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Publication Date: Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Sport of kings: Menlo Polo Club is one of Atherton's best-kept secrets Sport of kings: Menlo Polo Club is one of Atherton's best-kept secrets (November 05, 2003)

By John Flood
Special to the Almanac

Polo is known as the sport of kings, but in Atherton, on a field the size of nine football fields at the Menlo Circus Club, it has a down-to-earth feeling: just polo players who let the adrenaline rip.

Anyone can come out and watch; better still, it's free. Members of the Menlo Polo Club play at the Circus Club field on Fridays and Sundays, from April through October.

Spectators can enjoy the matches in a low-key style. Bring a cooler with beverages and sandwiches, and take a seat under a big oak along the sidelines.

The club has 15 members, both women and men, and with varying degrees of skill, from novice to professional. According to Polo Magazine, 27 percent of polo players are women.

Instant attraction

Lauren Dickinson, 22, of Menlo Park, who started riding hunter-jumper when she was about 6, tried polo for the first time two years ago. "I really loved it from that moment," she says.

So, while she pursued a degree in history from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, she played in practice sessions with the Yale polo team.

She also spent a semester riding in Argentina, the mecca for polo practitioners.

"I love the speed and the excitement," she says.

Compared to hunter-jumper, where the pressure is on the individual rider, this is a fast team sport with a variety of situations, all happening in split-second timing, she says.

"You have to be able to ride the horse and hit the ball at the same time -- hitting the ball is the biggest challenge," she says.

Dickinson has plans to travel to Argentina to compete in polo events. When she returns, she'll spend the rest of the winter at Indio, near Palm Springs -- one of the main winter venues for North American polo riders.

"I want to be a better player and I want to play in more competition," she says. "Polo is a big part of my life."

Vaulting into polo

For Mary Simonson, 25, of Menlo Park, who has been playing polo for three years, her interest stems from her experience as a former equestrian vaulter -- a sport described as gymnastics on horseback.

"I like polo because there just isn't another equestrian activity as exciting as vaulting," says Simonson, who also owns Academic Trainers, a tutoring school with 300 students in downtown Menlo Park.

From her first attempt at polo, she says, she knew it was the right sport for her.

"It was a scary the first few times," she admits. "But polo is an addictive sport with lots of adrenaline. I like the team aspect and its competitive nature."

And she enjoys the physical challenges.

"You never sit; the rider is always standing and twisting to hit the ball," she says. "This is a game that's played at full speed. ... It's a workout."

Simonson also will travel to Argentina to compete in an all-women's tournament with Dickinson and six other women from the United States.

"My next step is to buy my own horses," she says.

Club pro

For Erik Wright, 31, of Menlo Park, his passion for polo inspired him to become a professional 10 years ago.

The Menlo Polo Club's manager, he maintains a rigorous riding schedule, competing up to four days a week nearly year-round, he says.

He emphasizes the family aspects of the game.

"It's not unusual to find grandparents playing the game with their grandchildren," he says.

Wright's two children, ages 3 and 7, are already learning the sport, he says.

When he isn't competing or giving polo lessons, Wright takes care of his 16 horses plus 50 polo horses for other riders.

And when he wants to have fun, he surfs, he says.

Safer sport

For Peter Milner, 47, playing polo well comes down to three ingredients: good horsemanship, superb eye-hand coordination, and mastering the strategy of the game.

Milner, who has a medical degree and is CEO of ARYx Therapeutics Inc. in Santa Clara, fox hunted in England as a young man. He took up polo two years ago after he broke both his arms in a horse jumping accident, he says.

"Jumping is unnatural to a horse," he says. "A horse likes to run and accelerate instinctively. So, I decided polo was less dangerous."

To master polo, the horse and rider must become one unit. Riding must become second nature, he says.

"Everything is in the schooling of the animals," says Milner, who owns seven polo horses and intends to buy six more when he travels to Argentina soon.

"The horse must be responsive and agile it must know what to do instinctively," he says. "Riding in polo is unique. The rider leans way out to the side and the horse must accept this and know how to compensate to stay steady and maintain a center of gravity on a straight line at over 40 miles per hour."

"Most polo horses are thoroughbreds," says Milner. "They are very fast, have great acceleration and they like competing."

Two skills

So, how does a newcomer approach the game?

For Toby Cooper, financial analyst at Merrill Lynch in Menlo Park, it can come from two entirely different disciplines.

"People come into polo from an equestrian background; or they can come from a game like golf or tennis," he says.

Cooper, who has been an equestrian for most of his life, admits that both skills -- riding and striking the ball -- are equally difficult to develop.

"Some people might have a natural ability to hit a ball," he says. "But they are intimidated by doing that on a galloping horse."

And for an accomplished equestrian like himself, the challenge is to hit the ball, he says.

Sport of kings?

But what does it cost? Is it really a sport only for the rich?

Talk with a few of the Menlo Polo Club members and you might be surprised.

"There's latitude in the sport for all economic levels," says Toby Cooper.

"A polo pony can cost between $12,000 and $25,000," says Peter Milner. "That's might be more expensive than sailing, but certainly not as much as ocean racing."

"[Compare that to] a high-level jumping horse, which can cost $500,000 to $1 million," says Cooper.

Polo lessons are $75-$100 per hour, and that includes the horse, mallet and helmut, says Mary Simonson. Beginners often compete on a pay-as-you-go basis, she says.

A guest at the Menlo Polo Club can play in a match for $25 per chukker (a match at the Menlo club is divided into four, 7.5-minute periods, or chukkers) and the horse is $75 per chukker, she says. So, $400 will cover an entire day of polo competition, including the horse, she says.

Of course, this doesn't include the initial investment in equipment -- helmut, boots, whip, mallet, knee guards, and gloves -- which can cost up to $1,000, she says.

"And you can always find used polo equipment on eBay," she says.


For more information on the Menlo Polo Club, call club manager Erik Wright at (760) 861-9887.

Basic rules of the game

A polo match lasts about one and half hours. Each match is divided into six, 7.5-minute periods, or chukkers. (At the Menlo club, there are four chukkers per match).

The object of the game is to score as many goals as possible. After a goal is scored, the teams change sides.

There are four players per team. Each player assumes a defensive or offensive position.

This is a fluid game, played on a big field (160 x 300 yards). Riders must develop a keen sense of anticipation since they are riding at full gallop with sudden stops and starts, and compensate for fast, unexpected changes in ball direction.

The rider changes to a fresh horse at every chukker and will typically ride six or seven horses per match.

Each rider and team is assigned a handicap based on his or her skill level. This allows novice riders and advanced riders to compete with each other.


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