- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Think of it as golf on horseback, swinging the club while thundering down a grassy field. Good shots. Missed shots. Flying mallets. Mud, danger, sweat and speed. And in the end, always the frustration of failing to improve.

“It’s worse than golf,” said Dr. Stephen Seager, in an Irish lilt. “I’ve played polo for 50 years, and I’m still no good at it.”

It’s the sport of kings, princes and playboys, watched by socialites in hubcap-sized straw hats sipping Veuve Clicquot. Polo is an elite sport — and some would say near-extinct — but Dr. Seager, former president of the Great Meadow Polo Club, says reports of polo’s demise in Washington are premature.

“It’s not going to take over the NFL, but there is a lively scene here. It takes a lot of horses to play polo. A lot of time and commitment.”

And a lot of money. Thoroughbred polo ponies can cost more than $100,000 each, and most players must have at least six animals for a game. Local colleges such as Georgetown University used to field polo teams, but no more. Games usually were played at West Potomac Park.

The University of Virginia still has a polo team, as do Yale and Cornell. The U.S. Army once fielded a polo team. President Theodore Roosevelt played the game (and 15 members of his Rough Riders listed their occupations as “polo players”), but President Kennedy preferred touch football and President Bush exercises by cutting brush at his Texas ranch.

The snob appeal of polo conjures up Prince Charles, Argentine tin heirs and post-Depression “Great Dame Hunters” such as Porfirio Rubirosa. (His wife, tobacco heiress Doris Duke, gave him a string of polo ponies as a wedding gift.) Will Rogers and Clark Gable played the game in Hollywood.

Part nostalgia, part envy of all things British, the romance of polo endures.

Dr. Seager owns the sprawling Chetwood Park estate in The Plains, Va., where on Saturday he hosted the NRH International Polo Classic, a benefit for the National Rehabilitation Hospital. Four players from the United States — including Dr. Seager’s son Adair and daughter Fiona — faced off against four players representing Argentina.

One of the Argentine players, Hector Rincon, who was born in Buenos Aires and owns the Guapo’s restaurant chain, provided lunch for several hundred guests in the white VIP tent set up next to the field.

“It’s such a difficult sport, you never stop improving,” said 24-year-old Chilean player Cote Zegers.

So what’s the appeal of polo?

“Pretty cute guys,” said Mary Ourisman, the next U.S. ambassador to Barbados who was lunching with auto magnate husband Mandy Ourisman and friends under the tent. There was a buffet and several bars. A band played Argentine music.

“Going fast. Hitting the ball hard. It’s about as much fun as you can have on a horse,” said event co-chairwoman Sydney McNiff Ferguson, who used to play polo in Sun Valley, Idaho. She was wearing a large charcoal straw hat and sipping white wine. “And if you’re riding a really smart pony, they’ll turn before you will.”

Academy Award-winning actor Robert Duvall, who lives nearby, said polo in Virginia “is more of a dilettante thing.” Mr. Duvall — whosewife,Luciana, is from Argentina — is a horseman, but he doesn’t play. “I like to watch. It’s OK to watch. I got on a polo pony once. It was only going half-speed, but boy, it’s dangerous.”

Outside the tent, Adair Seager, 30, was putting on his boots. He started playing as an undergraduate at Texas A&M; University.

“Some people might see it as elite, but I don’t. It’s a horse sport and a team sport,” he said, estimating that there are 10 polo teams in Virginia and Maryland that compete on weekends.

And here, on this balmy June afternoon, the eight players trot onto the field. They will play four “chukkers” (periods), each lasting seven minutes. The horses are changed between the chukkers. At halftime, the spectators will be asked to come onto the field for the ritual stomping of the divots, and Manolo Blahniks will leave tiny indents of their own.

Inside the tent, the well-heeled guests craned necks while still schmoozing.

“If you go here, you’ll find that most people don’t watch the polo,” said a Washington lawyer and fox hunter who asked to remain anonymous. “Nobody watches it.”

Washington architect Simon Jacobsen, wearing a straw boater, blue-and-white seersucker suit and white bucks, stood near the field waiting for the game to begin. He said he likes to come here to see how people are attired.

“I’m not an expert on polo, but every time I hear the word ‘chukker’ and hear that bell ring, I think it’s time to have another drink.”

In the end, polo is no match for soccer. On Saturday, Argentina was playing the Ivory Coast in the World Cup at the exact time the polo match began.

There was no television near the field and the players were “upset,” said Argentine Ambassador Jose Octavio Bordon, “but what could we do?”

“Don’t worry,” said the Argentine referee, nodding toward the stables. “We have one up there.”

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