All team sports strive for “friendly competition,” but polo takes the friendly part to another level. On this day, at an early-August match in Colt’s Neck, the competing teams are prepping for the event together under one open-sided tent. Opponents don their gear, warm up and laugh with one another. There are no separate locker rooms. If it weren’t for their shirts—burgundy for the SLS Jets team, yellow for the Yellow Cab squad—there would be no apparent distinction between teams.
As for the crowd, spectators in pastel polo shirts and khakis or bright sundresses and oversize hats are sipping champagne, chatting and indulging in complimentary massages. During the match, nobody cheers or claps when a player scores—although a few faint smiles and nods of approval are detected.
“Polo is a gentleman’s sport,” says Simon Garber, a Colts Neck polo player who for the past four years has been organizing this event, part of the summerlong Kings Polo Classic, a tournament series at Bucks Mill Park that benefits various charities. “The camaraderie among the players, handlers and breeders is very strong. During the matches, the competition is very fierce, and as the horses gallop at very high speeds, players must be respectful of each other and the horses to avoid serious injury to either.”
Polo players did not always have their opponents’ welfare in mind. The world’s oldest team sport, polo is believed to have originated 2,600 years ago in Persia or among the Iranian tribes in Central Asia. “It started as a military exercise to prepare men on horses for combat,” says George J. DuPont Jr., executive director of the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame in Lake Worth, Florida. The first recorded polo tournament was a public match in 600 B.C. between Turkomans and Persians; the Turkomans won. Warfare expanded the sport across continents. Mohammedan invaders in the 13th century likely introduced polo to India. The game spread from India to England after the British gained control of the subcontinent in the early 1800s.
The sport did not arrive in the United States until 1876. After watching a match at the Hurlingham Club in England that year, American newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett decided to bring back mallets and balls to New York City. Fourteen years later, Bennett, along with a few fellow sportsmen, formed the Polo Association, now the United States Polo Association, managing seven clubs. By 1894, the USPA boasted 19 clubs.
The association now oversees 275 clubs, six of them operating in the Garden State. USPA has 4,853 registered members, 73 from New Jersey. Beth Day, the association’s director of membership and handicap services, says New Jersey’s membership is near the top, but that it can’t compare with California and Florida, which have 655 and 416 registered members, respectively. In those sunny states, outdoor polo is played year-round.
Polo also can be played indoors—it’s known as arena polo—but outdoor polo dominates the scene in New Jersey. There are five outdoor polo fields across the state, plus one just over the Frenchtown Bridge in Erwinna, Pennsylvania, maintained by Garden State polo clubs. (The state’s only indoor polo arena is in Frenchtown.) An outdoor polo match consists of six chukkers, or periods, each 7½ minutes long. The objective is to score goals by driving a plastic ball the size of a baseball into the opposing team’s goal using a bamboo-cane mallet—all while galloping on a horse at up to 35 miles per hour.
“A man and a horse are doing something that neither the man nor the horse could do on its own,” says Steven Garfield, a polo player who gives lessons at his January Farm in Hunterdon County. “There’s a synergy; you’re building something bigger than yourself. I think that’s part of the real thrill of the game, that you’re building this relationship with this animal.”
Most competitive and benefit matches hosted by New Jersey polo clubs are open to the public; some charge an admission or request a donation. “There’s plenty of polo to watch here,” says Garfield, “and nobody is going to tell you to go away.” In fact, polo spectators are not only welcomed on the sidelines; they’re welcomed onto the field at halftime as a sort of grounds crew. “If the field is all chopped up, the ball isn’t going to roll or it’s going to bounce funny, so the divots, which are what the horse pulls up from stomping and turning, have to be put back into the field,” Garfield explains. “They just figured out a social way to get people out onto the field.”
Back at Bucks Mill Park, Garber and his game mates, a mix of Jersey boys and international polo stars like Nacho Figueras and Luis Escobar, exit the field after the third chukker to hydrate and change ponies while spectators from both sides of the green—tailgaters with lawn chairs and coolers, and guests in hospitality tents noshing on finger sandwiches—move onto the field to stomp the divots.
Rumson resident Alex Smith-Ryland chases his young daughters, Caitlyn, 6, and Sabrina, 3, around the field; the girls giggle as their little feet pack down the grassy clumps. It is the family’s first New Jersey match. Smith-Ryland, who is native to polo’s U.S. epicenter, Wellington, Florida, attended matches every weekend in his youth. “When I heard this [tournament series] was being done in New Jersey, I thought I’d come out and do my best to support it,” he says. “I love all parts of the game, especially the horses; they’re beautiful to watch. And you’re able to meet people who have the same interests as you.”
It is the social environment, along with the opportunity to raise money for a good cause, that motivated Garber to organize this tournament series. He balks when people say that polo, sometimes called the sport of kings, is a rich man’s game. Others agree that the players come from all walks of life. As for the spectators, Garber says, “polo is a very democratic sport, much more so than a stadium event for which a spectator must buy expensive tickets weeks or months in advance. Families and friends can arrive at the polo field on match day and spend the afternoon with just the purchase of parking.”
Garber’s aim is to make that a quality experience. “This year, I want more people to attend our matches,” he says. “Whether they are tailgating, have a romantic picnic or sit under a tent for a catered charity fund-raiser, polo is where they should be.”
Watch Them Ride
Two public fields in the Garden State area provide plenty of polo for spectators. From July 14 through September 1, the Tinicum Park Polo Club, headquartered in Frenchtown, hosts U.S. Polo Association-regulated matches on Saturdays at Tinicum Park in Erwinna, Pennsylvania (974 River Road; 908-996-3321). The International Polo Club of Colts Neck’s Kings Polo Classic (212-444-8748), a charity tournament with matches every Sunday from July 22 through August 26, makes its home at Bucks Mill Park (14 Heyers Mill Road, Colts Neck). The Colts Neck Polo Club (732-389-2044) also uses Bucks Mill Park, hosting matches every Sunday in September.
July 14: Max Berger Cup, USPA Polo Match; 2 pm, Tinicum
July 21: Tinicum Park Polo Club Match; 2 pm, Tinicum
July 22: Tri-Global Financial Cup; 5 pm, Colts Neck
July 28: Arby Dobb CuP, USPA Polo Match; 2 pm, Tinicum
July 29: Chicago Carriage Cab Cup; 5 pm, Colts Neck
Aug. 4: Tinicum Park Polo Club Match; 2 pm, Tinicum
Aug. 5: New Orleans Carriage Cab Cup; 5 pm, Colts Neck
Aug. 11: President’s Cup, USPA Polo Match; 2 pm, Tinicum
Aug. 12: Jefferson Carriage Cab Cup; 5 pm, Colts Neck
Aug. 18: Tinicum Park Polo Club Match; 2 pm, Tinicum
Aug. 19: Yellow Cab II Cup; 5 pm, Colts Neck
Aug. 25: Women’s Challenge, USPA Polo Match; 2 pm, Tinicum
Aug. 26: SLS JETS Management Cup; 5 pm , Colts Neck
Sept. 1: Tinicum Park Polo Club Match; 2 pm, Tinicum
Sept. 2: Colts Neck Polo Club Match; 3 pm, Colts Neck
Sept. 9: Colts Neck Polo Club Match; 3 pm, Colts Neck
Sept. 16: Colts Neck Polo Club Match; 3 pm, Colts Neck
Sept. 23: Colts Neck Polo Club Match; 3 pm, Colts Neck
Sept. 30: Colts Neck Polo Club Match; 3 pm, Colts Neck
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