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POLO TO THE PEOPLE : In Southern California, a Once-Exclusive Sport Is De-Gentrified

June 21, 1987|SUSAN PRICE

"IF YOU'VE GOT $150,a pair of jeans and some cowboy boots, you too can be a polo player." When Patrick Nesbitt heard these words from a business associate two years ago, it was his first clue that the sport of royalty had trickled down to the bourgeoisie. Now Nesbitt has become one of the novice players who are de-gentrifying the sport and bringing a polo boom to Southern California.

Though his colleague may have downplayed the cost of the sport a bit, it's true that the new polo enthusiast is more apt to be like Nesbitt--a Los Angeles real estate developer born in Detroit's inner city--than an Argentine land baron. What's more, about half of the new players are women. Today people who have never been on a horse before are taking lessons, ponies are leased like BMWs, and new facilities are opening all over in Southern California.

The mecca of the new polo is the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, which opened in 1982. President Al Garcia says his concept was to attract spectators with exhibition matches by teams of the American Polo League, then to open a polo school where they could learn the game. Soon the Los Angeles Colts, with such top-ranking pros as Tom Goodspeed, Joe Henderson and Ronnie Tongg, were taking on visiting teams in Saturday-night matches that have made the Equidome arena and its adjacent disco, Horses, the hottest weekend scene in the San Fernando Valley.

Twenty-two pro polo games are played at the center during the fall and spring seasons (the spring season ends in early July). Crowds of 2,500 spectators, from celebrities to blue-collar workers, converge on the arena in a far cry from the civilized blue-blazer-and-straw-hat tradition. At Horses, spectators can enjoy apres-polo dancing till 1 a.m. Such celebrities as Sylvester Stallone, William Devane and Juice Newton have boxes in the arena, and when Newton married Goodspeed, they held their reception at the center's Riding and Polo Club. The Equidome scene has proved that anyone can watch polo, but the Los Angele Equestrian Center proves that you don't have to be fabulously rich to play . The center's polo school opened four years ago and was the first place in Los Angeles where a beginner could learn the fundamentals by investing $150 for five lessons on a polo pony and the use of a mallet and helmet. The center now gives 2,000 lessons a month.

On a sunny morning the polo barns are a bustling scene. Instructors introduce beginners to their ponies, then the students lead the ponies to an outdoor ring and mount up. Polo mallets are placed in the newcomers' hands, and their riding skills are evaluated as the horses walk and trot. No one here today is more than a passable rider. The students are taught how to ride in a circle, shown the four basic shots and asked to practice one of them at a walk. One novice, a tax attorney in his 40s, says he first started learning four years ago but stopped when his job interfered. "Now I see my friends dropping around me, and I figure I owe it to myself to have some fun," he says.

Finding time to practice does not come easily to the new, workaday, polo player. Surgeon Madison Richardson says he solved the problem by setting up a "polo pit" in his Hancock Park backyard, where he can sit on a wooden horse and hit shots into a backboard.

"Since the only time I had to do it was when I got home around 10 at night, I don't think the neighbors were exactly delighted," he says.

At the end of the first class, the instructor advises that the students enroll in equitation classes to supplement their training. It will take at least six months of lessons, a written test and a riding exam for students to become certified for club play--the first rung on the polo ladder. Later, over a beer at the Polo Club, Dan Cohen, a Rodeo Drive art-gallery manager who has been taking lessons for a year, says: "This place is run like a business, not like a private club, and that's one of the things that has made polo so accessible to everyone."

The Los Angeles Equestrian Center offers only "arena polo," which is played in a 50-by-100-yard dirt ring, one-third the size of the grassy outdoor field with which most people are familiar. Arena polo has four game periods (called chukkers ) of seven minutes each instead of the six periods in outdoor polo, and three players per team instead of four. In arena polo, players can get by with two horses--one if they alternate play with a teammate who also has one horse. That's because with a rest, a horse can play two chukkers, but not three.

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