Wednesday, August 13, 2014

East Bound and Down Polo Tour: The Whirlwind That It Was

Steph and Grace feeding horses at 3:30 AM

20 Days.  3500 miles.  70 hours driving (at least).  11 horses.  8 polo clubs.  5 humans.  And countless memories made. 

This didn’t leave much time for blogging,  so now I find myself trying to wrap-up the experience in one post.  So I’ve decided to compile a “Best of” list… the best parts of each stop that we made along the way. 

Stop 1: Skaneateles, New York

The excitement of setting out on such an incredible adventure was high.  And I loved the unexpected historical stop at Harriet Tubman’s grave. 

Steph, Grace, Aunt Lo, and me

Lake Skaneateles was a beautiful setting, and the antique boat show was a great bonus.

Stop 2: Saratoga Springs, New York

Our day at the races was definitely a trip highlight.  I even managed to win!  In the first race I picked Bobby Flay’s horse, Pecorino, to win because I like food.  Pecorino may be a cheesy name for a horse, but he won!  The second race I picked 2 horses to show, and the guy behind the counter gave me the wrong horse… but won… at 20-1 odds!  Hot dog!  I made $90 on a $10.  And then it all fell apart from there…  But it was exciting nonetheless.  Conclusion: I felt like stepping back in time as horse racing seems like a sport that hasn't changed much since it became rooted in our history. 

In the paddock at Saratoga

Not so much a photo finish

The ladies were treated to an awesome soak at the Roosevelt Baths and Spa, natural springs that gave Saratoga Springs its name.  It was a wonderfully relaxing experience. 

The hospitality of Jim Rossi, Chief Marketing Officer for the USPA, was exceptional.  Jim pulled out all the stops by arranging the best table for some terrace dining at Maestro’s, the best viewing for the Sunday afternoon game at the Saratoga Polo Club, and a great box at the Saratoga Raceway.  But the most memorable moment may have been when Jim taught us the art of “sabrage”, opening a bottle of champagne with a sword.  Why a sword?  Why not?!?   

Sabrage: before

Sabrage: After

Steph's sabrage action shot

And sabrage: what not to do.  Sorry C&L, I couldn't resist

Stop 3: Pine Plains, New York (Mashomack Polo Club)

This was only a day stop, but it was a beautiful day for some great polo.  The setting was spectacular and a quick glimpse into the Mashomack Fish and Game Preserve Club was pretty cool as well.

Sun setting on Pine Plains as we head east for Newport

What was NOT so cool about this part of the trip was driving the horse trailer through the 2 lane, hilly, windy roads of western Connecticut.  But what am I talking about?  I wasn't the one doing the driving.  It was Super Steph. 

Stop 4: Newport, Rhode Island

Our experience at the Newport International Polo Club, with gracious hosts, Dan and Agnes Keating, was a blast!  They were hosting the Kenyan International Team the same weekend.  The grounds were beautiful and despite the rain, people still turned out for the big event.  The highlight, however, would have to be the Lobster Bake… slow cooking lobster on a huge pile of seaweed warmed by burning coals for 3 hours covered under a pile of tarps.  Incredible! 

There are lots of lobsters under those tarps

The unveiling

Steph and I may have also made an appearance at the Annual Polo Ball at the Rosecliff Mansion.  We weren't quite party crashers… but we like to refer to ourselves as such.  Although significantly under-dressed (we didn't get the ball memo before packing), I reminded Steph that confidence wears better than designer gowns any day. Well... I may not have said it like that, but you get the idea. 

Arguably the best meal of the entire tour was enjoyed at the Black Pearl in Newport.  Scallops, Shrimp and Lobster… with lobster sauce… in a puff pastry.  Sorry if I made you jealous.  The present “me” is jealous of the former “me.” 

Stop 5: Hamilton, Massachusetts (Myopia Polo Club)

The Myopia Polo Club is the oldest active polo club in the country.  We were warmly welcomed by Nick and Amanda Snow and were set up with great accommodations at the Myopia Hunt Club. 

"Tailgating" at the Myopia Polo Match

We had a beautiful walk on Singing Sands Beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea and Crane Beach the next day. 

Night stroll on Singing Sands Beach

Enjoying Crane Beach

I was also able to get my history fix by taking the Boston Duck Tour.  We rode in the “Ducks” which are “World War II-style amphibious landing vehicles”.  This means that you ride around Boston and then get to boat through Boston Harbor.  Pretty cool! 

Stop 6: Southhampton, New York

In an effort to avoid NYC traffic, we took the ferry from New London, Connecticut to Long Island.  My thought: Is this what Lyle Lovett was doing when he penned the lyrics “Me upon my pony on my boat”?  I enjoyed every minute of the sea breeze that morning.

Our trailer on the ferry

I can only imagine how many times "I'm the King of the World!" has been declared here.  

Chuck and Laurie treated me to a lovely afternoon at the Wolffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack.  Laurie and I spent much of the time plotting on how to convince Chuck to take us to Ina “Barefoot Contessa” Garten’s favorite dining in the Hamptons at the 1770 House.  For a little bit of history… in addition to the culinary skills of my mom, aunts and grandmothers, no one has inspired me more in the realm of cooking than the Barefoot Contessa.  Mom gave me my first cookbook in 2003, “Barefoot Contessa Family Style” and found her recipes to be simple and savory and discovered that as long as you can read a recipe, you can cook!  I have never looked back.  So, to make the pilgrimage to Barefoot’s favorite restaurant was kind of a big deal.  Besides, earlier this summer I had made the “1770 House Meatloaf” (from “Barefoot Contessa Foolproof”), and thought it would be cool to see where this wonderful dish was created.  But, since I decided to eat as much seafood as possible while on the east coast, I chose the “Seared Montauk Sea Scallops with Sweet Peas and Potatoes, Chanterelle Mushroom Fondue, Melted Leeks and Black Garlic.”  Thank you, Uncle Chuck, for humoring us, literally... as this was the meal that we shared the most laughs.  Now, what’s this about a butt-kissing?

"Clean plate clubbers" at the 1770 House 

Stop 7: Coatesville, Pennsylvania (Brandywine Polo Club)      

Not gonna lie… I haven’t heard many people rave about PA, so I wasn’t anticipating any big thrills in Chester County.  And thus, there is something to be said for having no, or low, expectations.  This really may have been my favorite stop on the whole tour.  To start with, we had amazing hosts in Cindy and Richard Buchanan.  They opened their incredible home to us.  It was also so nice to be able to stay at the same place the horses were staying to cut down on travel time.  As a result, this may have been one our most relaxing stops.  Our first evening, we had an awesome meal at the Whip Tavern.  Considering it was billed an English Pub, I decided to go with the Shepherd’s Pie.  Like the rest of our experience in Pennsylvania, I was not disappointed.   

Enjoying a peaceful morning, with Molly, at Mercer Hill Farm

Cindy gave a recommendation to pay a visit to the Longwood Gardens, botanical gardens and estate founded by Pierre du Pont.  I have long been a fan of botanical gardens.  The air in these conservatories feels like breathing in good health.  Several times I found myself being thankful for fully functioning senses as we wandered through the estate, including an incredible organ demonstration of the William Tell Overture.  (This brought to mind how many times I had thought I was thankful for the use of my feet during the many treks I made during the past year.  And then my Achilles ruptured.  I’m hoping none of my senses meet the same fate.  But if they do, I’m thankful for the experiences they have given me thus far.)      

Incredible Water Lilly ponds

This was a big fern

Hibiscus as big as your face

Stop 8: Gainesville, Virginia (Great Meadow Polo Club and Virginia International Polo Club)

Again, we were greeted by wonderful hosts.  Jim and Kim Burton were busy tending the grounds at Buckland Farm when we pulled in.  They were proud to share that this was some of the best pasture in the country and that our horses would be happy to partake.  I’m not sure how the grass tasted but the rolling hills were beautiful. 

Later that night we were entertained at the Great Meadows Polo Club as I watched my first arena polo match.  This was played under the lights, on a dirt field (similar to a rodeo arena) with just 3 players on each team, as opposed to the usual 4.  The game was fast and fun and they have figured out a way to draw a great crowd on a Saturday night.  It was a super fun event!

Twilight Polo at Great Meadows

And then, Uncle Chuck played his last polo game of the tour in Upperville, Virginia.  But as Chuck and Laurie got in the car to head back to Peoria, Steph, Grace and I were whisked away in a helicopter by Jim.  He gave us a tour of the Shenandoah Valley by air.  Incredible! 

Jim takes us for a spin!

We were just a little excited

Cruising over the Shenandoah River

So our tour ended, appropriately, with a whirlwind, 2-hour tour of Washington DC.  We took the metro into town, rented bikes and managed to ride to the White House, Washington Monument, World War II Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Korean Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, and the Jefferson Memorial.  At each stop, I gave the girls a 2-minute run down of the facts and figures I knew about the memorial (I still had some of my notes from previous trips on an Evernote file!) and then I sent them off to snap pics while I watched the bikes.  The short time there brought back great memories of 5 tours with EVHS students and my visit as a junior at Richwoods with Mrs. Bales and my best friend Kristen (Vanek) Huls.  DC will always be a favorite!

Wow!  Did that just happen?  Incredible!  Thank you, Uncle Chuck and Aunt Laurie for generously including me in this amazing adventure.  Thanks for generating great conversation and treating us to incredible meals.  And thank you, Steph and Grace for letting “the stranger” crash your polo world.  You girls do good work.  Thanks for listening to my history lessons, Stuff You Should Know Podcasts, and my Spanish. 

Thumbs up to a wonderful adventure!

Well folks, that’s a wrap on the East Bound and Down Polo Tour.  We were definitely loaded up and truckin’.  We did things they didn't know could be done.  We had a long ways to go and a short time to get there.  We were East Bound, just watch how Steph can drive!  

Saturday, August 2, 2014

East Bound and Down Polo Tour: Polo 101

As promised, here is my best attempt to explain some of the basics of the game of polo to an outside observer, such as myself.  Uncle Chuck has taken some time at a couple of the games we've attended to tell me what to watch for.  Maybe it will help give you some background for the next polo game you have an opportunity to attend, or at least sound somewhat educated next time it comes us in a cocktail party conversation.  And if polo doesn't happen to come up in discussion, don’t be afraid to get the conversation started!

Game time at the Mashomack Polo Club in Pine Plaines, New York

The Horses:
·         Most polo ponies are retired race horses that are given a new job playing polo, as opposed to the alternative.
·         Thoroughbreds are the most common breed on the field.
·         Most polo ponies are females because they tend to be more aggressive and mentally mature at a younger age, desirable qualities for an aggressive and strategic game.
At the races, Saratoga.  These horses could find their future in polo.
Polo Ponies at the Saratoga Polo Club

The Players:

  •  Each player is assigned a handicap ranging from minus 2 to 10, a subjective and comparative number determined by a handicap committee assigned to each of the 13 circuits that are part of the USPA. 
  •  Each team has 4 players assigned a position from 1 to 4, which indicates where they play on the field.
  • The level of play is determined by the cumulative handicap of each team.  For example, if you watch a 40 goal game, you are watching 4 players, each with a 10 goal handicap playing.  This would be the highest level of play.  A more common example could be a 4 goal team versus a 6 goal team.  Each player on the 4 goal team could carry a handicap of 1.  The 6 goal team could have a 4 goal player, a minus 2 goal player and two 2 goal players.  Typically, games are set up so the handicap levels are equal. If that is not possible, the teams will choose to add points to the scoreboard for the lower goal team equal to the handicap differential. 

The Game:
·         A standard game consists of 6 periods called “chukkers.”  Each chukker is 7 minutes long. 
·         One main thing to watch for is the “line of the ball.”  The line is created as one of the players hits the ball in any direction.  Players are not allowed to cross that line once it is established. Each time the ball is hit, a new line is established. Players can cross the line to bump their opponent, saddle to saddle.  
·         Players ride down the field towards the opponent’s goal, typically with the player in position 1 closest to that goal.  Players 1 and 2 are generally the offensive players.  Player 3 is the "pivot player" and Player 4, or the "back", is expected to stay behind the play and defend shots on goal.   A “textbook” possession might look something like this:

Playing Field: Line of the Ball   © 2004 POLO+10 The Polo Magazine,

·         There are a variety of reasons why a player may be called for committing a foul.  Obvious reasons would be for unsafe play.  But the most commonly called foul would be if a player on either team crosses the “line of the ball.” 

The Spectators
·         Anyone is invited to attend a polo game.  Many clubs play games on fields without viewing areas for spectators, but members from the community are welcome to pull up a chair, or their car, and enjoy the game from the sidelines.  Entrance is typically free and tailgating is encouraged!  Other clubs have become quite organized and games have great turnouts for their weekend matches.  I experienced this in Saratoga Springs, New York and hear the same about the Newport Polo Club.  (But the jury is still out.  The game is tonight, weather permitting!) 
·         Even if you know nothing about polo, you can still participate in the match.  During halftime (between chukkers 3 and 4), all spectators are invited to walk out onto the field and “stomp divots.”  Divots are the chunks of grass that have been torn from the field during play.  Everyone can help in improving the condition of the field for the second half of the game.  FUN!
·         And if horses and divots don’t interest you, the people-watching never disappoints. 

"East Bound and Down Polo Tour" members out stomping divots.  Clearly, there is more than one way to stomp a divot. 

The Culture
·         Winston Churchill claimed that playing polo was a “passport to the world.”  With over 200 active clubs in the United States and 89 member countries in the Federation of International Polo, it would appear that Churchill knew what he was talking about. 
·         Regardless of what polo club you show up to, there is almost always a common denominator.  Whether it be a horse, a player or another club, everyone seems to be able to connect in some way or another. 
·         Club hosts and players are a very friendly bunch.  As trailers begin to line the field, players walk from trailer to trailer to greet their fellow players and the entourage that joins them.  Typically, after each game, members of both teams, grooms, friends and family gather together for a meal and socializing.  In our case, we have now been to 4 clubs, have had a chance to eat at great restaurants. And last night in Newport we had a blast joining in the festivities at the Polo Ball at the historic Rosecliff mansion.  Hey, I'm a small town girl of Peoria, rubbing shoulders with the elite of Newport. Polo knows no demographic boundaries. 
·         Although polo has been dubbed the “Sport of Kings”, there is a movement within clubs across the country to make it the “Sport for Kids.”  Many polo clubs welcome kids to come out to the barn, help with the horses and learn the basics of polo.  Contact your local polo club for more information. 
·         A wide range of social classes are known to participate in the sport across the country.  On any given game day, someone with a farming background may share the field with a successful businessman.  And it’s not just a man’s sport.  Women are the fastest growing demographic in the sport. 

Enjoying the hospitality of our wonderful hosts in Saratoga Springs, Jim and Elizabeth Rossi

Steph and I enjoying the festivities at the polo ball at Rosecliff 

The United States Polo Association
·         The USPA is recognized by the United States Olympic Committee as the national governing body of the sport of polo. It is the USPA's dream to get polo back into the Olympics. 
·         The role of the USPA has transitioned from instructional training in polo to club management training, in an effort to "Manage the Polo Experience.” 
·         The USPA looks at polo as a high adrenaline sport that brings together players for the love of the game, for the love of the horse, and the love of experiencing all of those things in beautiful settings around the world. 
·         Bonus Fact: After serving as the President of the USPA for 4 years, Uncle Chuck was appointed as Chairman of the USPA 3 years ago.  He has one more year left in his term.  It seems to be a position that he is thriving in.  Well done, Uncle Chuck!  Thanks for letting me in on the action for these 3 weeks!

For more information, check out the USPA website at:

Up next… playing catch-up on our time in Saratoga Springs, New York and Newport, Rhode Island.  Eastbound and Down… we’re still loaded up and truckin’!  Thanks for tagging along!