Polo: Invigorating a Florida Staple

It’s Sunday at a Florida polo field and hooves click through perfectly manicured grass. Riders swing mallets with seemingly effortless athleticism, spectators raise mimosas in toast and the “sport of kings” takes on another moniker: Sunshine State favorite, for some.

With this year’s debut of  “The Gauntlet of Polo” and other engagements, polo is both invigorating the spectator experience and having significant economic impact.

“This was our first year offering the Gauntlet in which a team that wins the three signature events is awarded a $1 million prize purse,” says David Cummings, president and CEO of Global Polo Entertainment. “It was an amazing event that sparked interest in the sport.”

A “triple crown,” of sorts, that requires a trifecta of wins for victory. The Gauntlet could conceivably go years without a recipient. But one was crowned in April—in its first year—when the team Pilot won the U.S. Open Polo Championship, as well as at the two other Gauntlet events, the C.V. Whitney Cup and the USPA Gold Cup. The tournaments were held in Palm Beach County and hosted fans, players and horses from around the world.

“In Renaissance times, ‘throwing down the gauntlet’ was a term to represent a formal challenge,” Cummings says. “Millions of people worldwide watched that challenge play out on-air and online.”

The Gauntlet story also represents the trend of polo welcoming female players. (Mia Gray, a female Pilot athlete, competed during the event.) Though polo historically is dominated by men, women continue to join the ranks of major teams. A high-level example is Maureen Brennan, a player who serves as USPA governor at large, and high goal committee chairman.

This pivot from all-male squads is likely to continue as Cummings’ vision comes to fruition. Looking to the next generation, he hopes  to provide more opportunities for more people to get involved. Polo spectatorship is accessible to the general public and increased consumer education is giving fans a deeper appreciation for the game.

It’s no secret that Floridians already love horses. Here, the equine industry is a vital economic force that contributes more than $3.6 billion to the state economy. It sparks the creation of more than 73,000 jobs. The American Horse Council Foundation reports that when the ripple effect of the horse industry is considered, the impact rises to $6.8 billion.

The popularity comes as no surprise to Cummings who began playing polo 30 years ago and went on to build a robust licensing program throughout the years, to benefit the sport. Whether people own horses, spectate or just appreciate them, he hopes they’ll go one step further: head out to the polo fields to experience intense competition.

“There’s more to come,” he says about the push toward more audience interaction in the form of social media and other platforms. “Our continued success is not rooted in yesterday, but in the future.”

Besides The Gauntlet and the horse-centered village of Wellington, in Palm Beach County, Tampa Bay area residents are just over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge from the Sarasota Polo Club, which itself experienced a record-breaking 2019 season. Polo season typically runs December through April to take advantage of Florida’s best weather. For 22 weeks in 2019, Sarasota Polo welcomed some 45,000 fans, players and pros to their club.

It was a season of improvements and change with new ownership, a highlight. James and Misdee Miller acquired the club in June 2018. James is an accomplished polo player and Misdee, the great-granddaughter of Chicago chewing gum magnet William Wrigley Jr., is an accomplished horsewoman. She won the U.S. Equestrian Team’s four-in-hand team gold medal at the World Equestrian Games.

New ownership has completed extensive improvements to the club’s seven polo fields and renovated of 72 horse boarding facilities. By 2020, Sarasota Polo will focus on expanding the spectator experience. The organization takes great pride in its accessibility to the general public and fans are taking notice. The club that bills itself as having “a remarkable legacy filled with stories of timber, cowboys, cold Milwaukee beer and chewing gum” that is “decidedly un-stuffy and welcoming.”

For newbies, Ron Trytek of the Sarasota Polo Club has a few suggestions. “Visit the club’s Facebook page,” he says. “Learn about the teams and rules of the game. Enjoy the camaraderie of the match. And join the masses at halftime to replace patches of grass on the field displaced by the horses. Filling in the divots,”  he says, is fun.

“We look forward to welcoming you to the thrill of ‘the fastest game on four feet,’ ” he says. ♦

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