There’s no Prince Harry to spice up the Greenwich Polo Club this year, but that doesn’t mean fans aren’t in for an exciting season.
Things get off to a rollicking start Sunday, June 1 with the White Birch home team – named after club founder Peter Brant’s White Birch Farm and White Birch Paper – in action against CT Energia. The home team will be led by Argentina’s Mariano Aguerre, considered one of the all-time greats, and his fleet countryman Hilario Ulloa. In April, the two teamed to help Alegria take the U.S. Open title.
The polo club is set in Greenwich’s verdant, undulating backcountry. Recently, I had a chance to chat there about the season with Australia’s Nick Manifold, who’ll be playing No. 2, an offensive position, for CT Energia Sunday. What a treat it was to sit out in the grandstand on a picture-perfect spring day, the cottony cumulus clouds so ripe and low that they seemed ready to touch the Urs Fischer sculpture, "Big Clay," (think a huge, modern “Winged Victory”) that stands guard across the field. As the staff put the finishing touches on the immaculately manicured expanse and added patrons’ nameplates to the box seats, Nick gave this relative newbie a polo primer, something I was extremely grateful for as my one experience with the game had been last May’s Sentebale charity match starring Prince Harry and Nacho Figueras that was an otherworldly media event. (Polo does, however, figure in “Criterion,” the third novel in my “The Games Men Play” series, the story of a star-crossed equestrian family told in part from the viewpoint of a horse trying to win the Triple Crown.)
Rangy and rugged, Nick’s been at polo since age 19 Down Under. The former cricketer and soccer player was trained in Argentina by polo great and White Birch alum Hector Barrantes. Besides raising prize-winning polo ponies with Mariano Aguerre, Nick oversees the Greenwich Polo Club, where’s been playing since 1992. For him, it’s a bit of heaven on earth.
“For a family to come out here and have a picnic, there are few more beautiful places in the world,” he said.
Certainly, no more beautiful polo field.
It’s a summer game, which means it’s season is fleeting here, lasting only until Sept. 7 before moving on to Palm Beach and Santa Barbara. But polo has a lot in common with a winter sport – ice hockey.
“Polo is quite similar to hockey in that you’re passing the ball,” he said.
It’s fast, fun and fierce, too. And another F-word.
“It’s not a pure strength game,” Nick said. “In the end, I think it’s a lot about finesse.”
Perhaps that’s one reason women can excel in it in a man’s world. Last year, I saw Dawn Jones – who also happens to be the wife of actor Tommy Lee Jones – take the MVP trophy in the Sentebale match. It was thrilling to watch her charge down the field and attack the ball.
“She’s a strong rider,” Nick said. “And there are guys who are weak riders.”
He reminded me that equestrian sports – including show jumping, and, as we’ve seen with the Triple Crown, horse racing – are among the few in which men and women compete with and against one another. That’s because a lot depends on the horses.
Polo ponies are 7/8s Thoroughbred, from a lot of “A” countries – Argentina, Australia, South Africa and America. Some are former racehorses that have been retrained. All are in the prime of horsey life, between 7 and 15 years old. (In contrast, the colts that will take the field against California Chrome at the Belmont June 7 are 3 year olds, teenagers just beginning to notice the opposite sex.)
Polo ponies are mainly female, while show jumping generally uses geldings, Nick said. Although as in show jumping, there’s the occasional stallion in the mix. You just got to keep him away from the ladies, Nick added.
Because polo is a mature sport, it takes time to train both rider and horse to be able to maneuver amid other players and horses. Some four-legged creatures – and let’s face it, plenty of the two-legged ones – can’t handle the tricky maneuvering. But Nick said those horses that can love it. The horses are well-cared for. Playing keeps them mentally and physically sharp.
Such honing is not without its cost. A show jumper might have three horses. A polo team needs 40 as riders change horses during and between chukkars (periods of play).
Still, like tennis, polo is losing its elitism. Nick applauded the efforts of players like Nacho Figueras to get inner city kids involved.
Who knows? Maybe one of them will one day mount a charge down the Greenwich Polo field in pursuit of the Royal Salute Jubilee Cup, contested annually in September.
“It is,” Nick said, “one of the best days I’ve ever seen.”
The schedule is as follows:
June 1, Opening Day – Bogner showcases a new line of summer and golf wear in a pop-up tent.
June 8 – Horsing Around for Charity day, with proceeds going to the Pegasus Foundation, which offers therapeutic riding.
June 15, Father’s Day – Dad and Mom are both in for a treat as extra hands will be available to engage the kiddies. There’s a special children’s polo clinic as well as Father’s Day giveaways.
June 22, Hat Day – Compete for prizes in your best topper.
July 13, Tailgate Day – Prizes are awarded for the best spread.
Aug. 31 – Virginia’s House of Hope Charity hosts its Polo Benefit for Hope at noon.
Sept. 7 – The season closes in high fashion with the annual 20-goal USPA Royal Salute Jubilee Cup.
For more, visit greenwichpoloclub.com.