice shirt and a pair of khakis will also fit in. Bright colors are really the only option here, and a light belt-shoe combination will go a long way.
If going as a couple, look for a pocket square print that matches your date’s ensemble. It’ll look sharp – and it’ll earn you bonus points with your better half.
THE PERFECT POLO PICNIC
Sure, there are polo fans who define tailgating as a bag of chips and a random bottle of wine. But if you want it done right, follow the advice of Sean Brasel, chef and owner of Meat Market in Palm Beach. “This is polo, so you want to focus on champagne,” Brasel says. “Be sure everything you serve will taste good with it.” Like, for instance, Brasel’s suggested menu here:
Start with a rustic lobster salad, with red onions and olives; place it in a bun with a dollop of caviar.
Crack stone crabs at home and then chill the meat with artichokes for a dip smeared on crostini.
Slice leftover meatloaf like pâté to make chilled sliders.
Be sure there are veggies on the side, like a salad of beet, quinoa and a goat cheese that’ll pair great with the bubbly.
Desserts should be hand-held, maybe Key lime cheesecake and tiramisu tarts. And of course, chocolate truffles that can be eaten anytime.
Brasel, who grew up picnicking in the Colorado mountains, says a basket of good food has a great side effect: “It’s a good way to impress a date.”
A STIFF DRINK
FROM A SUPERFAN
Linda Lane Soper likes to joke that polo is in her family. Her father and grandfather both played it, and she met her husband while tailgating at a match. Owner of a marketing firm in West Palm Beach, Soper suggests polo tailgating is about a good cocktail. Soper’s go-to drink is a simple concoction of the English liqueur Pimms, plus fruits, vegetables and maybe herbs. “It’s kind of like an English sangria,” Soper says.
The recipe is simple: fill a big jar with limes, lemons, cucumbers, apples, oranges, strawberry, mint, basil or a combination of the above. Add Pimms, and if you’d like, soda water, lemonade, iced tea or a mixture of all of them.
Skip the Solo cups – polo is a time to break out that fancy cocktail set that’s been gathering dust in your closet. “What’s fun about tailgating is that people do it in all sorts of ways,” Soper says. “You sit out there with your drink, watch the game and watch the people around you. It makes for a beautiful day.”