This match played on upper crust lawns is actually an exciting, competitive sport, with skilled players battling to score goals. And then, of course, there are horses.
Story by Steve Kaufman | Photos by Steve Squall
Blame it on Ralph Lauren. His colorful lifestyle ads for his Polo fashion brand included lush green lawns with ocean whitecaps in the background. Men and women in pastel colors, clearly of substantial means, gathered in the summer sunshine around the grassy expanse – to watch a polo match.
Even the Polo insignia is, well, you know.
But instead of intriguing a sports-minded nation about polo, Lauren created a different image: elite, inaccessible, intimidating, more about the wealth, the clothes and the setting than about the match itself.
However, before thoroughbred horseracing became the “sport of kings,” there was another “sport of kings” involving horses. About 2,000 years ago, Persians were playing polo inside the Great Palace of Constantinople. A couple of Byzantine emperors actually died playing the sport.
But today, while racing is a multi-million-dollar sport in the U.S. with a world of passionate followers, polo is dismissed as a moneyed sport for the moneyed crowd, no outsiders need apply.
In a state as equine-centric as Kentucky, polo ought to be thriving. And while it’s not thriving, it is growing. Both the universities of Kentucky and Louisville have polo teams. And then there is the Louisville Polo Club.
Every summer weekend, from June through September, both Saturday and Sunday, the Louisville Polo Club plays matches on the polo fields of Oxmoor Farm behind Oxmoor Mall.
Tiffany Meredith is one of those players and also one of two women in the club. If that seems slim representation, Meredith points out that not long ago there were no female polo players. At least, none recognized.
“If a woman was good enough to play, she dressed up as a man so nobody would know,” Meredith said.
A born Kentucky horsewoman, the Bardstown native rode and showed as a youngster, then put the activity away for a long time (though she did own racehorses for a while). Restless after returning to Kentucky in 2006, she began riding again and got back into eventing and jumping, “but it was not what I was looking for.
“Then, one polo lesson and that was it, It was the coolest thing I’d ever done. The first time you connect with that ball off the side of a horse, it’s addicting.”
She took lessons and got involved, even leaving work early a couple of times a week to drive to Lexington for a match.
“You can’t do polo halfway,” she said. “It’s hard to learn and you have to commit.”
But, eventually, “like the saying goes, ‘It never gets easier, you just get better.’”
So, it’s addictive to the player, but what about for the crowd? It can seem a mystifying sport – a lot of horses running around the huge field (the size of nine football fields) – but what’s the strategy? OK, it’s getting that ball through the goal, but how exactly is it all getting set up? Which player is supposed to do what?
How does that handicap system work? So, a 10-goal player averages 10 goals a game? No! Oh.
What’s a chukker?
Am I underdressed?
But the true appeal of the sport, even for the uninitiated, is the horses. (Polo ponies are really not ponies.) These are not just horses off the street, the first 10 who showed up. These are smart, well-trained animals who often tell their riders where to go.
“This is a smart, agile 1,000-pound animal going up to 40 miles per hour, yet pivoting and turning the entire time,” said Meredith. “When a ball is hit, it creates a line – an imaginary dotted yellow line on the field. But when the ball’s deflected and the line turns, the entire play has to turn.
“The horse watches the ball, watches the other horses and learns to be where it needs to be. When I was first learning,” Meredith recalled, “I thought the play was going one way and my horse said, ‘Nope, the play is going that way,’ and she disobeyed me. She took me where I was supposed to go. She’d played polo a lot longer than I had.”
The best polo horses come from Argentina, and each player owns his or her own horses. Two, at least.
“The game is rigorous for these horses, and you have to change your horse after every chukker,” Meredith explained. “They’re basically going at race speed, stopping and turning, over this enormous playing field, for seven and a half minutes.
That’s the length of a chukker. (Why chukker? Well, why “inning”? Think periods, quarters and halves.) Most polo matches are four chukkers, though some are six. Chukker is a word with Hindi/Sanskrit origins and also is spelled chukkar. Some people say chukka.
There are four players on a team, playing the one, two, three and four positions. Meredith called the three player “the quarterback – the one who sets up the play, the strongest player and the strongest hitter. He or she is the one who advances the ball upfield and has to be able to hit it the furthest, to set up the people who score the goals.”
The one player is the main offensive player, the goal-scorer. But everyone’s switching from offense to defense constantly, as the ball ricochets off mallets and around the huge field. (I said it was the size of “nine football fields” – but don’t think of nine football fields, end-to-end, 900 yards long; more like nine football fields aligned in sets of three, so three times as long but also three times as wide.)
“As you’re trying to hit and advance the ball, you’re also trying to keep your opponent from hitting the ball,” Meredith explained. “That’s why the horses have to be agile. They have to be able to stop on a dime and go the other way, real fast.”
It may seem helter-skelter, and perhaps somewhat dangerous, but the rules are all about safety. A horse can bump another horse, but it has to be sidelong, shoulder-to-shoulder. A player can hook an opponent’s mallet, to keep him or her from hitting the ball, but the hooking can only occur below the horses’ shoulders, so nobody – player or horse – gets whacked in the head.
Players can swing their mallet with their right arms only, so that mallets are not flying around, in front of or across the horses’ faces. What if you’re a lefty? “You’ll have to learn to hit righty,” shrugged Meredith. Which explains, perhaps, why De’Aaron Fox, Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Barack Obama and Prince William are not great polo players. (Actually, Prince William can play. An effusive Telegraph headline proclaimed, “Prince William a Remarkable Polo Player, Given he is Left-Handed.”)
The players are pretty well-protected. Meredith’s polo boots are heavy reinforced leather up to her knees – “like storm trooper boots,” she said. They’re made in Argentina by the House of Casablanca, the Nike of polo.
Polo boots for women are only beginning to make Casablanca’s standard product line. “I was just lucky to find a narrow-enough pair,” Meredith laughed.
They wear elbow guards and knee guards for obvious reasons – the ball is a hard plastic sphere going top speed and mallets are flying around, too – and the polo helmet (more of a cap, actually), is meant primarily to deflect the ball from causing serious head injury. Meredith said goggles and face masks are becoming more regulation equipment.
“Goggles are still optional, but almost everyone wears them – clear or tinted – to protect against the ball, a mallet or a chunk of dirt flying up in your face,” she said.
The Polo Club is anxious to spread the word. A May evening exhibition match on The Great Lawn on Louisville’s waterfront drew a couple-hundred people.
It wasn’t the ideal setting, of course. Meredith pointed out that not only was the grass in the field kind of high (regulation polo fields are almost like putting greens), and the land sloped, but the Ohio River was at one end of the field and I-64 was at the other. So instead of the regulation hard-plastic ball, a softer leather ball that looked almost like a small soccer ball was used, so it didn’t go as far or as fast. Still, the crowd was engaged, and that was encouraging.
“We’d love to have people come out and get excited about polo,” Meredith said. Though the club plays twice every weekend, and now at Oxmoor Farms all the time (they used to play some of their games at Hardscuffle Farm in Prospect), the matches start at various times – late morning or early afternoon – depending on the weather – and interested people are advised to follow the club’s Facebook page, Lou Polo. “We don’t have a web site yet, but we’re working on it.”
The weekend matches are free, but there are also a couple of ticketed events during the year: the annual Sophisticated Living Polo Series World Cup and the annual Virgil Christian tribute match that benefits Maryhurst and its various programs for severely traumatized children. The Virgil Christian event is organized by the Boland family (Boland Maloney Lumber), sort of the first family of polo in Louisville.
If you want to get a sense of polo Ralph Lauren-style, the Sophisticated Living afternoon is somewhat horsey, with Southern brunch buffet, cocktails, tents, trophies and a Land Rover/Audi/Porsche tailgating competition “with fabulous prizes.”
But if you just want to get a sense of polo as a fast, exciting, everyman’s sport, Oxmoor on a weekend afternoon in the summer is your best bet. The game may not make entire sense to you right away, but that will come.
In the meantime, the horses are fantastic.