Put Sarasota Polo on your bucket list

Great weather, friends and fast action make for a good Sunday

Prime viewing at the Sarasota Polo Club
Preserving your spot - Arrive early for prime viewing as these spots are on a first-served land grab.

Sunday afternoons in Sarasota with great weather defines this area as the land of paradise. And in the months of January through April there are plenty of Sunday outdoor activities to keep you busy. You can visit the Pirates in Bradenton or the Orioles in Sarasota to catch a spring training game. The Ski-A-Rees show off their water skiing acrobatics at their water arena off Ken Thompson Park in City Island. But the Sport of Kings should also be on your bucket list.

The value is great for the show, $12 per person buys your admission to the polo grounds for the day. Start your day early for the 1 PM match start to preserve prime viewing. At 10 AM the pop-up canopy tents begin to go up and spots are generally full by 11 AM. Once your position is established you are free to wander the many sites that make this a great sport entertainment venue. Or in your own portable chair you can enjoy your own beverage and brunch while visiting with neighbors and friends.

Behind the scenes look before the match
Check out the preparations that take place before the match. A new horse shoe is going on this pony.

You can use this time to walk the 300X160-yard field of the polo grounds. You can visit behind the scenes as the riders and ponies prepare for the match. Each player travels with several ponies and interchange them throughout the match. At this time they are also busy changing out horse shoes and tying up the tails, a kind of braiding so the tails don’t interfere with the play. It’s a pony tail. There is much to see behind the clubhouse where the pony trailers are parked.

There are two clubhouses, one for the sponsors or members and another for the general public. Drinks are served at both and short order food is available to purchase. The gift shop has an excellent assortment of light jackets, sunglasses, hats and souvenirs that display the Sarasota Polo Club logo. Artwork and photos are available to purchase in many price ranges. It is a popular place to visit when there is no play on the field. For kids or kids at heart you can jump in a wagon drawn by a pair of Clydesdale horses. How time does fly when you have so much to do.

Fun times for kids as carts are drawn by Clydesdales.

The players and horses arrive before the start. They pose for pictures, ride the field to warm up the ponies, and then assemble by the announcing stand as the time approaches 1 PM. Excitement builds with veteran and rookie spectators. On this breezy and cool day on March 4 the National Anthem is sung with such grace the crowd responded with a rounding applause. Both teams of four circle the perimeter of the field to give low-fives to spectators with their high-fives as it is the last time before play they are allowed to approach within 10 yards of the field.

The size of the field is three times the length of a football field but the eight players, ponies and two umpires on ponies take up a larger portion of the field than expected. The pace is fast and furious as it seems that each player teams up with a player of the opposite team as players would in man-to-man basketball defense. The mallet is roughly six feet in length and the ball that is used is made up of hard plastic that is 4.5 ounces and 3.5 inches in diameter. The umpires carry several as balls that go into the spectator area are not returned, similar to that of a professional baseball game. The only barrier that keeps the ball in play is a series of 11-inch high boards that surround the perimeter of the field.

It didn’t take long to catch up with the terms and objective of the sport as the similarities were many to other top sports you may be familiar with. The object is to hit the ball through a goal that is eight feet in width and has two retractable posts for safety. Even the six chukkas are similar to four quarters in basketball. Each are seven minutes in length but can be extended by 30 seconds if warranted by the two umpires and one judge on the sideline. The sideline judge may also be referred to if the field umpires disagree. There is a goal judge at each end of the field. At the end of each chukka the players use that time to switch to a well-rested pony. You may also see chukka spelled chukker.

The players on the two teams had such skills that they could hit the ball at full speed while on the back of their pony, catch up to it as a fast break in basketball and with a few knocks on the ball are able to go a great length and score a goal. There are fouls by players that can result in a penalty shot by the offended team. When a team scores at one end of the field, the ball is put into play and the goal direction is reversed.

Divot stomp at half time
Puppies and humans stomp the divots at half time.

And then at the end of the third chukka the spectators are allowed to roam the field. This half-time ritual has a purpose as demonstrated by Julia Roberts in the movie Pretty Woman. The stomping, or treading-in, of the divots help smooth out the field for pony and player safety. Half-time is also good for more cart-drawn rides, socializing and more refreshments.

The second half begins in much the same way as the first. The announcer, Cuko Escapite, on this day kept us informed on the rules and plays that we may have missed. He would roll his Rs in his Mexican accent to accentuate player's names and bring laughter throughout the crowd. With some names during play he provided some alliteration that took on a rhythm of its own. He had well-rehearsed jokes that fit in well with the play on the field. After a goal he would excitingly announce that the “Crowd is going wild” while we were witnessing only golf claps. His constant use of the word “tweeter” when a foul was whistled had regulars scrambling with their smartphones researching the polo glossary equivalent. It turns out Cuko made up the word. His excitement and clear speaker system in the park increased the enjoyment.

Ponies on the field
The action is fast and sometimes close on the field.

If there was an away team on Sunday it was New Hope, Pennsylvania who won the match 11-8. Only Tim Cheromcka was from New Hope. Marcos Bignoli hails from Argentina, Luis Galvan resides in South Carolina but remains throughout the season and Dennys Antonio Santana is from the Dominican Republic. The home team Whiskey Pond fielded Brent Hamill and Charly Quincoces, residents of Lakewood Ranch. The team was rounded out by Nick Johnson of England and Stuart Campbell of Tallahassee, both are here for the season.

Only a number of Sundays are left on the schedule as the season begins to wind down. There is a sponsor for every weekend and a theme for some. This Saturday, the Ninth Annual Ponies for Pups is a special date on the schedule as a Nate’s Honor Animal Rescue charity event. Gates open at 11AM for this special date. Visit their Facebook page for more information.

Show up on March 18 with your best Celtic cocktail, Blarney bites or Pot of Gold décor and you could bring home a prize for this themed St. Patrick’s Day. The Asolo Repertory Theatre sponsors this event and three of the four remaining match dates, including March 25 when the theme is Hollywood. Winning categories include the best Rick’s Café Casablanca cocktail, La La Land décor and Citizen Kane confection. The Asolo also sponsors the last match of the season on April 8 with the theme Around the World. The best international décor, global cuisine and international cocktail will be recognized with awards. Easter on April 1 is sponsored by its own Sarasota Polo Club where prizes are awarded for the best Easter bonnet and best decorated Easter egg.

One of two clubhouses on the grounds.

The grounds are busy other days of the week. Polo lessons are available taught by professional instructors and catered to your level of riding ability, age and health. All lessons of the game are taught and advanced students progress to a level of match play in the Sunshine league. They provide the basics that includes a specially trained pony, mallets, tack and helmet. Visit www.SarasotaPolo.com for more equestrian activity on the grounds and in the area.

The Sarasota Polo Club had its beginnings in 1991. In 1992 the grounds were carved out of 28,000 acres of land acquired by the Uihlein family, founders of the Schlitz Brewing Company. Back then travel to the grounds consisted of a gravel University Parkway. Now travel to the polo grounds is easy. Drive past the Mall at University Town Center and I-75 on University Parkway toward Lakewood Ranch. Look for signs of the polo club that appear on directional posts on the right about four miles past UTC mall.

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