VOL. 24: The Gamesmen

written by Stephanie Hunt | photograph by Gately Williams

Perhaps it’s the way the vast green field invites the sky to open up like a freshly painted mural, puffs of cloud in a wash of Sistine blue.

Maybe it’s that the fall air is frisky, the breeze just so. Maybe it’s the speed and confident full-arc swing of mallets. Or the
fact that this manicured field is a field of equine and athletic dreams, home ground, literally, to some of the finest and
fiercest polo in the country. One hundred and twenty nine seasons of world-class polo have been played at Aiken’s legendary Whitney Field, and counting, including this Sunday afternoon’s 6-goal championship.

While many people associate polo with Prince Harry in Great Britain, or with Pretty Woman’s Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in L.A., or with the well-heeled in Bridgehampton, Aspen, and Palm Beach, the game has an increasingly broad appeal and is galloping into a mainstream renaissance in the Southeast, the Lowcountry, and especially in South Carolina’s equestrian mecca of Aiken.

The small town of Aiken, with its horse-friendly red clay streets and crosswalk signal buttons placed at saddle height, became a popular winter health resort for wealthy Northerners in the late 1800s. Its sandy loam and temperate climate was ideal for the equestrian sports popular among those migrating from New York, Boston, and Chicago. In March 1882, the inaugural match on Whitney Field drew ten thousand spectators to watch as “prancing steeds dashed over the countryside,” reported the Charleston News and Courier. The gala affair “has caused a great sensation and revolutionized the city as far as amusements are concerned.”

Following World War II, polo’s presence and popularity waned in Aiken, but building from the late 1970s to present day, the sport has rebounded. Today Aiken boasts forty-two polo fields (each 300 yards by 160 yards—the equivalent of nine football fields), sixteen of which are tournament capable, and three major polo clubs, including Aiken Polo Club, an official member of the U.S. Polo Association since 1899.

Top national and international players flock to this rural midlands hamlet to compete in Aiken’s spring and fall seasons. Amy Flowers, a Lowcountry native and owner of Hyde Park Polo Club in Ravenel, is one of them. She’s passionate about the sport and is working to expand the Lowcountry polo community when she’s not hauling her horse trailer back and forth to tournaments. “Aiken’s polo infrastructure is so well established. I doubt Charleston will ever match or replicate that, especially for high-level competition,” says Flowers, who offers lessons and sponsors an annual polo exhibition match at Hyde Park, “but we are building on the mounting interest and enthusiasm for polo.”

Indeed the game has deep hooves in the Lowcountry. From the 1920s until World War II, Fort Moultrie soldiers and cavalry would play on Sullivan’s Island parade grounds and beaches. In 1979, Willie McRae opened a polo field at Boone Hall Plantation in Mount Pleasant, where there was an active polo presence for the next decade, drawing some two thousand fans each weekend. Hurricane Hugo pulled the reins on that, and efforts to revitalize Lowcountry polo have been hampered in recent years by the economic downturn. Polo is a pastime that requires significant resources, including acreage and upkeep for fields and a barn full of horses—each player typically fields at least four polo ponies per match.

The “sport of kings and the king of sports” is also one of the world’s oldest sports, dating back more than two thousand years to the ancient kingdoms of Persia, Tibet, and India; however, the game has changed very little over the centuries. The objective is straightforward (hit the ball between the two goal posts, at any height); the rules are fairly simple (four players per team; don’t obstruct the right of way; mallet in right hand only); the equipment low-tech and minimal (saddle, bridal, helmet, wooden mallet, ball); the terminology quirky and quaint (“chukker” is an inning, six per game; “stick and ball” refers to practice). But the nuances of strategy and the demands of agility, precision, and speed make polo riveting to watch. Plus there’s something semi-mythic about the earthy athleticism of horses, and this, coupled with polo’s unshakable hint of noblesse oblige, gives the sport a compelling aura. It’s rugged, regal, and refined all at the same time. Think Pegasus meets John Wayne and Sir Lancelot, as styled by Ralph Lauren.

“It’s one of the few sports, if not the only, where the animal actually plays,” says Chip Limehouse, an avid player from a polo family—his father, Buck, played, his brothers Brien and Brad compete semi-professionally, and now his teenaged daughter Eliza carries on the family tradition. “Polo is a great family sport, both as player and spectator,” says Limehouse. “It’s ‘come one, come all’ to the polo field, including the dog. There’s no better way to spend a day outside with the family.” In addition to playing polo, the Limehouse family sponsors various charitable polo events, including the annual Polo at the Point fundraiser at Limehouse Field in Hollywood, and in 2009, a Kiawah “Polo on the Beach” benefit match to support the Kiawah Island Conservancy.

“Polo is addictive,” says Thomas Ravenel, who grew up riding horses in the Lowcountry but didn’t take up polo until 2005. He now competes spring and fall in Aiken and winter in Florida and is currently transforming a former pecan orchard into a polo field on his Edisto Island property. “You’re hauling ass on a 1000-pound animal, then have to immediately stop and turn to chase a ball flying at 100 miles per hour; it’s just so much fun,” he says. “The speed, danger, and intensity—it’s an adrenalin rush; you’ve got to be alert every second.”

Alert and agile, yes, but aristocratic? Not so much, say Ravenel and others who hope to dispel the notion that polo is a blueblood sport. “The polo community includes people from all rungs of the economic ladder,” Ravenel notes. Avid polo player and ambassador Clint Nangle would agree. A long-standing governor of the U.S. Polo Association and founding chairman of its Equine Welfare Committee, Nangle has dedicated much of his life to promoting the sport and now focuses on teaching, coaching, and cultivating new polo converts. At Nangle’s Overbrook Farms in Aiken, anyone with a remote interest in polo is encouraged to grab a mallet and give it a try. “Sure, if you want to play polo at the very top levels, you’ve got to be a very rich person,” Nangle admits, “but there are many players across the country who are farmers or veterinarians or work at a gas station who choose to make this their sport.”

Charleston attorney and polo enthusiast Richard Stoney began playing in the late ’70s “on a shoestring budget,” sharing three ponies with his brother Ted. “We were awful players, totally green; still, we loved it,” he says. Today Stoney encourages the next generation of players, promoting youth polo on his family’s Kensington Plantation field in Huger. “That’s my future—to give back to the game that has given me so much,” says Stoney, who has traveled to seven or eight countries to play polo. “I want to share it with inner-city kids and others who may not have exposure to horses. If you love horses and love competition, there’s nothing like polo.” — S.H.

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