Polo and the essence of modernism

Facundo Pieres, the world’s top-ranked polo player, was in action in the Royal Salute Cup at Greenwich Polo Club.

Facundo Pieres, the world’s top-ranked polo player, was in action in the Royal Salute Cup at Greenwich Polo Club.

It was a sparkling climax to the season at the Greenwich Polo Club Sunday, Sept. 7 as Royal Salute held off a surging Casablanca 10-8 in a taut match for the Royal Salute Cup.

The match, spectators were told, featured the highest quality polo in the Northern Hemisphere, with Facundo Pieres, the No. 1-ranked player in the world, the legendary Martin Aguerre and Peter Brant, the Greenwich club’s founder, anchoring the team for Royal Salute, the Scotch whisky company, while Nick Manifold, who oversees the club, and  9-goaler Hilario Ulloa (10 is the highest ranking) doing the honors for Casablanca, a polo-gear company that has a store on tony Greenwich Avenue.

If you’ve never seen this ancient sport, which dates from the Persian Empire, then you’re missing something. Polo is fast, exciting and, I suspect, more than a little bit dangerous. Just to see the horses thunder down the green expanse (10 football fields), the riders swinging their mallets as they sometimes mix it up – nose to nose and haunch to haunch – is, well, thrilling.

And did I mention sexy? Polo players are among the most attractive, masculine men in the world. (Or maybe I just have a soft spot in my heart for them ever since my college days when I, a freshman, roomed across the hall from two sophomores who dated Argentine polo players. Let’s just say that I, the little sister, always ate well.)

It’s not entirely a male sport, of course. The Greenwich club likes to use mares as opposed to geldings. (As in show-jumping, stallions are rarely used as then tend to be easily, uh, distracted.) Polo “ponies” are often former racehorses that are retrained.  Unlike racing, there are lots of stops, starts and turns in polo, along with running. It’s like the difference between track and tennis.

The horses’ manes are shaved and their tails tied so the players’ hands or mallets don’t become entangled. But these horses remain among the most beautiful animals you’ll ever see, the riders exchanging them for fresh mounts with each chukker (period), as the sport is quite the workout. (Again as in show-jumping, 80 percent of polo is the horse.)

Not all the females in polo are four-legged. The sport is beginning to attract more women players. Last year I had the pleasure of seeing Dawn Jones (who also happens to be the wife of actor Tommy Lee Jones) at Greenwich Polo. She took the MVP trophy in a celebrity charity match that featured Prince Harry and Nacho Figueras.

“You know, equestrian sports are the only ones in which men compete with women,” a man said to me brightly at the Royal Salute Cup as we stomped on the divots during halftime, an honored tradition. I was about to tell him that male-female rivalry in the equestrian world is among the themes of “Criterion,” the third novel in my series “The Games Men Play.” But there’s only so much self-promotion you can do when you’re trying to stomp the divots in pink, patent-leather peep-toe pumps.

Which I was wearing with a pink, floral Ted Baker ensemble and a picture hat embellished with a pink scarf and floral clip. Perhaps more than any sport, polo is about seeing and being seen, which is the essence of modernism as explored in late 19th century art. (Think of all those Mary Cassatt paintings of women at the opera, spying and being spied on.)

Indeed, as you sit behind a white line in the grandstand, on a lawn chair or on a picnic blanket, the match unfolds as if on a big screen. And along the bottom, people stroll by – Champagne glass in hand, fascinator affixed to the top of the head.

For the opportunity for these observations, I’m grateful to my hosts, Jeff O’Geary and Geri Corrigan of Saks Fifth Avenue Greenwich, who invited me to the second annual Polo Luncheon benefiting ECAD (Educated Canines Assisting With Disabilities). While ECAD’s service dogs are trained to help people with a wide range of disabilities, the luncheon’s theme was what ECAD has done for our veterans. We heard moving speeches from vets who couldn’t imagine life without these service dogs and enjoyed a performance by members of the USO of Metropolitan New York.

War is, unfortunately, the ultimate game men play. The least we can do is help our servicemen and women win their separate peace.