If you’ve never seen a polo match before, that’s certainly understandable. The sport comes with a long history and often it’s depicted in the media as played by royalty or the rich and privileged. That could easily lead you to think it’s a sport that’s inaccessible to most of us. But that may be somewhat of a misconception, as our family and friends learned after attending our first polo match on Long Island.
Polo Accessible to All
Our tween-aged daughter has been bitten badly by the “horse” bug after taking some horseback riding lessons over the summer. Now it’s all about horses. Never mind that we live in Brooklyn, an area that’s not exactly considered horse-country. Anything having to do with horses and riding is something that we must experience, so says our daughter again and again. So when she came to us begging to go to a polo match, I told her not to get her hopes up. But, after a short search on the internet, I discovered that for just $5-dollars a ticket (children under 12 are free) and the ability to take public transportation, we could be sitting in the grandstands or picnicking alongside the field watching a match at the Bethpage State Park Polo grounds in Long Island, New York. (If you take the Long Island Railroad, when purchasing tickets, ask for the discounted getaway fare that includes a round-trip rail ticket and a round-trip taxi ride from the Farmingdale Station to Bethpage State Park. It also includes a 15% off coupon for lunch or dinner at the Taste 99 restaurant located in the Oak Room inside the Clubhouse. The fare for adults is $19. Kids are less depending on age.)
A Bit of History
The sport itself is “older than recorded history,” according to the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame. The International Federation of Polo says historical records reveal the sport was known as “Chaughan” and played by ancient Persians as far back as 2500 years ago. It was a sport played by kings and the horsed cavalry alike. The origins of the modern name for the sport are traced to Tibet where it was called, “Pulu.” The British Cavalry drew up some of the earliest rules for the sport, according to the IFP. Polo roots in America date back to 1876, where it was introduced in New York by James Gordon Bennett Jr., a publisher, balloonist and adventurer.
Learn (Some Basic) Rules
We are able to see the final match of the outdoor season that runs from June to October. So as we make our way to the polo club with our daughter and two of her (also) horse-loving friends we learn some of the basic rules of polo. One of the first things we discover is this game is dangerous. The balls travel up to 110 miles per hour! Riders may hook an opponent’s mallet, push each other, bump each other with the horse or steal the ball as they’re galloping along trying to get a piece of the small, hard ball. It’s a bit like hockey on horses.
The game is played between two teams with four players on each side. One side attacks, one side defends and each side tries to prevent the other from scoring. Each time a goal is scored, the teams change ends to make sure one team isn’t gaining any wind advantage. The match lasts approximately one-and-a-half hours long and is divided into seven-minute time periods called “chukkers.” There are breaks between each chukker and a 15-minute halftime. Two umpires on the field make calls if they see dangerous riding or use of the mallet.
Off the Field
Arriving at the state park (which is also home to tennis courts, park and recreation areas, and five world-class golf courses including the Bethpage Black Course which hosted the 2002 and 2009 U.S. Opens), we’re directed to the polo grounds and the grandstand seating along the massive field. (A regulation outdoor polo field is 300 yards long and 160 yards wide–bigger than nine football fields and almost 10 acres in size!) There are plenty of spectators along the field with blankets and lawn chairs who are making an afternoon of it. We pass a tent in which children are making horse related crafts and pictures to be displayed. They can enter a contest in which they can win a prize post-match.
On the other side of the field is a small tent selling horse-related items including clothing, kid-sized mallets and balls, and small souvenirs. A large tent provides shade for “higher-end” seating–meaning couches and comfy chairs. For $35 a ticket, this seating also comes with appetizers, pasta and an open bar. This is the area where folks are a bit more decked out in their hats and horse finery. Although casual dress is perfectly fine to wear at this match.
While we choose the “cheap seats”, our view is the same-just from the other side of the field. And there is nothing stopping us from heading over to check things out during breaks or post match.
And They’re Off
Once the umpire throws out the ball to get the match started an announcer takes you through the intricacies of the game as the players move along. He explains the priority of safety for both the players and the horses. He tells you about the interesting backgrounds of some of the players and their horses. The horses are beautiful creatures in this sport—mostly thoroughbreds that can run like the wind. And pretty soon, you’ll find yourself rooting right along with the rest of the group, even though you may not have a horse in the race. In the 1930’s, during polo’s heyday, crowds attending international matches held on Long Island that were commonly in excess of 30-thousand people.
Do the Groundwork
This is one sport in which the half-time and the end of the match is truly fun for the entire family. As the horn blows to signal the end of play, the announcer reveals that it’s time to follow what tradition dictates, which is everyone running out onto the field and replacing divots that have been made when the players gouge the turf taking swipes at the ball. The kids (and plenty of the adults) love this concept. As a bonus, when the match is over, not only will there be more divot replacing, but a treasure hunt in which three wine corks are strategically placed out on the field and anyone who finds one wins a bottle of wine.
Meet the Pros
Post-match everyone lines up along the field barrier and the players parade around the entire field on horseback, high-fiving anyone and everyone who puts their hands’ up to do so.
I speak with Bob Ceperano, the Field Manager and CEO for Bethpage who came into the sport from the commercial side of horses and farms thirty years ago. When I ask him what attracted him to the sport he says, “It’s like playing golf in an earthquake!” and smiles. He and members of his family are involved in the sport all year, from maintaining the fields to offering polo training for kids and adults. (You don’t have to own a horse to get the training, he adds.) He says his goal is to make the sport accessible to anyone who takes an interest. He then introduces me to Brandon, a 17-year-old who has just played in the match and who’s been playing polo for five years already. Brandon says he plays because he likes being around horses and the speed of the sport. He also tells me he trains with girls at times, but claims that the girls are more aggressive when playing.
All Year Long
I mention to Bob that it’s too bad we’d have to wait until next June to see another match. But I’m informed that there’s no need to wait as the indoor polo season is just beginning and goes through the middle of April. The size of the field is a bit smaller, they play three on three (instead of four on four), and they play with a ball that’s a slightly different grade (and a bit softer), but there’s plenty more polo to see as we move into the colder weather.