To paraphrase Rakim: It’s been a long time. I shouldn’t left you without a strong piece to read through; think of how many weak columns you slept through, times up and sorry I kept you. It’s finally summer in the ocean state and along with the usual controversies that keep the local fish wrap in business (Pawsox, pollen tsunamis, bus drivers who can’t stop hitting pedestrians …) we finally get to enjoy the activities we suffer through polar vortices to experience.
When I was a kid growing up in the rough streets of the 02864, my mother would take my siblings and me down to Ann and Hope to make sure we had clothes for back to school, beginning of summer and any other reasons kids needed clothes. We hated every single second of it, as we felt every single second of our youth was better spent not shopping for anything, let alone inside the Ann and Hope, which was a precursor to Walmart, except dirtier and with far less “Duck Dynasty” merchandise. On one fateful trip she bought me a royal blue collared short-sleeved shirt with a red man on a horse. I immediately felt that this is the only shirt I needed and decided that it would be the all-important school photo shirt, the shirt you wear that dictates how you’re perceived by all your classmates basically for all eternity.
My mom was happy with the selection and told me that it was a polo shirt created by an arbiter of American style and sophistication named Ralph Lauren. I guess it never occurred to me to question why the label said “Knights of the Round Table” and why the red man on the horse was holding a flag and not a polo mallet. I am not sure if it’s despite my bootleg introduction or because of it that I became a devotee of Ralph and the world he created. I even started going to polo matches, as some of the best in the country are held in Portsmouth.
Some of my friends ask me what its like, if it’s hard to follow or if it’s really snobby. I tell them it’s basically a really fun tailgate or picnic with horses in the background. If you can follow the intricate rules of football or baseball, polo is a cinch. And at $12 a ticket, the crowd ranges from your basic 1%er to the family of four looking for a fun way to spend a Saturday evening. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on Red Sox and Patriots tickets and been cussed at, drenched in someone else’s beer and missed being puked on by inches. At polo I was once asked if I could spare some room in my cooler for a neighbor’s rose’.
That is not to say that the games themselves aren’t intense and compelling. They are. You have thousand pound thoroughbreds carrying fit men and women at bursts of high speeds, stopping on a dime and trying to hit a little white ball with a mallet. It takes teamwork between man and horse and between teammates, and more than a little concentration and coordination. Like the “showtime” Los Angeles Lakers of the ’80s, great polo players anticipate the action and find their way to the perfect spot on the pitch to receive a pass or score a goal. And when a horse and player play together enough, there is something artful or poetic because the stallion will know where to go and how fast with just a subtle nudge from the rider.
So it’s a fun, family-friendly and inexpensive way to experience a posh sport and you can follow intensely or simply relax and enjoy the company of the other spectators. Other than my relationship with Ralph Lauren and watching the action on Saturdays in Portsmouth over a couple gasses of prosecco, I didn’t know much about how one actually played polo. That is, until I took a lesson.
Agnes Keating, who seems to do it all for Newport Polo (I have spoken with her on separate completely unrelated occasions to buy tickets, bring in a group, get directions to the match, and now lessons) asked if I would like to take a lesson for the purpose of this article. Trying to prove that gonzo journalism didn’t die with Hunter, I quickly said yes, old sport. When I got to the stable of horses, I expected a handful of rented mules, but just looking at these majestic animals I realized I was going to be jumping in the water at the deep end.
My class consisted of the instructor, Dan, and three other young men who were motivated to learn the sport by a classic cocktail of athletic challenges and the chance to meet women. All of the men were in their mid 20s to early 30s by the look of them, and they were all very nice. Not a silver spoon, it seemed, amongst the lot of them. Dan was right out of central casting as far as polo instructors go. He was blond, ruggedly handsome and had an easy way about him. He was very good at sensing, almost instinctively, when one of us was a little hesitant and took the time to give us instruction without seeming coddling. He clearly loves the horses and the sport, and that shone through in all his instruction.
My horse’s name was Romeo. He was once a wild stallion and a ladies man, but time got the best of him and now he is working with the likes of me on the polo fields. I climbed in the mount, leaned down to pat his giant shoulders and whispered, “I know exactly how you feel, my friend.” Romeo knew more about the sport than I did, and he was an asset because he seemed to know what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be before I did. More than that, he stopped me from making more mistakes.
Polo, it turns out, is pretty simple when it comes down to it. You have to score more goals than your opponent. You can strike the ball on either side of your mount, but you have to hold the mallet in your right hand at all times. There is also a right of way rule that ensures the safety of all involved, both man and horse. It only took a short time to learn to play, but to become a skilled player you need to practice, man (or woman), practice. I loved every moment of my lesson, from the short re-introduction to riding a horse to the actual scrimmage at the end of the instruction. I even scored a goal!
Polo is the oldest team sport on the planet. As a spectator sport it offers something for everyone: competition, beautiful horses, a beautiful outdoor space and food and drink in the company of fun people. As a player it offers challenges both physical and mental and the dynamic of a team within a team. Whether you choose to take lessons or experience the fun as a fan, I strongly encourage you to make it down to Glen Park this summer. I’ll see you there!