This is the first of a two-part look at the equine sports scene of polo and equestrian in Wellington, Florida, where life centers around a love for horses.
By Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com
Any mention of the allure and attractions of South Florida invariably begins with beaches, boats and golf courses.
There is an intriguing center of world-class sports in western Palm Beach County that’s often overlooked and worth checking out.
I became acquainted with the equine culture of Wellington through covering two seasons of the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) a decade ago but only recently experienced polo for the first time.
If you’ve never seen a polo match, you’re in for a treat.
Polo? Equestrian? Wellington? Isn’t that the playground of the uber rich?
Yes it is, but these can be among the cheapest sporting events to attend. Winter and early spring (January to April) is the time to do so when Wellington is the center of the horse world.
Polo ponies are world-class athletes
For the $25 price of general admission, we were seated at midfield a few rows from the field in the grandstand of the National Polo Center for the Sunday final of the 16-goal Super-Series Championship Final for the Ylvisaker Cup in early February 2023 — it was a few hours before the Super Bowl, an event that does cost a fortune to attend.
Plus, there was free champagne for all at halftime.
You didn’t need to know a chukker from a knock-in — and we didn’t — to appreciate the athleticism of the horses and the skill of the riders dashing past whenever the ball made its way to our side of the field.
This is among the fastest sports not driven by artificial horsepower. And the horse power on display in polo is prodigious as the game moves at full gallop back and forth on a massive field of 300 by 160 yards — nearly big enough to contain nine football fields.
But it’s not just the straight-ahead speed in pursuit of the ball that impresses. It’s about two teams on horseback, four to a side, vying in close quarters as they work in consort to whack a white, plastic ball between posts set 8 yards apart marking the opponent’s goal.
That’s all you really need to know to enjoy the spectacle of a polo match.
Polo: ‘It’s hockey on horseback’
It all moves at a frenetic pace and changes of direction are abrupt. Such as when a long shot downfield sends two horses thundering side-by-side in pursuit of the ball, only to have the defending rider reach it first and send it rocketing in the opposite direction with a backshot.
Often multiple players converge at high speeds and it is a marvel that collisions are avoided. There are right-of-way rules which help prevent mayhem. But it does get physical as players are permitted to utilize positioning to ride-off or even bump an opponent away from the play.
“The way I describe it is it’s hockey on horseback,” says Y.A. Teitelbaum, who has covered polo in Wellington for more than 30 years. “There’s a lot of good action. It’s physical.”
Not only do you have to be fearless, the game demands a remarkable level of horsemanship and hand-eye coordination for a rider to maneuver the horse with the left hand and strike a moving ball in full stride with a 2 1/2-foot mallet with the right hand.
Because of the rapid pace of the game, players switch horses frequently, needing two for each 7 1/2-minute chukker (period of play).
Although they are referred to as polo ponies, these horses are 1,000-pound, fully grown thoroughbreds, which take seven years of training to prepare for competition.
“They’re very touchy. I like to compare them to cars,” Jeff Hall, a professional polo player, says in a video produced by visitflorida.com (view the video below).
“The horses that are out here are like the Ferraris and Lamborghinis and high-performance cars. They’re very sensitive to any movements or inputs that you give them. They get up to speeds of 40 miles an hour. It’s amazing.”
Stomp a divot, take a sip of bubbly
For all of these elements, polo is instantly captivating. But a big part of what distinguishes it in Wellington is the scene surrounding it.
A Sunday afternoon match at the National Polo Center is a social event in which the spectators are as much a part of as the players on the field. Women wear colorful dresses and fashionable floppy hats. It’s definitely not a shorts and flip-flops crowd.
The uspolo.org site offers these tips for attending a match: “Attire for Sunday polo can be dressy, with men wearing collared shirts and women wearing dresses. Wedges are preferred over heels as a slim heel will get stuck in the grass if you participate in the divot stomp.”
The highlight of the afternoon came at the end of the third chukker when all of the spectators were invited onto the field to take part of the unique polo tradition of the halftime divot stomp — that is, to help smooth chunks of turf kicked up by the horses.
It is a time for socializing, promenading and photo opps. First there was a stop at one of two stations where they were dispensing generous cups of Chandon sparkling wine.
We stepped on a few divots. But surveying the scene, there was a lot more sipping than stomping being done.
Yes, it is a moneyed crowd at polo. The premier attraction, if you really want to make the scene, is the gourmet champagne brunch in the Pavilion, where prices start at $280 for a table of two and go up to as much as $1,500 for a table of six in the front row of the VIP lounge.
For the $50 sum of two general admission tickets we got an enlightening introduction to the polo scene and a pleasant champagne buzz while watching the Iconica team win the Ylvisaker Cup over Dundas 13-7.
Perhaps next time we’ll spring for a table at the buffet.
Wellington polo venues
The National Polo Center is at 3667 120th Ave. S, Wellington, FL 33414
The NPC hosts the Gauntlet of Polo, consisting of the C.V. Whitney Cup (Feb. 12-26, 2023), USPA Gold Cup (March 1-26), and U.S. Open Polo Championships (March 29-April 23). Visit the website for details on these and other polo events.
The Grand Champions Polo Club, 13444 South Fields Road, Wellington, features a polo school and is venue for the World Polo League. For details, visit the club site.