The Sport Of Polo

Polo has been the bluest of blue-blood sports but the game is now available to the novice rider, if only for a try.

It is still the most expensive sport on earth. For a top-flight polo match, the players will require from eight to ten horses. With a top polo pony fetching around $50,000, you are looking at ante of half a million dollars just to get into the game. Even so, some of the bluish tint is fading from the bluest of blue-blood sports - polo.

The first record of mounted ball games comes from Persia 2500 years ago, where archeologists have discovered evidence of the sport painted on cave walls. Polo was then embraced by the horse-wise Mongolians and carried into China. The game eventually spread into India and came to the attention of officers in the British army. The modern game of polo was thus developed in the British empire and the game was introduced into the United States by James Gordon Bennett, editor-in-chief of the New York Herald - better know to popular history as the publishing executive who sent Mr. Stanley to find Dr. Livingstone in 1871.

Bennett returned from watching the game in England in 1876 with a plentiful supply of sticks and balls. He sent to Texas for some suitable ponies and staged a polo exhibition in New York City's "Old Dickel's indoor Riding Academy." Thus did Americans get their first taste of the royal game in the same year that major league baseball started. Polo did not go on to become the national pastime, however.

In 1879 the Long Island Club, later known as Meadow Brook, was established. In 1891 the Americans introduced the handicapping system of rating each player and forming teams of equal ability. A critical development in polo history came about in 1916 when the United States Polo Association lifted the height limit on polo ponies which helped shift the balance of international power in the sport from its home in England to the horse breeders of Argentina. The Argentines have been the dominant players on the world polo stage ever since.

After World War II, Long Island, New York, the cradle of United States polo became so developed that the focus of the game shifted to places like Oak Brook, Illinois and Texas and Florida. The democritization of polo had begun, sort of. Today there are over 10,000 players with rated handicaps at more than 100 polo clubs.

A polo team is comprised of four players galloping across a field 300 yards long (three times the size of a football field). The players strike at the hard plastic ball with a long polo mallet, made in the old-fashioned way with a cane shaft or more fashionably today, with carbon-fiber. Although the polo mallet resembles a croquet mallet, the ball is struck on the side, not on the rounded ends as in the backyard game. There are six basic strokes to be mastered in striking the ball: the off-side forehand, on-side backhand, under-the-tail, under-the-neck, over-the-wrist and "into-the-Jaguar." When properly executed the momentum of the steed and the skill of the player can propel a polo ball at speeds over 100 miles per hour.

The polo pony is not an actual pony but a full grown horse that is actually shorter than its peers to better reach the ground. Some are failed race horses so they pack plenty of speed. In addition to flying across the field, a top polo pony must be able to stop and change directions in an instant and be oblivious to swinging mallets and flying objects.

A polo game is divided into a series of 7 1/2-minute chukkers and can last for either four or six chukkers. Sometimes games are played in as many chukkers as necessary to reach 22 goals. After each chukker, a fresh mount is needed for the players, hence the hefty outlay in cash by the best players. With riders and horses speeding at each other in pursuit of a small ball, collisions are routine and the pace is breakneck, which has helped polo become a popular weekend spectator sport. Some have approximated the game of polo to playing golf out the window of a car in rush hour.

More and more, it is possible for the casual fan to try a game of polo. Schools at clubs and riding academies now cater to the first time rider and offer the chance to play the game at a beginner's clip. For those interested in the history of polo, the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame is open daily at 4059 Iron Works Pike in Lexington, Kentucky. Established in 1990, the museum is located in a small grey board building in the corner of the Kentucky Horse Park. In addition to displays of antique mallets and whips and exhibits on polo ponies, there is a collection of polo clothes that show how the sport gave the world button-down shirts, introduced by Brooks Brothers in 1900.

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