POLO TO THE PEOPLE : In Southern California, a Once-Exclusive Sport Is De-Gentrified

"IF YOU'VE GOT $150,a pair of jeans and some cowboy boots, you too can be a polo player." When Patrick Nesbitt heard these words from a business associate two years ago, it was his first clue that the sport of royalty had trickled down to the bourgeoisie. Now Nesbitt has become one of the novice players who are de-gentrifying the sport and bringing a polo boom to Southern California.

Though his colleague may have downplayed the cost of the sport a bit, it's true that the new polo enthusiast is more apt to be like Nesbitt--a Los Angeles real estate developer born in Detroit's inner city--than an Argentine land baron. What's more, about half of the new players are women. Today people who have never been on a horse before are taking lessons, ponies are leased like BMWs, and new facilities are opening all over in Southern California.

The mecca of the new polo is the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, which opened in 1982. President Al Garcia says his concept was to attract spectators with exhibition matches by teams of the American Polo League, then to open a polo school where they could learn the game. Soon the Los Angeles Colts, with such top-ranking pros as Tom Goodspeed, Joe Henderson and Ronnie Tongg, were taking on visiting teams in Saturday-night matches that have made the Equidome arena and its adjacent disco, Horses, the hottest weekend scene in the San Fernando Valley.

Twenty-two pro polo games are played at the center during the fall and spring seasons (the spring season ends in early July). Crowds of 2,500 spectators, from celebrities to blue-collar workers, converge on the arena in a far cry from the civilized blue-blazer-and-straw-hat tradition. At Horses, spectators can enjoy apres-polo dancing till 1 a.m. Such celebrities as Sylvester Stallone, William Devane and Juice Newton have boxes in the arena, and when Newton married Goodspeed, they held their reception at the center's Riding and Polo Club. The Equidome scene has proved that anyone can watch polo, but the Los Angele Equestrian Center proves that you don't have to be fabulously rich to play . The center's polo school opened four years ago and was the first place in Los Angeles where a beginner could learn the fundamentals by investing $150 for five lessons on a polo pony and the use of a mallet and helmet. The center now gives 2,000 lessons a month.

On a sunny morning the polo barns are a bustling scene. Instructors introduce beginners to their ponies, then the students lead the ponies to an outdoor ring and mount up. Polo mallets are placed in the newcomers' hands, and their riding skills are evaluated as the horses walk and trot. No one here today is more than a passable rider. The students are taught how to ride in a circle, shown the four basic shots and asked to practice one of them at a walk. One novice, a tax attorney in his 40s, says he first started learning four years ago but stopped when his job interfered. "Now I see my friends dropping around me, and I figure I owe it to myself to have some fun," he says.

Finding time to practice does not come easily to the new, workaday, polo player. Surgeon Madison Richardson says he solved the problem by setting up a "polo pit" in his Hancock Park backyard, where he can sit on a wooden horse and hit shots into a backboard.

"Since the only time I had to do it was when I got home around 10 at night, I don't think the neighbors were exactly delighted," he says.

At the end of the first class, the instructor advises that the students enroll in equitation classes to supplement their training. It will take at least six months of lessons, a written test and a riding exam for students to become certified for club play--the first rung on the polo ladder. Later, over a beer at the Polo Club, Dan Cohen, a Rodeo Drive art-gallery manager who has been taking lessons for a year, says: "This place is run like a business, not like a private club, and that's one of the things that has made polo so accessible to everyone."

The Los Angeles Equestrian Center offers only "arena polo," which is played in a 50-by-100-yard dirt ring, one-third the size of the grassy outdoor field with which most people are familiar. Arena polo has four game periods (called chukkers ) of seven minutes each instead of the six periods in outdoor polo, and three players per team instead of four. In arena polo, players can get by with two horses--one if they alternate play with a teammate who also has one horse. That's because with a rest, a horse can play two chukkers, but not three.

Representatives of the U.S. Polo Assn. rate players each year according to skill. The system, called goal-rating or handicapping, is similar to handicapping in golf. Ratings, or "goals" start at minus one and go up to a rare 10 (there are only five 10-goalers in the world). Last year, says USPA Executive Director William Hilliard, 2,400 players were rated in the USPA Blue Book, up from 1,700 players in 1980. And about 90% of those rated in 1986 had a handicap of two or below, a reflection of the tremendous influx of new players into the sport. Sue Sally Hale, known as the grand old lady of polo, fought to be recognized in the USPA Blue Book for years and in 1972 became the first woman to be included. Now she and two of her daughters, Sunny and Stormie, are instructors at the Moorpark Polo Club in Moorpark. Sunny Hale was just raised to a three-goal indoor rating, making her one of the highest-ranked women polo players in the world. (The rating system for men and women is identical, and both sexes play on the same teams.)

Kathy Batchelor, who teaches at the Tri-Valley Polo Club in Chatsworth, says: "We get housewives who want to become polo players because it's the latest thing. Some of them get so hooked on it that it threatens their marriages. I've had three come to me this month and say their husbands wanted them to cool it--the game's too time-consuming."

"A lot of career women are attracted to the game," says Susan Stovall, polo manager of the Eldorado Polo Club in Indio. "They have the money, and they have the aggressiveness." At the Will Rogers polo grounds in Pacific Palisades, retired five-goal polo player Don Howden was watching a woman, San Fernando Valley dentist Kit Neacy, mix it up with the men on a recent Saturday afternoon. "I'll admit we previously didn't like women on the playing field because they used to play like--well, women ," Howden says, "but they don't play like that anymore. Now they really go for it--they're very aggressive."

Eldorado was a dusty two-field facility until it moved from Indian Wells to Indio in 1980. Now Chakker, the English polo magazine, calls it "the biggest little polo club in the world." The club has 10 fields and more playing members (196) than any other club in the United States and the largest number of matches played weekly. One out of five members is female--nearly twice the national average. This year 42 teams played more than 40 matches during the USPA Governor's Cup tournament. The high point of Eldorado's season came last spring when Prince Charles played an exhibition game that attracted thousands of spectators. "It's typical of our membership that some of them complained about his visit cutting into their playing time," comments Stovall.

Quite at odds with polo in Britain or even Palm Beach, Eldorado has a casual, Western style. Members share refereeing chores, and Saturday night parties in the clubhouse are family affairs. At a recent party, kids, grooms in ski parkas, players in jeans and a few sleek blond women in mink shared the $10 ribs and beans dinner and danced on the chilly veranda to a rendition of "Jambalaya" by a band called Little Bit of Country.

Southern California's versions of the old-guard polo club are Will Rogers and Santa Barbara, though both have been affected by the new polo. Will Rogers has been a private club since 1952, when it was founded from the remnants of the defunct Riviera Polo Club in Pacific Palisades. The Riviera club had been the magnet for polo-playing stars and moguls (and was the inspiration for the name of the Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge). In Riviera's heyday, tournaments attracted as many as 28,000 spectators. But the club was closed in 1952, the victim of rising real estate values. It was sold to the Los Angeles Board of Education and is now the site of Paul Revere Junior High. Will Rogers' practice field was made a gift to the state upon the humorist's death, and the deed contained a proviso that the polo field be maintained in perpetuity.

C. D. LeBlanc, who managed the Will Rogers club for 25 years, turned the management over to 38-year-old Century City lawyer Joel Ladin and his wife, Doreen, 2 1/2 years ago. Ladin has been playing for five years, his wife for less than two. Old and new members mingle easily. "People don't have airs here," says Ladin. "It's the guys who think a checkbook replaces skill that the old polo players don't like." Will Rogers is a low-goal, low-key club, and none of the members have hired professionals to beef up the teams.

The Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club, founded in the 1920s, remains the home of high-goal summer polo in Southern California, though play goes on most of the year. The private club recently cut its membership back to 55 players to avoid wear and tear on its field. "We only have three fields here, and they just can't take the pounding anymore," says club social director Lucille Gutierrez.

The club also has begun tying club membership to ownership of condominiums on club property. As of now, only condo owners who have paid an additional $8,000 for polo attachment are eligible for club membership, and soon, current club members will have to own one of the condos to retain their membership.

The clubhouse is a trove of polo memorabilia and photographs of legendary players who competed there. And though one novice was heard to complain that "Santa Barbara is kind of stuffy. They make you change into fresh whites after a game before they let you in the clubhouse," Gutierrez says the club plans to retain that rule--and others. "We're also the only club that doesn't allow dogs. We like to keep things clean," she says.

To meet the demand for expanded facilities, more and more new clubs are being formed. One of the major ones will be Rancho Santa Fe Polo Club in Rancho Santa Fe, described as a sister club to Eldorado for summer play. It will open Aug. 2. A mix of polo veterans and relative newcomers is on the board. The recently opened Ventura Polo Club is described by co-manager Eileen Nash as "a commuter club for the L.A. attorney who can only play on weekends and doesn't want to hire a pro."

Many smaller facilities are thriving, and their number is increasing: Winston in Anaheim, Tri-Valley in Chatsworth, Fair Hills Polo and Hunt Club in Topanga, Moorpark Polo Club, and the Sycamore in San Juan Capistrano. And players can play by the chukker at Artie Cameron's ranch in Montecito or Sandy Jordan's ranch in Solvang.

The world of polo is taking notice of Southern California as a center for the sport. For the first time in 21 years, the U.S. Open, the World Series of polo with the best players in the world, will return here to be played in October--and not at Santa Barbara, as it was last time, but at Eldorado. Whether beer and barbecue will replace champagne and pate is yet to be seen.

THE PRICE OF THE TOYS OUTFITTING THE PLAYER

Boots--$150 to $250

Knee guards--$60-$100

Helmet--motorcycle-style, $85; traditional-style, starting at $125

Pants--white Levis, $25; Argentine bombaches,$50; English-style, $30-$100

Gloves--$20

Crop--$14-$50

Mallet--$35-$95

GETTING A PONY

Trained polo mount--$2,500-$8,000

Leasing trained pony--a maximum of $200 per month plus board ($225), shoeing every five to six weeks ($35 and up), and veterinary expenses. Half leases, in which two riders split expenses, can also be arranged.

OUTFITTING THE PONY

Saddle and girth--about $765

Headgear--about $300

Stable gear (pads, halter, wraps)--about $300

LEARNING TO PLAY

Minimum of two lessons per week for six months at $40 per lesson to graduate to C-level polo-club proficiency--$2,080

Price estimates by Ron Volpe, a former player who outfits many new players at Burbank Pet and Equestrian Supply in Glendale.

WHERE TO LEARN L.A. EQUESTRIAN CENTER

Starts new players with a five-lesson package for $150. 480 Riverside Drive, Burbank, (818) 840-9063.

ELDORADO POLO CLUB

Hosts a polo clinic in April and November. New students may rent a pony from the club for the clinic. 50950 Madison St., Indio, (619) 342-2223.

JOEL BAKER'S SEMINARS

Monthly events for players who want to hone their skills. $460. Circle J & B Ranch, P.O. Box 1993, Buellton, (805) 688-1585.

MOORPARK POLO CLUB

Sue Sally Hale and daughters Stormie and Sunny teach here at $20 per hour. 7816 Grimes Canyon Road, Moorpark, (805) 529-9572.

WILL ROGERS POLO CLUB

Riding lessons for $30 an hour; polo lessons available to those with English riding experience. 14255 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades, (213) 454-9148.

FAIR HILLS FARMS

Polo instruction available for $30 per group lesson, $50 per private lesson. 2735 Santa Maria Road, Topanga, (818) 347-5049

WINSTON POLO CLUB

Offers a package of six lessons for $210, then a series of four lessons for $120. Pony is included. 2300 E. Winston Road, Anaheim, (714) 535-7155

MALIBU RIDING CLUB

Private polo lessons, including pony, are $35 per lesson, four students per class. 33905 Pacific Coast Highway, Los Angeles, (213) 457-9783

TRI-VALLEY POLO CLUB

Beginners can take five lessons for $100, including pony. P.O. Box 4675, Chatsworth, (818) 341-6488

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