As a polo newbie, I was fascinated to learn more about the Polo America polo matches held on the beach in front of the Hotel del Coronado September 7 through 9. On Friday evening, it was a VIP cocktail affair with 200 guests dressed in the casually elegant theme of board shorts and tuxedos. It was definitely reminiscent of the movie Pretty Woman, especially with the event sponsors Porsche San Diego, Silver Seas Yachts, Grayse by Kelly and Marie Gray, and Brady’s Menswear.
It started off with an impressive patriotic skydiving entrance by Ron Lee of Skydiving Innovations. As we watched high above us in the sky, the announcer said, “When you see smoke leave the aircraft, he’s in free fall.” Making a grand entrance with an American flag, it was Ron’s third jump of the day, bringing his total lifetime jumps to 5,401.
Arshia Rios, a polo player herself from Polo America, was our guide so she could anticipate moves as we were near the field. She pointed out that the polo players were easy to spot in white jeans, and, “You will find it’s an approachable sport where everyone is friendly.”
Now to the nitty gritty of the game. After the announcer constantly called “la pelota,” I clued in that he was talking about the ball. I quickly discovered that Spanish is the unofficial language of polo and that the sport is co-ed with three players on each team. We were impressed with Melissa Ganzi, who scored the most goals during the time we watched. The sand field is about 150 yards x 50 yards, which is smaller than an arena field and a football field.
I had no clue what the announcer meant when he said things like “wicked back shot off the offside” and “in the air goal,” but here are some quick pointers that will help those new to the game semi-grasp what is going on during the match. There are four chukkers (periods) of seven minutes each, with time outs for fouls. The right hand side of a horse is called the offside (this player always has the right of way), and the left hand side is called the nearside. The jersey numbers reflect the area on the field for which the player is generally responsible. Players are allowed to “hook” their mallet with another’s to block the other during his or her swing. And a “ride-off” involves players safely pushing their horse laterally into the side of their opponent’s horse, in order to take that player off the line.
Kirsten Ludwig, an instructor with the California Polo Club, told me that polo can be likened to hockey, because it takes mastering two skills, both the horse and the mallet. She also mentioned that the 30 ponies brought here for these matches are the Ganzi family’s, and they are amazing horses, which is especially important when you note that ponies are considered 70 percent of the game. Players cherish good ponies and consider their welfare of the utmost importance. She pointed out that they use thoroughbreds for the matches, preferably Argentine or American. When I asked about the braids on the horses’ tails, I discovered it’s done for safety, and that the each groom takes care of three to four horses and does everything for them. The size of beach and arena ponies is generally about 15 hands high, smaller than those for outdoor matches.
After two chukkers, halfway through the match, a tractor pulling logs smoothed the field, and then Roxanne Beal, the chukker girl from Porsche San Diego, circled the field.
The Hotel del has a history of polo that dates back nearly one hundred years to 1920 when Charlie Chaplin played polo there. The tradition returned when the Hotel del brought polo back three years ago with Polo America putting on the event.
All Photos: Flavio Velez