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It's Mallets for Masses in 'Polo for Proletariat'

November 14, 1987|DARLENE SORDILLO | Times Staff Writer. Darlene Sordillo, an author of two books on horse training, covers equestrian sports for The Times

During the Great Gatsby heyday of polo, the president of DuPont was asked to buy a radio advertising spot on Sunday afternoons. "But who would hear it?" he asked. "Everyone plays polo on Sunday afternoons."

The polo faithful in Orange County are hoping to revive that Sunday tradition with an inaugural polo tournament Nov. 22 for the newly formed Beach Cities Polo Club. Based at Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center, the club is planning monthly tournaments and weekend scrimmages at the Huntington Beach facility.

Seeking to attract players from coastal cities between Seal Beach and Laguna Beach, the equestrian center this month opened a polo school that offers lessons for experienced players--and for those who have never held a polo mallet or even sat on a horse.

Among its members is Ryan Williams, 12, of San Juan Capistrano, who had been playing polo at another club for eight months. This week he was in the Beach Cities polo arena, swinging a mallet from atop a horse under the watchful eye of Don Patch, the center's polo director.

Patch took the boy's arm and showed him a more effective mallet technique, likening the swing to the stroke of a golf club. After a few practice swings with the horse at a halt, Patch tossed a ball into the middle of the arena and sent the rider in pursuit.

With the horse at a slow canter, the mallet connected with the ball. "No," Patch said. "You're on the wrong lead."

The student was puzzled. "Why does it matter? I hit the ball."

"The first reason is because I said so, and the second reason is because you'll hit the ball better if the horse is in balance. Try it again."

Ryan's sister, Jolene, 24, and brother, Bret, 26, also play polo. Jolene Williams grew up showing Western pleasure horses across the nation. When she returned from a competition last year to find her younger brother playing polo, she decided to give it a try.

A nurse who lives in Newport Beach, Williams dashes out from the Huntington Beach laboratory where she works to practice polo every day on her lunch break.

"They put a mallet in my hand, and I've been hooked ever since," she says. "Polo is the love of my life."

Patch remembers when the polo scene wasn't so receptive to newcomers. "You almost had to be born into the sport to play," he said. "If you didn't know how to ride, the polo clubs didn't have time for you."

A friend of his found that out the hard way. Years ago, the neophyte rider went to an established polo club that had 200 horses and asked the owner how he could learn to play. "Go ride every horse in my barn first, then come back and see me," he was told.

Such elitism has faded in polo, except at some of the exclusive old-guard clubs. At the newer clubs, ponies can be leased like BMWs, and all you need to play are a pair of jeans and boots. Everything else, from the saddle to the pony, is provided in the lesson fee.

Patch said such accommodations were a necessary adaptation for polo, a sport that once had a strong base in Orange County but almost became extinct through its own exclusivity.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Patch and nationally known polo player Allen Scherer played at the Valencia Polo Club in Garden Grove. But when the owner died in 1963, polo in Orange County died along with him. The polo fields were sold to a developer who built apartments there.

After a 20-year hiatus, when local players had to play at other California clubs, Patch and polo player Judith Baker decided to bring polo back to Orange County. They founded Winston Polo Club at her Anaheim stable and held the first game there in 1984.

Soon afterward another polo club, Sycamore, sprang up in San Juan Capistrano. A private club, it offers no lessons.

Baker, who will play in the tournament, runs an active polo school in Anaheim with lessons two evenings a week. "We've had students from every walk of life--lawyers, housewives, teachers-- you name it," she says.

Clearly, this "polo for the proletariat" has created a resurgence of the sport. When Patch first played in Garden Grove, there were only 800 players in the country. "There are probably that many in L.A. now," he says, adding that almost 20% of all rated polo players in the country belong to a California polo club.

The going rate for a polo lesson in Orange and Los Angeles counties averages $30 to $35 for an hour to 1 1/2-hour session. Patch cautions that the sport can become addictive: to play well, he says, a rider needs at least two lessons a week.

Polo is not the type of sport that can be pursued casually or sporadically. Hitting a 3 1/2-inch ball between two goal posts from atop a horse galloping at 40 m.p.h. requires precision--and a degree of kamikaze fearlessness that comes with practice.

Those who want to get a taste of the sport may watch next weekend's inaugural tournament, which has attracted teams from Orange, Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside and Ventura counties. The main game features some heavy-hitting California players in a women's vs. men's six-goal match.

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