It is tough to go to a polo match without preconceived notions. My GPS eventually returned a result for Prestonwood Country Club, located off of Yacht Club Drive (that’s literally the street-name). I instantly had a sinking feeling that I was underdressed and I should stop somewhere to top the car off with premium gasoline. However, at $10 per car, the price of admission is the same as it is for many of our Texas lake front public parks — so far so good.
In fact, the Prestonwood polo grounds don’t have an ostentatious feel at all. The parquet flooring in the Ralph Lauren section of Macy’s is more exclusive. Most fans avoid the seating area (the grandstand as it’s called) in favor backing up their SUVs to the field to watch the match from their tailgates. At the outdoor clubhouse, there is patio furniture for every taste. The grandstand area consists of plastic chairs. Both the grandstand and clubhouse are wooden, simple and sturdy; trellis fencing helpfully blocks the afternoon sun.
The host greeted me with this kind of eternal reassurance. Before I know it, he is calling me old sport and inviting up in his hydroplane tomorrow morning. Actually, that doesn’t happen. But because I am kind of expecting it to, the stables, the clubhouse and everything seems a lot more modest than it actually is. Ew! Bird poop, how bourgeois!
In a nutshell, polo consists of six, seven and a half minute periods called chukkers. Players are not allowed to use the same horse in consecutive chukkers. The match begins when a mounted umpire drops the ball (roughly the size of a softball) and two players from opposing teams compete for it in something that looks like a face-off in hockey. There are 4 players on a team. Bonus fact: polo is also a part of Texas history — the first polo game in the United States was in played in Galveston in 1876.
For a game played on horseback sometimes reaching a speed of 30mph, (good luck getting a clear photo of the action from your cell phone camera) polo is surprisingly slow from a spectator’s point of view. The size of the field is equivalent to 9 football fields. At the goal posts, the players are roughly as far away from midfield as the observation deck of the Reunion Tower is from the ground. In addition to play being sometimes difficult to see, iffy ball control and minimal passing contributed to my irresolute interest in keeping up with the game.
Chatting and the BYOB champagne can be interrupted by some absolutely thrilling moments. Play can be surprisingly physical with plenty of bumping and jostling between both players and horses. When ten horses thunder past on a breakaway, it was like being magically transported to the finish line of a horse race.
The closest most people get to polo, the game, is the infamous divot stomp scene in Pretty Woman (when Jason Alexander propositions Julia Roberts which is intended to serve as a cruel reality check). For a spectator, the divot stomp is the defining moment of the game. It isn’t a fashion show or an exhibition of high powered networking as seen in Pretty Woman, but it isn’t the bloated nacho line during the 7th inning stretch either. There is something oddly, enticingly like being on stage about the event as you are on the playing field milling around with champagne pretending to look at the grass while actually reassuring yourself that you aren’t underdressed compared to everyone else. Most men seemed to wear collard shirts; most women wore either summery, not exactly casual tops or sun dresses.
The post divot stomp relief that I didn’t encounter any ascots or floppy hats that cost more my pre-tax paycheque, was coupled with another realization. Unlike the competitiveness that goes with tracking statistics for fantasy teams and small talk analysis about who may be brought up from the farm team – that kind of detail is reserved for the players who are much more invested in the game (literally) than the spectators. The absence of these sports related pissing contests enhanced the casual Sunday afternoon feel of the Sunday afternoon.
There isn’t anything showy or exclusive about watching Polo at Prestonwood. Expect tailgating, a leisurely interest in what happens on the field and a memorable Sunday afternoon.
There are matches on Thursday, June 28th and final game of the season is June 30th. Gates are open at 6, the match starts at 6:30. The cost is $10.