Hooves and high society

Myopia Polo showcases the sport of kings for everyone

Boston (6/3/2002)

Brion's comments:
'Sometimes you find great stories right in your own backyard. Hamilton's Myopia Polo and Hunt Club puts on, as Thurston Howell III might say, a "smashing" show each Sunday from spring through fall.'

Feature article:

On any given Sunday from late May to early October along Route 1A in Hamilton, you can feel the earth move. The tremors aren't produced by fits of passion, but 32 hooves detonating each time they strike sod. The sport is polo, and the site is the historic Gibney Field on the grounds of the bucolic Myopia Hunt Club.

"You can definitely feel the ground shake," says Kenneth A. Woods of Newburyport, a polo neophyte in full party mode. "They are just pounding the earth."

The crowds assemble around the enormous, manicured field, measuring 300 yards by160 yards – the equivalent of nine football fields. Folks gathering here represent a robust socioeconomic mix that would keep any social scientist, or Robin Leach, preoccupied for years. The undeniable intrigue associated with the sport. may have roots in its international flair, with players coming from all points of the globe, primarily from Argentina and South America, but also from Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Then there is the magnet of money - this "Sport of Kings" requires deep pockets to play at high levels. Last is the curiosity factor, a chance to take a peek behind the scenes of the intensely private world that Myopia, fairly hidden behind a long, tree-lined drive, represents.

In this parking lot, Ford Fairmonts nestle alongside Range Rovers. The sport attracts the wealthy, and those who just want to pretend they are. There are horse and polo enthusiasts, and those who don't know the difference between a "chukker" and "chugging." Alcohol and animated conversation flow freely. Players, horses, and grooms mill about horse trailers, looking like they just stepped out of, well, a Polo ad. (The sport has always played an influential role in fashion – Brooks Brothers adopted the button-down collar from polo jerseys in 1913.)

Lyle Graham, captain of Myopia Polo, playing today with his son Jonathan on the Wintercreek team, adjusts his riding boots and ponders his sport and his surroundings.

"It's got so much tradition,” he says, “and we're losing so many things that have strong traditions these days."


Though many Myopia polo-goers refer to the match as a "nice backdrop" for Sunday socializing, the sport itself commands attention. The game has changed little since it was first introduced here in 1888. To the uninitiated, polo looks like a wild mix of hockey and horse racing, a blur of legs, arms, and mallets. Horse and rider must move together at an almost synaptic level, perfectly in sync – Fred and Ginger in stirrups. The difference, of course, is there are no dance patterns, no predetermined choreography. And the rider is constantly changing partners. Most high-level players have a separate mount for each of six seven-minute chukkers, plus overtime if the score is knotted.

With their free hand, polo players, four to a side, wield long mallets in an attempt to coax a softball-sized ball through a goal measuring 24 feet wide. As in golf, players are assigned a rating or handicap, from minus 2 to 10 – theoretical perfection – based on their horsemanship, horses, hitting, team play, and game sense. It's an odd juxtaposition that a sport which requires exceptional hand-eye coordination and lightning reflexes is played at a club called Myopia. (The name was derived after W. Delano Sanborn of Winchester, a Harvard junior in 1870, dubbed a baseball team that he organized the "Myopia Nine" because five of its players – including four sons of Boston Mayor Frederick Prince Sr. – wore glasses. Members of that same team were among the founding members of the Myopia Hunt Club in 1875.).

"Polo is a very hot-blooded sport," says Graham. "It requires a lot of discipline with regard to ball control and strategy, marrying that with your equestrian skills and also the cerebral capacity of the horse you're on. People say that 70 percent of your performance is being able to get to that spot where you need to be, and good horses know the game. They pretty much think for themselves, and that adds a whole other level of intrigue."

"If you love horses, this is a great sport," says Michael Bucci of Bedford, New Hampshire, a member of Myopia's polo committee. "That's the thing that keeps you in the sport – the horses. They're such tremendous athletes."

Polo players readily admit that their conversations rarely center on strategy, mallet choice or different strokes. The topic is almost always the horses. Polo horses, for the most part, are huge, well-muscled creatures, a far cry for the smaller, more agile "ponies" that once dominated the sport. Unlike their racing counterparts, they bring a remarkable diversity to their game – they must be able to start quickly, stop quicker, and combine that agility with thoroughbred speed and a safecracker's composure.

Ted Tucker, who was born and raised in Kentucky ("Where the women are fast and the horses are pretty") but now lives in Framingham, points out "when the big boys are playing, how quickly the horses start lathering up. They aren't that lathered up when they run three-quarters of a mile in a race."

The object of the game, of course, is to score the most goals. The ball, weighing less than 5 ounces, was originally carved from bamboo root, but is generally made of light wood or plastic today. Mallets have also benefited from new materials, with wooden shafts often giving way to fiberglass.

In addition to the obvious bumping, running and striking the ball, there are a multitude of subtleties involved that might escape the uneducated eye. With mallet in one hand and bridle in the other, players control their horses with their legs and feet. Want your mount to veer right? Press with the left knee. Want the horse to speed up? Squeeze both legs.

"These horses are very in tune with what you're doing, very perceptive," says Jonathan Graham.


Myopia Polo celebrates 113 years of play on Gibney Field in 2001. The game itself, however, has much deeper roots. Some scholars of the game consider it the oldest team sport, with origins dating back thousands of years. "There was always a game involving a horse, a stick and a ball," says Bucci.

In his historical account for the Museum of Polo and Polo Hall of Fame in Florida, Peter Rizzo surmises that the sport is Asiatic at its core, with records of the sport emerging from "a vast area from Constantinople to Baghdad, from Persia to China and Japan." It is believed the very name "polo" is derived from the Tibetan word for ball, "pulu."

With a history steeped in royalty, traced back to Alexander the Great, polo earned the moniker "The Sport of Kings." Movie buffs might recall Sean Connery knocking around human heads in a rather gruesome twist on the sport in The Man Who Would be King. But "The Sport of Generals" might make a more appropriate name. Polo was probably first played on a barren campground by nomadic warriors. Historians believe the sport may have evolved to train cavalry members in Persia or among Iranian tribes in Central Asia. Polo's renaissance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is directly related to the "discovery" of the sport in India by British officers in the mid-1800s. Bengal Army Lt. Joseph Sherer, who would later be named the Father of Western Polo, played his first game in 1859.

Within 20 years, the sport was introduced to the United States, and by 1914, in addition to some 50 private clubs, there were 17 Army stations playing polo. One of the more famous Myopia players outside of polo circles was General George S. Patton Jr., who made his peacetime home in Hamilton (the Hamilton-Wenham High School teams still bear the nickname borrowed from Patton – the Generals). Old Blood and Guts, according to an oft-quoted excerpt from Polo magazine, exemplified the military approach to the sport: "To Patton, in polo as in war, you didn't take the field unless you intended to win, and give it everything you had in the attempt."

Patton's demeanor, shared by many players, has resulted in a sport best suited to those with a high pain threshold.


Wendy Coke intently watches a match between the Wintercreek and Centennial teams from the back of her forest-green Land Rover. Her two young boys, Hamilton and Barrett, knock around a polo ball with miniature polo mallets. But Wendy's gaze is fixed on her husband, William Coke Jr., riding today for Centennial.

"The number of injuries in this sport is not insignificant," she says in hushed tones.

Her concern is well founded. Polo is a contact sport. Players and horses are allowed to bump one another to either ruin a shot or ride them away from the ball (provided the "angle of collision" is no more than 45 degrees). According to Myopia lore, the very first "official" match held at Gibney Field in 1888 started auspiciously when George von L. Meyer of Myopia and Percival Lowell, captain of the Dedham Polo squad, were knocked out of the match when their horses collided during the opening throw-in. And Don "Doo" Little Jr., a teammate of Bill Coke's today, says polo is among the most dangerous sports being played today, second only to auto racing. Players are equipped with helmets – some wear facemasks as well – leather knee and shin pads, and precious little else.

"It's anything but a genteel sport," says Little. "Remember, you're running full-speed down the field with a 1,500-pound animal under you. The horse can go down – I’ve had my bumps and bruises. I've had two friends of mine killed playing."

Charles Coles, 79, figures he's broken more than 35 bones in the course of his 39-year career. Coles has a thick, sturdy midsection, a shock of white hair with matching eyebrows, and a high, halting laugh that underscores his zest for life. He started playing polo at age 40 at the invitation of a friend, scored a goal, and got hopelessly hooked. "I've enjoyed every minute since, except for a few broken noses," he says. "Golf, you don't get hurt. Tennis, you don't get hurt. Polo, you get hurt, and you get hurt bad."

And that, Coles says, gives players a deeper, more intense sense of camaraderie – they’ve all been hurt, and that promotes tremendous respect for the other players. "With good horses and common sense, you can play the game hard and be aggressive," says Graham. "But I hate to think that anyone is immune to mistakes that could cost them, because that would change the nature of the activity. You have to think an awful lot about the other person. The general rule is, if you're not compromising the safety of your animal, you're not compromising your safety."


The fact that the wealthy can get hurt as readily as those of more modest means is one of the game's great equalizers. But there's little doubt that the game attracts those with a sizable bank account. In its efforts to lure sponsors, the United States Polo Association boasts that the average player or fan has a net worth of close to $1 million, and owns a home worth more than $500,000. In rough figures, a minimum of $60,000 is required to break into the sport with four horses and the necessary gear, but not including annual overhead, says Graham. On the other side of the spectrum, top teams from Palm Beach set sponsors back $600,000 to a cool million each year. With each team at Myopia typically bringing a string of six horses per rider – and often an extra mount or two, in case of overtime or injury – polo is clearly a sport that requires financial, as well as intestinal, fortitude.

"We don't have a tremendous amount of new players jumping into the sport each year," says Graham. "There's an awful lot of detail, sweat equity, and financial equity involved."

As a result, says Graham, you won't find many "idle rich" mounting up. Among the three dozen or so regular polo players at Myopia (that number swells to more than 50 with "visiting members" during the summer), most work, and work hard, to support their polo habits. "I don't know a single person who isn't employed, who isn't working at some level," Graham says.

What you will find is successful businessmen. Myopia players include financiers, entrepreneurs, stockbrokers, fund managers, software and real estate developers, boat designers, and a host of other occupations. To Wendy Coke, the parallels are clear – what works in the boardroom often works on the polo field.

"There's a certain personality drawn to this sport," she says. "The players are typically very successful, and very aggressive."

But an individual's wealth, insists Graham, is secondary. Like Fenway Park and the Green Monster, tradition carries great weight at Myopia, and Gibney Field in particular.

"Our common denominator is the game," says Graham. "You think about being out on a field where some great games have been played, matches where some terrific sportsmen and individuals have gone before you. You realize that a lot of history has been made on that field."

The cost of the game hardly deters players from passing the torch to the next generation, despite Little's assertion that he's not certain if he'll introduce his own sons to polo, "because I know how frickin' expensive it is." Among the most cherished of the time-honored traditions at Myopia is younger players following in the footsteps of their parents, creating a lineage that continues today. The beauty of the sport, says Graham, is that it allows father and son to play on the same field at roughly the same level, at least for a time.

"That's the only reason anyone would be involved in such a complicated sport," says Graham. "After many years of doing it on my own, I found the real reward is to continue the tradition with my son, and have someone else who can deal with the vicissitude of horses."

Graham's 16-year-old son Jonathan, a junior at Governor Dummer Academy in Byfield, agrees. "I can't think of anything that can bring a father and son closer than playing competitively on a polo field," he says. "You have to work completely together."

Myopia currently boasts at least 10 father-son combinations. And Graham credits Doo Little's father, Don Little Sr., with "raising the bar" at Myopia during his 16 years as captain of polo by reintroducing world-class polo to the Boston area. Little was a stepson of Crocker Snow Sr., an avid pilot and polo player who, along with Forrester "Tim" Clark, was a primary mover in bringing the sport back to Myopia after World War II.

"Don Little decided he wanted to make Myopia not just a wonderful, tradition-rich club of shabby elegance, but a world-class polo club," says Graham.

Hollywood came calling in 1967. Steve McQueen's "The Thomas Crown Affair," focused on the exploits of a weary Boston playboy who decides to rob a bank after car races and polo matches failed to keep his interest. Little, however, continued to focus on quality polo, and the club eventually added the high-goal [what does “high-goal” mean? Players are given a handicap, from minus 2 to 10. The combined number of the four teammates must come under the tournament guidelines. for example, a 12-goal tournament. So, a high-goal tournament would be 36, meaning that the players involved are all handicapped between 8-10 goals, and among the best in the world] tournament – the East Coast Open – in 1978. In the years since, Myopia has continued to thrive, in part because of its strong club and family structure, and in part because of its high quality of play that consistently brings the world's best players to Hamilton. It is one of only eight clubs in the Lower 48 to offer world-class polo (the others are Saratoga and Bridgehampton, New York; Greenwich, Connecticut; Santa Barbara, California; Palm Beach and Boca Raton, Florida; and Houston Texas).

"It's some of the best polo in the country," says Doo Little. "And how many world class sporting events can you go to for $10 these days?"


Such bargain entertainment has quietly developed a strong following. "If you tell someone that you're going to a polo game, they immediately get this snooty thing going," says Frank "T" Wardley Jr. of Ipswich. "But you have this great set-up, with the barbarians over on this side, and the well-heeled on the other."

Wardley is clearly at home in the barbarian camp. He appears almost oblivious to the action behind him as he chats with friends and draws another ice-cold Ipswich Ale draft from the tap mounted on the back of his Jeep Scrambler. "Hey, this is, after all, a tailgate party," he says, laughing. The Jeep is a scaled down version of the first party rig Wardley brought to Myopia nine years ago, to the distinct disapproval of club officials.

"They weren't fond of the truck," he acknowledges, grinning. "It was a Dodge M-37 military pick-up, with these huge tires. This is a little more road friendly."

Not only has Wardley's tastes in vehicles become slightly more refined, he now admits to actually watching the matches while socializing. "I'd been coming for three or four years before I realized there were ponies and a game going on," he jokes.

Most Sundays, the south side of Gibney is reserved for private parties, typically for big sponsors and club members. The north side is soiree central, open to the general public. "And the true irony of it," says Wardley, in almost conspiratorial tones, "is that this is the sunny side of the field. So once the sun goes down, it's freezing cold over there. But it's still sunny over here, where the barbarians are."

Drew Nelson of Marblehead has been organizing this particular corner bash for the past decade. Sunday polo, she says, is the perfect note to end a festive weekend, giving people plenty of time to recuperate before work starts Monday. It is also surprisingly child-friendly entertainment. "Our friends are starting to have children, and this is one of the great ways you can have a party, bring the kids, and still have a great time," says Ellen Grace of Winchester. "And kids get in free."

"So you've got baby bottles and diapers on one hand,” adds Cathleen Wardley, “and crystal and champagne on the other."

True polo fans come equipped with binoculars and brochures. For others, the pull is the event, to sample the high life associated with Myopia (advertisers have clearly staked out this market – the programs are stuffed with ads for companies like Mercedes-Benz, Tiffany, Moet & Chandon, and Cartier). Most, however, come for the combination platter of social and sporting scene.

"It's the party, the polo, the people, the tradition, the entire event," says Sarah Kenney of Marblehead, cocktail in hand, from her post underneath an enormous umbrella advertising Mount Gay rum.

One that both the uncivilized and the affluent enjoy with equal fervor.

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