Editor’s note: You might think that Nippertown’s man about town Andrzej Pilarczyk has his hands full going out to see, photograph and write about concerts almost every night – sometimes two or three concerts on the same night. Ah, but apparently that’s not the case. This summer, Andrzej also discovered the joys of polo…
Watching a polo match is kind of like seeing an amalgam of about six other sports. There’s the lightning-fast speed of basketball and soccer with the ball flying back and forth from one side of the field to the other. You have sticks to hit the ball, like in hockey with lots of physical pushing – including even the occasional body slam. There are elements of horse racing with ponies and riders streaking across the field to get to the ball first and bang it up field through the goal. And last but not least, polo even reminds you a little bit of croquette because of the size of the ball and the shape of the mallets used to bang it around.
The rules and regulations of the sport of polo are beyond the scope of this article, however the basics are fairly easy to understand for some one who is new to the sport or experiencing their first game.
At Saratoga Polo in Saratoga Springs you will usually see two teams facing off in six chukkers (seven-minute-and-30-second periods of play). There is usually a ten-minute break between chukkers, except after the third where a 30-minute break brings on the traditional audience participation of “divot stomping.” That’s when the small patches of grass that are torn up by the polo ponies are kicked and stomped back into place.
There are two referees on horseback who blow whistles on penalties or when a safety issue arises. Like in ice hockey, when a penalty is called the ball is placed at a distance in front of the goal. The fouled player trots up at full steam to power-hit the ball through the defenders to the goal or pass it on to another team mate.
After a goal is scored, the four players on each team exchange sides. To begin play, the ball is dropped between the teams in the center of the field. If the ball bounces out of play, a referees throws the ball into play where the ball went out of bounds. In each chukker, a single warning horn will announce the last 30 seconds of play and a double horn signals the end of the period.
Last but not least, each player has a rating determined by the U.S. Polo Association. The ratings of all four players are added together, and the team with the lower rating will start out the match with that difference on the scoreboard. One more thing – you sometimes have a mixed team of both men and women playing together.
As in most sports, an announcer delivers a play-by-play account of the action on the field. If you listen closely to Saratoga Polo’s long-time voice, Bob Bullock, you can get a handle on the game and the sport’s terminology in no time at all.
You enter Saratoga Polo from one of two gates. One gate – at $25 per person – takes you to the beautiful, air-conditioned clubhouse complete with a cash bar and a friendly wait-staff. A buffet table full of delicious food is available for one price or individual orders can be taken inside or outside the clubhouse.
“We try to make everyone feel comfortable,” says clubhouse manager, Amy Lavin. “We’ve ended the strict dress code of men having to wear a jacket or women having to wear a dress or a skirt. We also welcome kids and even allow people to bring their dogs – but they have to be attended to and always on a leash.”
The other gate is for the opposite side of the field where there is also a cash bar, bleachers, a few picnic tables and tons of tailgate parties. “At $25 per car, it’s a bargain and cheaper than most of SPAC’s lawn seats,” Lavin jokes. “And you can bring in your own food to have a picnic while watching the match. We have people who come every year and make a tradition of having a tailgate party with their friends and family.”
Saratoga Polo’s 2010 season came to an end last Sunday with the Saratoga Cup. Traditionally, this is a playoff game between three world-class teams playing three matches of three chukkers each. This time around the three-way battle was between the Shamrock team (led by John Walsh, host of “America’s Most Wanted”), the Palm Beach Exotics and Bloomfield.
After every game, Saratoga Polo’s co-owners Jim Rossi and Mike Bucci and a special guest preside over the ceremonial sabrage (the use of a sabre to uncork the Champagne), raising a toast to the sport and the winning team.
Saratoga Polo is overshadowed every summer by Saratoga’s horseracing madness and its high-stake purses, but from July through Labor Day, on any Wednesday (clubhouse is closed with only a general admission entry), Friday or Sunday, gates open at 4pm and matches begin at 5:30pm. You can get away from the insanity of the track and the bustling city to come enjoy a lovely afternoon of polo fun. Can’t wait til the 2011 season starts next July…
Story and photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk