POLO TIME: Games to watch, places to play
by Julie Reardon
Not long ago, polo was virtually non-existent in Northern Virginia, even in the horse country in Loudoun, Fauquier and surrounding counties. There were a few small clubs and private fields, but no place where the average person could go and watch a game and stomp a few divots between chukkars. In a region famous for horses and horse sports, it seemed a glaring omission. In the mid-1990s, Great Meadow introduced summer twilight arena games under the lights. Arena, or indoor polo as it’s also called, is very spectator friendly: it’s easier to follow the action since it’s played in an enclosed, smaller area, and fans can get closer to the action.
Field, or outdoor polo, pits two teams of four players each against each other on a grass field on about 10 acres, or three times the size of a football field. Arena teams are three players each, playing in a much smaller, enclosed area, making it easier to follow even if you’d never seen a game. Twilight polo was an immediate hit and a good fit for the area’s residents, who love any sport with horse and/or hound.
Friends invited friends, and the popularity spread quickly. For the players, the management and facility attracted nationally ranked tournaments and the best indoor players in the country to the Virginia countryside, ensuring top quality sport. Fans loved being close to the pounding hooves and resounding thwack of a mallet hitting a ball, the games featured plenty of fast paced action in a social setting. That many of the players were wealthy and/or professionals from different countries did not escape the notice of young singles and professionals from the metro area, who braved Friday rush hour on I66 to get to the games. Attendance swelled, tailgate picnic spots sold briskly and sponsors lined up; parties after the games allowed fans to meet and mingle with the players.
The indoor format attracted new players as well. While high goal field polo still attracts the top echelon of the sport, the area already had a ready supply of riders. Many were drawn to the sport starting out in the arena. Even novices could learn quickly enough to play in arena student leagues. And for many, the smaller arena meant the initial outlay for horseflesh, tack and equipment was less daunting—you didn’t need to be uber rich to play. Lesson programs and clubs sprang up around the area.
Polo’s burgeoning popularity led to more options for spectators as well as players. Private clubs proliferated with many new fields and lesson options in Loudoun and Fauquier counties. For the fans, Great Meadow remains the biggest club, holding twilight games most Saturdays in summer beginning in May, but the admission, now $40, put it out of reach of many locals. In an attempt to broaden its appeal, the series switched emphasis from young professionals and singles to families. But according to some fans, Great Meadow’s series now feels more like day care as meet the players parties and wine tastings gave way to moon bounces and face painting. “Don’t get me wrong, people have always brought their kids to the games,” explained one. “But now, it’s so expensive I think one set of parents packs 8 or 10 kids into the minivan and they all get turned loose when they get there.”
The child-centric flavor has extended into the games, as well. “The polo there has changed in the past few years,” said another fan, a former season pass holder at Great Meadow for over 15 years. “It’s all students and kids, at a walk, swinging and missing the ball. I guess, if you don’t watch the actual games, you don’t notice. But we went to watch good polo.” The addition of more clubs has meant more players, more games and more competition for the area’s elite players, so there are plenty of options to suit any taste.
One venue that’s been getting rave reviews from fans and locals is Banbury Cross Polo in Middleburg. Ideally located east of town just 38 miles from Washington D.C., Banbury Cross has both evening and field games open to the public. Friday arena games under the lights, and Sunday afternoon field games, have a variety of admission options available beginning at $10. There are five different polo fields plus the arena and a club pavilion. Social memberships can be purchased for a month or a season and include admission to the Friday evening arena games, Sunday field games or both, plus admission to other club events. Friday games start at 6 pm, Sunday afternoon field games at 3 pm. Reserved tailgate and/or party spaces can be purchased for the season, for special events or for one event. This club makes a point of taking care of guests and making them feel welcome. Children and well behaved leashed dogs are welcomed. The spectacular grounds at Banbury Cross are available to rent for private parties, weddings and other events; they opened on May 21 for the season. For more information, visit www.BanburyCrossPoloClub.com for details.
On July 1st, a brand new venue will open to the public at Morven Park in Leesburg. This will be a Saturday evening arena series, dubbed “Polo in the Park”. Morven Park is the former estate of Gen. Westmoreland Davis, and boasts a mansion and 3 museums and an international equestrian center on over 1,000 lush, parklike acres right in Leesburg. The equestrian center holds events year round, everything from hunter/jumper shows, horse trials, pony club rallies, carriage driving and steeplechase races and starting this summer, polo. “Polo was a good fit,” said Juan Salinas-Bentley, who will run the program. He formerly managed Great Meadow’s polo club and was instrumental in building its popularity that first decade. Twilight games will be held Saturday nights beginning July 1 in a newly built facility designed for top quality sport. Plans are in the works to add field polo, but the inaugural series will be Saturday evening arena games throughout July and August, starting at 7 pm. At press time, admission and reserved space prices had not yet been firmed up, but we’ll provide them and a link next month. Meanwhile these games are listed on their calendar of events at www.MorvenPark.org.
If you’ve hankered to play, the area has several lesson programs where you can learn. The oldest and best known is Destination Polo, owned and run by Doug Barnes. He said this year, Destination is holding lessons at several locations: Morven Park in Leesburg, Banbury Cross in Middleburg, and at Beverly Farm in The Plains. Everything a budding player needs is included: horses, tack, all equipment, including protective headgear, and mallets. Destination Polo is well known for quality of horses and top notch instruction. “Even someone who’s never ridden, we teach them, get them on a horse and hitting a ball and we can have them playing games by the end of the summer,” he said. Competent riders, said Barnes, could be playing in just a few weeks. One of his teaching locations at Beverly Farms in The Plains is a full service equestrian center, and some of his students started because their wives already rode there. “Rather than waiting around while the wife rides her jumper, the husband learns to play polo and has a blast,” explained Barnes. To learn more, visit www.DestinationPolo.com or give Barnes a call on 540-229-7656; also www.BeverlyEquestrian.org
Other places to take private or group lessons: Chilean professional player German Noguera owns and operates Willow Run Polo School in The Plains, offering lessons for beginner to advanced. He also buys and sells polo ponies. He can be reached at admin@willowrunpolo or 540-454-3168; Willow Run also has a Facebook page. In Charles Town, W.Va., a little further out, Mountain View Polo offers polo lessons; visit their Facebook page or www.MountainViewPolo.com.