When Martin Joseph began polo lessons two years ago at Anaco Ranch in Anaheim, he had never ridden before. However, the Anaheim attorney soon discovered that polo was the "sport I'd been looking for all my life."
Joseph relished the challenge of controlling with one hand a 1,200-pound horse galloping at 25 m.p.h. while trying to hit a small ball with a mallet in his other hand. The sport required the kind of skill and concentration he had enjoyed while playing baseball in his youth.
Today, Joseph, 31, is a self-described "polo fanatic." He has five polo ponies valued at $30,000 and spends $18,000 a year on their upkeep. With two friends, Joseph has bought a $20,000 truck and $10,000 trailer to haul the horses to polo tournaments throughout Southern California.
Joseph is among the scores of upwardly mobile young professionals in Orange County who have taken up polo in the '80s.
No one knows exactly how many in the county have traded in their tennis racquets and ski poles for polo mallets. But at Anaco Ranch alone, 65 students are paying $35 an hour for lessons, said Jeff Moss, 31, the facility's polo pro.
After a 21-year absence, polo returned to Orange County in 1984 with the founding of the Winston Polo Club at Anaco Ranch. The South Coast Polo Club sprang up last year and plays at several different fields.
The county's third club will be launched next month when Sycamore Polo Club holds its first tournament at Sycamore Trails Stables in San Juan Capistrano, said organizer Susan Bollinger, 38, a Laguna Beach businesswoman.
"It used to be that every now and then a polo player would come in for riding equipment, and I'd have to order it," recalled Ray Rasmussen, who since 1966 has operated Rasmussen's Saddleback Saddlery, a Tustin horse equipment store.
But with so many people taking up the sport, Rasmussen two years ago began to stock polo equipment.
The new converts to polo are not the snobbish, old-money types who have dominated the game in the past, said South Coast Polo Club organizer Aurora Dawn Harris, 32, a Newport Beach attorney. They are also playing a new form of polo--"arena polo."
"It's something the working man can play," Rasmussen said, about the scaled-down version of traditional outdoor polo. "You can rent horses and equipment, and you can take lessons to play." That is how he got started in the sport two years ago.
Arena polo is played on a field that's 100 yards long (the same as football), 50 feet wide and bordered by 4-foot-high fences or concrete walls, explained Dr. Richard Foxx, 47, a Newport Beach gynecologist and avid player who serves as Polo magazine's West Coast correspondent. It can be played indoors or outdoors.
In contrast, traditional outdoor polo is played on a field 300 yards long and 200 yards wide. Spectators need binoculars to follow the action, Foxx said.
Arena polo has three horsemen on each team, rather than the four-person teams that play outdoor polo, Foxx said. Arena polo consists of four periods, or "chukkers," each lasting 7 1/2 minutes, rather than the six chukkers played in outdoor polo.
The object of both variations of the game, Foxx said, is to move a 10-ounce ball downfield and across the goal line by hitting it with mallets while riding spirited ponies. Arena polo uses a softball-size rubber ball, while outdoor polo uses a wooden one.
Riders must switch to fresh mounts after each chukker to keep from exhausting their horses. Because arena polo fields are smaller, a player needs only two or three horses rather than the eight to 10 horses needed to play outdoor polo, Foxx said.
Don Patch, captain of the South Coast Polo Club, who played polo in the county until the early '60s, said the reason polo disappeared is because the county's last outdoor polo field in Garden Grove was paved over in 1963 for an apartment complex.
"After that there weren't more than a handful of people who traveled outside the county to play, and I was one of 'em," said Patch, 56, the owner of a Fountain Valley dental supply company. He has been playing the sport for more than 40 years.
The excitement and popularity of arena polo was evident at the Orange County Fairgrounds last Friday afternoon during an exhibition game played by teams from Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura and San Diego counties.
The round-robin club tournament was won by the Tri Valley Polo Club of Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley, which scored 13 goals. Trailing close behind were two Orange County teams, Pimm's Battlin' Barristers, with 12 goals, and Rasmussen's Raiders with seven goals.
Several family teams played a couple of chukkers. Sporting blue Anderson Farm polo shirts, Robert Anderson, 45, of Orange Park Acres, and his two daughters, Shannon, 15, and Bobbie, 11, teamed up for play.
Bollinger, the organizer of the new Sycamore Polo Club, played on a team with her daughter, Kimberlee, 21, a Laguna Beach flight attendant, and Pam McCord, 34, a Newport Beach legal secretary.