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Rough Riders : Polo Is Dangerous, Fast, Expensive, Addictive--and the Players Love It

November 17, 1989|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

It sounds--abstractly, at least--like a prescription for utter chaos:

A pack of six or eight mostly fearless riders doggedly spurring their fast, agile mounts inside a ring at ferocious gallops, windmilling away at a bouncing ball with what look like elongated 3-woods. Horses frothing, nostrils flaring, sweat flying everywhere.

But, say those enthusiasts who spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars pursuing what they call this most addictive of sports, polo is a fine madness.

These days, you can find a good number of them nearly every Sunday crashing around in an outdoor arena at the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center in Huntington Beach, where the sport is trying to stage its Orange County comeback.

It is there that riders have begun to come to either try their hand or improve their skills at one of the world's oldest and most patrician of pastimes.

After a checkered history in the county--a handful of polo clubs, facilities and schools have come and gone in recent years--the sport is beginning to enjoy a renewed, though still relatively small, following among the area's aficionados.

The newest focus is the Beach Cities Polo Club, headquartered at the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center. The club, which is next to Huntington Central Park on Golden West Street, is presided over by veteran player Don Patch. There, said Patch, about 35 students and experienced players regularly mount up for scrimmages, lessons and matches at the facility's polo arena (there is a second facility in the county, at San Juan Capistrano's Sycamore Trails Stables, that offers polo lessons and occasional scrimmages on a smaller scale).

Also, Patch said, by January, matches at the center will probably be played three nights a week--Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday--in a newly built outdoor arena complete with lights and a 20-foot berm outside the rails for spectators.

"The new arena's going to make the difference," said Patch, 59. "I think there's a resurgence already occurring. The problem with Orange County in the past is there's been no place for this to happen. But now there are so many people in Orange County who are at a certain age with a certain income who are realizing that they can do something like this."

One of them is Jim Walker, 44, who owns Pasta Mesa restaurant in Costa Mesa. Walker, who has been riding horses since he was a child, recently began taking polo lessons at Sycamore Trails and played his first game at the Beach Cities Polo Club's arena on a recent Sunday.

"It was something I've always wanted to do," Walker said. "I loved it. Actually, it was more of a contact sport than I anticipated. Also, there are some things that are legal that I didn't think would be, like being able to hook your opponent's mallet. On the surface, it's supposed to be a gentleman's game, but it can be rough and you've got to be able to bounce back."

In its original incarnation, the game was a lot rougher. The most ancient equestrian sport, polo was first played in Persia (now Iran) sometime between the 6th Century BC and AD 100, usually as a training game for cavalry units.

"There were 600 guys on one side of a big field with sticks and 600 facing them on the other side with sticks," Patch said. "They just charged at each other and anything went in order to get the ball through the goal."

The game gradually spread to China and India, where it first began to be played by British tea planters in 1859. Polo was introduced to the United States in 1876 by the sportsman and newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett, and 14 years later the organization that would become the United States Polo Assn. was founded and standardized the rules of play.

The rules are relatively simple: The object of the game is to drive the ball into the goal without doing anything to endanger yourself or other players. This generally means not cutting across anyone's line of play and risking a collision. However, it is legal to "ride off" an opponent by leaning your horse into his and forcing him away from the ball. And, as Walker discovered, a defender approaching from behind can reach out with his mallet and "hook" his opponent's mallet as it is being swung at the ball.

The most common form of polo is played on an outdoor grass field 300 yards long and 160 yards wide, and there are four players to a side. The ball is about the size of a baseball and is made of hard plastic or wood. This form of the game can be hair-raisingly fast (horses can reach speeds of up to 35 m.p.h., with closing speeds of 70 m.p.h. if a defender is riding toward the ball in an opposite direction), shots can be wickedly sharp and bone-rattling falls are not uncommon.

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