The thought of watching a polo match in the twilight of a fading summer’s day while turned-out in the sort of attire that made Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age girls come and go “like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars” made my sister and me feel as we should.
And then it rained.
An announcer on the loudspeaker said casually that the storm would pass over us quickly, and the match would start a fashionable twenty minutes late.
An hour went by.
The sudden summer shower had turned into a veritable monsoon, but it was polite enough to wait ’til we were all in our cars. There we picnicked, and discovered that sangria doesn’t taste the same inside a Subaru Forester as it does on the verdant floor of the Northern Virginia countryside. It may taste better. Consider how the intense sweetness and complex flavors of the infused fruits can be better appreciated when they aren’t mingled with the distracting fragrances of fresh fauna and flora.
Several carloads of spectators left when they realized the twenty minute timeframe had been wishful thinking. We stuck it out. The bright break in the clouds eventually expanded and the rain let up. Soon the only raindrops that fell came off of the tree branches. We sat under one of these branches with an umbrella to shelter us when at last it was time for the matches to begin. It was dark by now and too late in the season for fireflies.
The first round of play was by amateurs. Their match seemed to be taking place in slow motion, so we strolled in the general direction of a pavilion that sold wine. We were hailed on our way by some middle-aged men who were enjoying the delights of lavish catering and an open bar under cover of a tent associated with Morgan Stanley. They were unaware of the night’s Gatsby theme, because “Bob didn’t say anything about it in the invitation,” and asked us why we looked so nice, even though one “can’t be under-dressed or over-dressed” for a polo match. The men left us when their wives arrived, and we found out later on that “Bob” was really a Robert who was really the captain of the U.S. Polo Team.
We decided to see what was of interest on the other side of the arena, away from the crowds and closer to the horse trailers whence the players came and went. The stands were mostly empty on this side, and we were encouraged by the event’s folksy M.C. and sometimes-player to take advantage of the fair-weather fans’ absence and occupy the reserved boxes.
We were front and center just in time for the professional players’ debut. Their playing and our proximity thereto was exciting enough even to distract us from the ironic playing of grainy throwback ’90s songs — Creed, Nickelback, and Kelly Clarkson — that confused not only the theme but the entire mood of the respectable affair.
We became fans almost immediately of Scotty Gray – a lithe figure whose name was repeated enough times to be committed to even the dullest memory. He scored almost all the points for his three-player team — the other two of which were female.
The allure of such a one as Scotty Gray who combines the ferocity of a nomadic warrior (who are said to have invented “the oldest team sport”) with the graceful ceremony of an Arthurian knight fighting for his lady’s favor is added to, naturally, by the air of being well-to-do and doing it well.
Polo is very much a rich man’s sport. Having several good, oftentimes second-career racehorses (horses become so exhausted with the demanding action of the game that players must switch to fresh ones at the end of each interval, or “chukka”) at one’s disposal is one thing; having the means to transport them all over the country to the far-flung places a dedicated polo player must travel in order to play, and the leisure time to do so, is quite another.
The game of polo had been an Olympic sport between 1900 and 1936, but lost steam after WWII. Today it’s played all over the world in various forms. It’s taken seriously in the U.S. by collegiate teams — mostly Ivy League (Harvard’s team practices on the Texas ranch of actor alum Tommy Lee Jones), preppy Texan schools (notably Texas A&M and Southern Methodist University), and a few western colleges.
We gained a real appreciation for the action when we took our seats up close. Arena polo, with a much tighter area of play, is rougher than the traditional full-field version. Players rubbed elbows and muscled each other out of the way. Ladies looked on while men played the field, manhandling their mallets with cool agility for off side forehand swings and near side backhand shots. Hooves thundered past us and at one point charged the wall at an alarming speed in hot pursuit of the ball. I was unharmed except for a splattering of mud that soiled my dress — just punishment for wearing white after Labor Day.
Polo players must be either very well-conditioned prior to playing or very sore the day after. There’s so much leaning and balancing, reaching, and learned use of awkward strength. So too with the ponies, which must be at least as athletic as their riders.
Though a more compact horse that moves deftly and possesses greater stamina is preferable, a polo “pony” is not necessarily of a smaller breed. These full-sized horses are referred to by their diminutive title after an obsolete rule that forbade mounts from being any higher than 13 hands and two inches.
The game was tied up until the end, when Scotty Gray’s team lost by one final exclamation point goal. Revelers danced in the pavilion well into the night. Loud techno music echoed into the still, post-storm air of Great Meadow, and the spirit of the Gatsby era — ever the masquerade — was abandoned altogether.
“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
At least the damp parts.