If you thought the tony game of polo was just for the Royals (or the stuffed shirts up in the Hamptons), guess again. The game is gaining surprising popularity among the middle class, in much the same fashion as golf over the past decade.
According to the United States Polo Association, polo may be the oldest team sport known to man. It was an Olympic sport in the 1930s and attracted crowds as large as 30,000 to matches at the famed Meadow Brook Polo Club on Long Island. There are currently 275 USPA clubs throughout America (a number that has tripled since the association's inception), that host nearly 4,000 players.
Because of our temperate climate, Sarasota boasts nine of the best polo field in the country, and hosts international players in tournaments throughout the year. (They even award prizes to the best "tail-gate" parties prior to matches.) People are responding to the excitement and athleticism of the game, and at Lakewood Ranch, where the matches are held locally, spectators can bring their own picnic lunches or enjoy concessions from the courtside deli.
Like most sports, polo has its own rules and language. It's played on a 10-acre grass field large enough to encompass 10 football fields. Goal posts are eight yards apart on both ends, and players score by hitting the ball through the goals. Teams are made up of four players, who swat a plastic 4-ounce ball with bamboo and hardwood mallets.
This takes a toll on the field, so at half-time, spectators are encouraged to go onto the field and stomp the ground back into place (a polo tradition called divot stomping).
Each match us made up of six periods (chukkers) that last seven minutes. Polo ponies are often female, have race track experience and can sprint, stop and turn on a dime, practically. Because of the extreme athletic demands, they're rotated throughout the match.
Here are a few more terms to learn before you set off to your first polo match:
Handicap - rating of polo skills that are awarded by the USPA. They range from minus 2 (the worse) to 10 (the best).
Hook - a defensive maneuver to deflect the ball with a mallet.
Throw in - when the ball is thrown into the field at the start of the game, after each goal, and whenever the ball goes out of bounds.