GETTING ON THE FIELD
By W. Knox Richardson
You can be born into it, like royalty. Or maybe you just like horses. It can run in the blood of your family for generations. Or at age 50 you may find yourself with an extra few hundred thousand dollars laying around, and you think you might — you just might — like to learn to play polo, mostly because golf is just so passé.
Lee Mullins was born into polo, like royalty. Big Island native Mullins plays with the 23-year-old Honolulu Polo Club on sultry summer Sunday afternoons at the Waimanalo Polo Grounds. Lee’s father, fabled Hawaii polo rider Tony Mullins, introduced Lee into the sport at age five and by age 10, young Mullins are already competing well beyond his experience level.
“You mix it up at levels in most matches,” Mullins said. “There just aren’t that many good players around.”
Now a player of note in his late 20s, Mullins is one the few young quality polo players on Oahu. Polo isn’t exactly dying here, but it is not growing much either. There are enough horses and riders to make a match, but teams aren’t set and players freely play for most any team where they are needed for that day’s game.
Getting into the game isn’t easy, though you don’t need to be rich, per se. Just knowing how to ride is often enough.
Tiare Paty comes from a horse family, too, but polo skipped a generation there. It was her grandfather, a player from the 1970s, who got her into watching games. Paty said it helps to know someone with access to the sport. As a young adult she began as a groom, providing extra hands when horse owners needed them and in return she was taught the sport and has been playing now for several years.
“I had no concept of what polo was all about,” she said. Although growing up around horses, polo was so alien she had to learn from scratch as she rode. “It was kind of sink or swim,” Paty said, referring to the challenge of playing competitively with much stronger players while still learning.
Being a bona fide horse person is a huge advantage over learning both polo and riding simultaneously, although that does happen. Many local players learned the game and riding together, often at an informal local polo academy located on the North Shore of Oahu.
Teams try to match talent levels to have a fair game, but all too often neophyte players are paired against more experienced riders.
Another way to enter the sport is via a more traditional route of riding for a college-level team. Unfortunately, you need to go the mainland to find one, and then probably the east coast.
That’s what Jovanna Giannasio did. After leaving Hawaii for college several years back, she joined the polo team from Skidmore College, a four-year liberal arts school located in upstate New York.
Though already an accomplished horseperson like Paty, Giannasio knew little about polo when she took it up. At one of the few schools with a girl’s team (playing against such schools as Yale and Cornell), Giannasio quickly developed into a solid competitor and now, several years after graduation, competes regularly but still grooms for owners Bob Miller and Allan Hoe.
Historically, a game for kings and their royal courts, polo is now more for everyday people. Much like recreational aviation or serious sailing, it does take some affluence to obtain, care and provide for a string of polo ponies. Some owners laugh, though, when you suggest they’re “rich.”
Many polo horses, called ponies, are actually thoroughbreds and need to be run and played, if only for their fitness and well being. Due to the lack of qualified riders, many horse owners freely offer polo mounts to those riders who don’t own their own horses.
Polo player Paty rides four borrowed mounts during a match, while Mullins rides one horse he owns and is lent the rest.
“These horses are athletes themselves, they know where they are and can’t wait to mix it up,” said Giannasio. “It’s 80 percent horse and 20 percent rider.”
Experienced horses, too, are in short supply. Some are imported from South America, while a few come from New Zealand and the mainland.
The lack of both riders and horses is more a function of local geography than anything else. The limited environs available for both residences and horse ownership limits the appeal of Hawaii for many who want keep horses at their homes.
“This is tough for us. There is such a limited horse community here,” said Alice Lombardo, a long-time member of the club and responsible for the club’s more social activities. Lombardo, a Honolulu real estate broker, noted that land on Oahu for raising horses and playing polo is so limited that everyone already involved with horses pretty much know each other and their interests already.
Still the polo club is always looking for experienced horse people, even if they’ve never competed.
GETTING OFF THE FIELD
“You don’t have to play to love the game,” club literature says, “If you admire excellence, if the pursuit of perfection gives you a special tingle, polo is right up your alley.”
As a spectator, the sport offers a game somewhat like soccer, only with a ball the size of a softball that you strike with a six-foot-long mallet from atop a galloping horse going 35 miles an hour. Other than that, the game is played on a huge field, three times the length and three times as wide as an American football field. If you can follow soccer, hockey, or even basketball, you can follow polo scoring, at least.
Polo action is mostly continuous, again like soccer. Games last for four-to-six seven minutes periods, or chuckers. Four riders per team change horses for each chucker using up to 16 horses per team, 32 different horses per match.
Observers have one responsibility during the half-time intermission between the second and third chuckers – divot stomping. Visitors are encouraged to make their way onto the field and search out dislodged clumps of grass unearthed by the sudden stops and starts of the horses. Fans are expected to stomp these divots back into the ground.
While t-shirts, shorts and slippers are perfectly acceptable dress, many patrons follow the tradition of wearing their absolutely finest “Ascot Park” dresses and suits, along with hats of all manner and style. Tuxedos are optional since you will be welcomed with aloha and invited to participate with others, including the fancy-fancy people, whether you come dressed for style or comfort.
At Waimanalo Polo Grounds, casual visitors may come early and can plan to stay late. Sunday gates open at 1 p.m. for a 2:30 p.m. game.
Once in Waimanalo, turn into the grounds entrance immediately across from the McDonald’s Restaurant on Kalanianaole Highway near Patrick Ching’s Natural Hawaiian gallery with the life-size fiberglass horse atop the building.
Once on the grounds, you drive the width of the playing field alongside the edge to a grassy parking area down the length of the sidelines. You can park and enjoy the game with unobstructed views right from your car.
Picnicking, tailgating, bar-b-que, ice chests, coolers and even adult beverages are permitted, as are folding chairs and sunshades. Exit gates don’t close until around 7 p.m. so the whole family can make a day of it. Tickets are just $3 a head, under 12 free. Military with ID are always welcome without charge.
There is free polo literature at the snack bar in the grand stand. Ask for “How to Watch a Polo Match.” It will engage any thoughtful spectator who wants to know more about polo than just witnessing superior horsemanship and quality of play that the Honolulu Polo Club affords the public.
Polo social wonk Lombard encourages all residents and even visitors to join them any summer Sunday afternoon. “Bring your family and friends and enjoy one of greatest spectacles ever.
A financial professional who works in an downtown office building, polo player Paty relishes the days she can spend practicing and playing. “It’s good to get out of town,” she said, acknowledging the beautiful park-like polo grounds on the Windward side of Oahu.
As much a game to watch as play, getting into the social sport of polo is easier than jumping on horseback and joining the fray on the field.
“It is not all fun and games – there is serious drinking involved,” said a young, military social guest in the club’s grandstand. (He respectfully declined to identify himself on this particular Sunday afternoon, sir.)
In the stands and off the field, the consumption of adult beverages (in moderation) is permitted, if not encouraged, and is most often well-chilled champagne, but flavored martinis have been spotted from time to time. BYOB.
Even if you don’t know a soul or one end of a horse from the other, you can enjoy a polo match at Waimanalo. You don’t need anything but some lotion, a blanket and maybe a beach chair and umbrella for shade.
Some binoculars might be nice, along with some cold schnapps. By the end of the polo match, with the sun at your back, your Sunday afternoon will be fully engaging, one way or another.
The first time you come, you’ll have a great time. Even better the next. For more information, visit http://www.honolulupolo.com.
2008 Polo Season
Matches start at 2:30 / Gates open 1:00
Oahu’s windward side in beautiful Waimanalo
at the base of the spectacular Ko’olau Mountain Range. Field is on Kalanianaole Highway across from Bellows Beach.
Entrance is across from McDonald’s
$3.00 for adults / 12 and under are free
Military ID enter for free as honored guests.
Posted by Knox at 04:32 PM.