By Brian Wright O’connor
Photography by Matt Teuten | April 20, 2015 | Lifestyle
As sporty and social as ever, Boston’s polo scene is also becoming more accessible.
Announcer Peter Poor, sitting by a ship’s bell salvaged from a wreck off the coast of England, swivels his head away from his microphone as a scrum of polo ponies thunders by his stand. On the field, Johann Colloredo-Mansfeld, wearing a red and black Harvard jersey, swings his bamboo mallet high above his head. The long handle bends like a parenthesis as the head swoops down and thwacks the ball, driving it in a graceful arc down the greensward of the Myopia Hunt Club polo ground.
Poor bends toward the microphone and, without any emotion, says, “A fine shot.” Yankee understatement at its best. The team from Mongolia scrambles to catch up with the strapping Harvard sophomore, tall and lean in the saddle. Along the boards framing the turf of the nation’s oldest polo club, heads lift from Champagne f lutes. Myopia polo manager Nick Snow blows his umpire’s whistle. The ball skirts wide of the eight-yard goal, marked by tall stakes.
The seven-minute chukker (or period) soon ends. It’s break time. The Harvard and Mongolia riders head to the sidelines for fresh mounts, several of them bearing the upside-down “7” brand—“El Siete Loco”—from the stable of actor Tommy Lee Jones, a patron of the Harvard program. Bow-tied gentlemen, wide-brim-hatted ladies, and loafer-clad kids break away from their tailgating parties and head to the field to replace divots kicked up by galloping hooves. It could be a scene from 1915, until you look closer. The atmosphere is different.
“If someone is looking for the Prince Charles or Ralph Lauren polo experience here,” says Crocker Snow, three of whose five sons have played professionally, “they have the wrong club.”
His son Nick, a real estate investment advisor who helped revive the Harvard polo program as a Crimson undergraduate and was instrumental in bringing the Harvard versus Mongolia exhibition match to Myopia, leans from the saddle to exchange words with his father, the coach of the Harvard team, who wears a peaked Mongolian hat on this sun-drenched Sunday. The game’s greatest athletes—the horses—step onto the field. It’s time for the next chukker to begin.
White mares and black ties. Petits fours and Dom Pérignon. Such trappings will forever be part of Myopia. But the Boston polo paladins are determined to give the sport a more democratic cast. “The sport of kings,” after all, has to survive.
Poor, whose family, like the Snows, has been a mainstay of Myopia polo for generations, operates a training program for new (translation: not “old line”) players called Stage Hill Polo, run out of his Newbury barn and the Myopia practice arena. A new vanguard of riders, drawn mostly from the ranks of white-collar professionals, learn the rudiments of riding and polo from Poor, with many going on to join the recently formed Boston Polo League or the North Shore club teams that compete at Myopia and at a few other fields in the area. The more dedicated eventually buy their own horses and even join the winter migration to Wellington, Florida, to train and compete.
“This is a great game,” says Poor, “like hockey on horseback. I’ve played a lot of sports, but there’s nothing like polo. I’ve never seen people get as excited, men or women, about playing a game.”
Franz Colloredo-Mansfeld, captain of the Myopia Polo Club since 2011 and the father of the Harvard sophomore, has added to the lineup of professional and club matches during the June-to-September polo season, including a youth tournament, to attract a wider audience. He launched the Boston Polo League two years ago to bring new players into the game and expanded club-level competition, with many of the recruits emerging from Stage Hill Polo and the new league to play for teams in the Boston area—all in hopes of reigniting polo passion in the region.
New Englanders first embraced polo when it leaped across the Atlantic after British officers, returning from service in India, brought the game to England in the 19th century. Polo culture f lourished on the estates of Long Island, the Connecticut Sound, Newport, and Boston, particularly the North Shore. Myopia, launched as a baseball club by a group of Harvardians, developed equine fever and moved its operations from suburban Winchester to Hamilton in the 1880s to accommodate growing interest in fox hunting and polo.
The game, which traces its origins back before the time of Alexander the Great, is simple: Four players on a team, armed with mallets and riding the world’s silkiest athletes, traverse a green expanse nine times the size of a football field and attempt to drive a ball through a goal. Matches are usually divided into six seven-and-a-half-minute periods known as chukkers, with riders changing mounts between each one. Players are ranked with handicaps (or “goals”) from -2 to 10 in order to balance the competing teams. (In top matches, an elite four-goal player like Nick Snow will be part of a 15-or 20-goal team.)
The top Boston polo players compete on any of about 20 teams in the region, mostly organized by families with long-standing ties to Myopia polo, like the Daniels family’s Pony Express team out of Ipswich, where they maintain their own polo field for training and matches, or Rick Salter’s Firehouse Subs team, which competes at Myopia as well as in tournaments near his farm in Aiken, South Carolina.
Under Franz Colloredo-Mansfeld’s guidance, Myopia events—usually held Sundays at 3 pm—have doubled their attendance since 2010. The highlight of the coming season, an August 2 match between the USA and polo powerhouse Argentina, is expected to attract thousands to the whispering pines surrounding Gibney Field, where Myopia riders have played polo since 1887.
“For many years, the number of people participating in polo was declining,” says Colloredo-Mansfeld, president and CEO of the old-line Boston real estate firm Cabot Properties. “Players retiring from the game were not being replaced, and fewer spectators were coming out to see the matches. We’re reversing that trend, slowly but surely.” With four children playing polo, Colloredo-Mansfeld is doing his part to propagate the sport.
Kim Maguire, a four-goal player and farrier who directs the Boston Polo League, includes doctors, engineers, and high school and college students among her players. “What unites them all,” she says, “is that they love horses.” Training takes place from May to October in the evenings and on weekends to accommodate work and school schedules. There’s a $1,500 membership fee, and horses are available to rent per session or through longer-term leases from local barns.
More committed players generally start off by buying older, seasoned horses, most of them exthoroughbred racers or quarter horses, for anywhere from $4,000 to $8,000, and boarding usually costs less than $1,000 a month. By comparison, polo ponies—ponies they’re not, that’s just the nomenclature—at the peak of their careers sell for tens of thousands of dollars.
Harvard’s recently acquired barn and indoor arena in Hamilton leases some of its horses to players with the Boston Polo League, providing additional resources and infrastructure to help grow the sport. Crocker Snow, a retired foreign correspondent who has played polo in 24 countries, encourages new players to get muck up to the elbows in order to fully appreciate the full polo experience.
Like his father, Nick Snow sees the sport’s survival in recruiting a new generation of polo enthusiasts, adding new blood to blue blood. His wife, Amanda, works in player development for the US Polo Association, running youth tournaments around the country with the same goal in mind. “We just have to make it more possible for people to play,” says Snow. “We’re creating steppingstones like the Boston Polo League and feeding players into Stage Hill Polo.”
Ultimately, the Snow dynasty sees the game’s sensory appeal—the grunt of polo ponies on a 70-yard sprint, the creak of oiled leather, the lightning crack of mallet on ball—and the relationship between horse and rider as its most compelling aspects. As the polo mantra goes, “Two heads, four legs, one heart.”
“It’s indescribable, working in unison with a thousand-pound animal f lying down the field hitting a ball,” says Nick Snow. “There is nothing like it. We just hope more people can experience this great thrill and unique connection with some pretty cool animals and amazing athletes.” Myopia Hunt Club, 435 Bay Road, South Hamilton, 978-468-4433