The Best Sport You’ve Never Seen

Players hold their mallets aloft as they head out for the start of a match.

The goal of polo is simple: Snatch a headless goat from your opponent and gallop like hell to escape the pursuing hordes of horsemen who would enjoy nothing more than to knock you from your mount and trample your bones to dust while ripping the stolen goat corpse from your grasp. There’s only one rule: First one to make it to his village – with the goat – wins. And eats.

In Skaneateles, polo is a bit more refined than this ancient version once played on the steppes of Asia. Today there’s no goat and only four players on each team.

Despite its high-intensity action, polo falls into the category of unappreciated sports. When I asked family and friends what they thought about it, their responses were underwhelming. My sports fanatic friend Renee (she goes to Yankees’ spring training) best summed it up by saying, “I’ve never watched polo in my life so I have no idea.” If you share Renee’s sentiments, then you’re about to find out what you’re missing.

Instead of staring at the televised exhibition games of the Bills and Giants this summer, or paying $100 to get jostled while carrying a sloshing beer as you weave your way through the crowd at a Yankees or Mets game, drive to Skaneateles with your picnic basket. You’ll see athletes who are willing to play for room and board, and who do more to carry their teammates in one afternoon than those million-dollar athletes do in a full season.

The athletes are thoroughbred horses. In polo lingo, they are called ponies. The riders are mostly Finger Lakes residents whose ages range from too young to drive to too old to twerk. The teams come to Skaneateles from all over eastern North America: Cleveland, Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Buffalo, Aiken (South Carolina), and several New York towns.

Me, at a polo match?
Yes, you. Here’s what you can expect.

Think of a safety blitzing the blind side of a clueless quarterback. Now add 800 pounds to that safety in the form of a massively muscled, galloping thoroughbred. Then replace the quarterback with a slender 19-year-old girl (or a slightly paunchy 59-year-old man) and you’ve got an idea of the joy of polo: organized mayhem on horses.

And where will you be? Why right on the sideline of the polo grounds on Andrews Road south of Skaneateles, hoping the riders truly control their horses because sometimes, the action heads right for you. When it does, you can feel the pounding of hooves, hear the shouts of pursuit, and see the determination on the faces of “spear”-pumping, cavalry-charging, seemingly mild-mannered, next-door-neighbor types as they thunder down a 300-yard-long field in pursuit of a 4-inch plastic ball.

This combo of man and mount makes it unlike any other sport in America. It’s impressive. It’s fun. It’s free. Although it’s doubtful you’ll ever play polo, you should see it at least once. In the unlikely event you don’t care for it, your afternoon won’t be wasted. Just head into town for a nice stroll along the waterfront.

Beyond polo preconceptions
When you hear the word “polo” what do you think? The rich elite? The Prince of Wales? Men-only? Not athletic? Some of these preconceptions have an element of truth. Some do not.

Do you need to be rich? No, but it doesn’t hurt. If you’re willing to give up motor boating, can get by with one Harley instead of two, or can forego buying a new SUV every three years, you just might be able to afford a polo pony or two. Polo ponies tend to be priced like Harleys. A decent, entry level pony with extra mileage can be had for about $5,000. A fine-tuned, experienced and skilled pony that can stop on a dime, accelerate at the nudge of a knee, and enjoys throwing a nice body check now and then can easily exceed the cost of a top-of-the line, customized bike. And since you need two or three per player (horses not Harleys) during a match, well you get the picture. Less well-heeled players often rent or borrow horses for matches.

Not athletic? Absurd. Athleticism abounds. It belongs both to the pony and the rider, with success depending on their teamwork. Certainly a fast, agile, contact-loving pony gives a rider a great advantage, but the rider needs skills to leverage that advantage. When opportunity appears, a rider must be able to rise up in the stirrups with a mallet held upright in the right hand and the reins secured in the left, and maneuver away from a pair of 1,000-pound beasts charging in from either side. At the same time, a rider must focus on the ball and then, suddenly, whip the mallet down to precisely strike the ball as her mount surges forward at 30 miles an hour.

Opinions differ on whether the athleticism of the horse or the rider is more important. Marty Cregg, president of the 52-year-old Skaneateles Polo Club says, “The horse.” Cregg – who also captains the polo club’s team, and chairs the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame Center in Lake Worth, Florida – then adds, “Also important are riding skills, and understanding where to go next during a match to help the team.”

David Eldredge, longtime head coach of polo at Cornell University, says, “Riding and horsemanship! If you cannot get to the ball or opposing player, you cannot make a play.”

It’s not just a men’s game. In April, the Cornell women’s team won the national collegiate championship by scoring the winning goal with 10 seconds to go. Cornell men made it to the semifinals. Although both men- and women-only competitions are common in the polo world, locally, in the summer, it’s usually a coed game.

The rules are simple – protect the horses
The field is 300 by 160 yards. The point is to score by whacking the ball through the 24-foot wide goalposts. Teams switch goals after each point scored.

The rules are few and designed primarily to protect the horse (and secondarily the rider) from dangerous collisions or from being whacked by a mallet. Although horse collisions are actually encouraged, they’re of the side-swiping, hip-checking, bumping and thumping variety, where one horse comes in from a shallow angle to try and push another off course (called “riding off”). Head-on, T-boning and other direct-angle collisions (anything over 45 degrees) when horses are galloping are forbidden and penalized. Riders can’t whack, wallop, elbow or strike other riders, but they can give them a good shoulder. The umpire can impose a penalty ranging from a free goal to a free shot.

Rules also limit certain swings of the mallet to prevent players from hitting other riders or horses. Two mounted umpires control the game with a sideline-sitting referee available to weigh in as needed.

The match
Before each match, assistants ready the horses for battle. They braid each horse’s tail and then fold and tie it into a 2-foot-long stub so it won’t become entangled by mallets or other accoutrements. To protect the lower legs of the horses, the assistants wrap them in 9-foot long, 5-inch wide rolls of fleece.

Players, too, need protection from bumping horses and a ball that when struck may attain the speed of a fastball thrown by a major league pitcher. They don helmets (often with face guards), slip on sturdy polo boots, and may attach the armor of shin and knee guards. Most wear gloves, which give players a better grip on the reins and protect their hands from skin burns.

The local summer game is divided into four (normally there are six), seven-minute time periods (each called a chukker), with a 30-second overtime allowed as determined by the umpire. It starts when the mounted umpire bowls the ball between the two teams lined up opposite each other at midfield (as if he were throwing it down a bowling lane with each team lined up along one of the gutters). A chaotic melee of horses ensues until a player knocks the ball into the open, forcing the players to organize (even if it doesn’t appear that way) into their roles.

You can determine the role of the player by the jersey number: a 1, 2, 3 or 4. Players 1 and 2 are designated scorers; generally positioned nearest to the other team’s goal, but at times they may play defense and be at the other end of the field trying to free up the ball. Player 3, usually the team’s best player, regularly alternates between offense and defense, and player 4 is dedicated to defense – in effect, a ranging goalie. Although anybody can score, players 2 and 3 typically do most of the scoring.

Each goal scored is one point. At the end of the game you can expect to see a score like 10-8. Shootouts occur if the game is tied at the end of regulation.

It’s a lifetime game
Many polo players swung their first mallet before they read their first book. A few of today’s players started playing before Sputnik (which was about the size of an indoor polo ball) mesmerized neighbors assembled in the streets to watch it wink its way across the summer night. David Eldredge started playing the year before Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon. “My father got me riding at 6 and playing at 9.”

Elena Wicker, a member of the Cornell women’s team, has been playing 12 years (she’s 21). I won’t tell you how long Jan Suwinski, secretary/treasurer and club delegate to the U.S. Polo Association for the Central New York Polo Club, has been playing. He provides this clue: “When I first started, we used to mow a hay field and play in it.”

Marty Cregg says polo “provides exhilaration.” “I can play a physical, competitive game in my 60s against young players and play to win.” That passion carries players through decades of matches and is something to behold in both young and old.
_______________________________________

Starts at 3 Every Sunday
In July and August, the Skaneateles match begins at 3 p.m. at 785 Andrews Road, about a mile south of Skaneateles off Rt 41A. Bring picnic supplies (you can sit in your car), binoculars for when the action is at the far end, and a telephoto lens.

The Central New York Polo Club (see their Facebook page for more information) plays in Cortland at their facility on Rt. 79, a mile or so west of the city. Outdoor teams won’t play if the field is wet and slippery.

If you get the polo bug, you can watch collegiate games indoors from October to March at Cornell’s Equestrian Center (search “polo” on cornell.edu). The much smaller indoor rink means the action is always close to you. “Indoor games are much more physical,” notes Elena Wicker.


story and photos by Derek Doeffinger