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Arena Polo Gallops to a Successful Close Tonight

December 05, 1987|DENISE ABBOTT | Abbott is a Los Angeles-based writer/editor.

Who needs Malibu or the Polo Lounge? The Los Angeles Equestrian Center's turnout of stars during pro polo season rivals theirs any Saturday night. Dressed in everything from full-length furs and leather suits to designer sweats and cowboy boots, hundreds of fans converge on the indoor Equidome to watch top-ranked polo players combat with mallets and galloping half-ton ponies.

Celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone, William Devane, Bruce Boxleitner and Juice Newton even have season boxes on the arena's edge.

Tonight, the Los Angeles Colts will take on the Houston Longhorns in a championship match, the final of the fall season. It's expected to draw an SRO crowd of 5,000 at the Burbank arena. The Colts, with top-ranking pros like Tom Goodspeed, Joe (Smokin') Henderson and Ronnie Tonng, won the American Polo League championship for the first time last spring. Tonight, they'll fight to retain the title as well as the coveted Cadillac Cup.

Adding to the excitement of the season finale is a preliminary celebrity match with a lineup that includes Doug Sheehan, Mickey Dolenz, Dorrie Sortsmann and Jameson Parker. The pregame celebrity match begins at 7 p.m followed by the pros at 8:15 p.m. Open terrace seating is $7.50; reserved terrace seating, $12.50; box seating, $20.

"No question it's going to be a tough game," said L.A. Equestrian Center President Al Garcia, who masterminded the concept of arena polo as a spectator sport. "Houston beat the Colts last time out, and the Colts will be coming back with a vengeance."

Regardless of tonight's outcome, arena polo's popularity is spiraling. Paid attendance at the Equestrian Center has doubled in the past two years; even non-sports enthusiasts respond to polo.

"Spectators are drawn to polo for various reasons," said Goodspeed, captain of the L.A. Colts and director of the Equestrian Center's polo school. "It appeals naturally to sports fans, but it also draws people who simply love to watch the horses. Some come for the social scene and to mingle with celebrities. Whatever their reason for coming, people get hooked by the excitement of the game."

"It's almost impossible not to get involved, because you're sitting so close to the action," Garcia added. "You hear the grunts of the players, the horses banging together, and the leather groaning."

Some rank the danger of polo with race-car driving, and that seems to be part of its appeal. Players agree that polo enthusiasts look for thrills not found in any other contact sport.

"Playing polo is like going back in time to the days when you charged into battle with your lance and armor," according to actor Alex Cord, who's been playing polo for the past four years. "You've got to ride like a Commanche, hit a ball single-handedly with the accuracy of Arnold Palmer and think like a chess player in a fraction of a second. All the while, three other players are trying to bash your kneecaps. That's polo's charm."

"Simon and Simon" star Jameson Parker has a similar affinity for the game.

Flash Before Your Eyes

"Nothing beats having your life flash before your eyes when a horse traveling 30 miles an hour starts to go down beneath you," he said.

For those who prefer to get their kicks by watching from a distance, there are some game fundamentals: Arena polo is like hockey, only it's played on horseback.

Players make goals by hitting the ball between two goal posts, scoring one point.

Arena polo uses three horses and riders per team, and action is confined to an area the size of a football field (traditional outdoor polo covers an area nine times larger).

There are six five-minute chukkers (playing periods) in a game. (The amateur celebrity version has only four chukkers, but each of those lasts 7 1/2 minutes.)

Handicapping works this way: Players are goal rated from 1 to 10. The rating system for men and women is identical, and both sexes can play on the same team. To play in an American league pro game, players must have a goal rating of at least 5. There are no women in this league, because, so far, no woman has achieved a rating higher than 3. Goodspeed feels this will definitely change within the next five or six years, because women are actually very new to the game. Most celebrities' ratings are in a range of 0 to 2.

Increase in Ratings

The goal rating of each player is based on hitting, riding, anticipation, strategy and team play. An increase in rating must be sanctioned by rules of the U.S. Polo Assn.

Spectators are advised to focus on the game and be alert for fly balls. Umpires watch for violent contact and dangerous riding. For example, if a player crosses the line of the ball an opponent is following, his team will be penalized and the fouled side is given a free shot at the goal.

Those who want to turn a polo evening into an event might enjoy starting with a buffet dinner ($21.95) at the center's Riding and Polo Club. Admission to the polo match is extra: $7.50 up, depending on seat location.

Horses, the center's other restaurant, offers a beef roast or chicken buffet dinner, general admission to the game and after-polo disco dancing for $20. A box seat for the game, buffet and dancing are yours for $30. Only persons 21 and older are admitted to the disco.

"More and more polo is crossing demographic lines," Goodspeed concluded. "It used to be the sport of kings, but we're turning it into a commercial sporting event for all Americans."

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