Mention polo and most people conjure up images of Prince Charles, wealthy aristocrats and fine-bloodline ponies. The common folk tend to associate polo with the rich jet-setting life played out in the international media. Not here in Sarasota. But for the beauty of the sport, champagne swilling and divot stomping, the atmosphere bears little resemblance to that in the movie Pretty Woman.
Dress in finery and don your chapeau if you like, or come as you are and bring the kids. Dogs on leashes are welcomed as well.
The game of polo has evolved over 2,500 years into quite a spectacle; it's all about speed, finesse and great courage – of both horse and rider. Today it is played in 77 countries, and the sport has been a fixture at Lakewood Ranch since 1991.
From caviar to hot dogs, families enjoy picnicking to the sound of thundering hooves and ground-shaking excitement.
The nine polo fields here – each the size of 10 football fields – are among the best in the world. There aren't as many divots as on some fields, or breaks in the turf; a superior irrigation system and the tenacious roots of the silky Bermuda grass keep the surface mostly intact. But halftime finds crowds of spectators on the fields nonetheless, stomping and socializing with gusto.
There are six chukkers, or periods in a match, and a 10-minute halftime occurs between the third and fourth. Each of the four players on a team uses a minimum of six horses, at least one for each chukker. Unique to polo is that the owner or sponsor is usually an active member of the quartet - imagine George Steinbrenner pitching for the New York Yankees.
The object of the game is to score as many points as possible by striking a small ball across the field, sort of like hockey on horseback without goalies. The thoroughbreds move at amazing speeds, stopping and accelerating and making dart-like turns on a dime. Up close, it is a game of physical contact and incredible stamina.
Above all, harmony between horse and rider is paramount, impressive and beautiful to watch. The Sarasota Polo Club hosts players from Argentina, South Africa, Canada, Australia, Pakistan and other countries.
Festival on the Sidelines
Attendance at Sarasota polo has steadily increased over the years, undoubtedly in part due to the tailgating and themed tailgating contests, along with events throughout the season, which runs from December through April.
The polo club's pavilion and clubhouse are available for rent (during non-polo season) for weddings and corporate events.
Regulars purchase season tailgate spots, but there's plenty of space for the casual observer. Cars can be seen lined up in rows three-deep for the festive sporting events.
Every week, in fact, feels like a celebration. Revelry continues long after the match has ended, when the field is open for Frisbee-throwing, soccer, football and baseball – and parties last into the night.
Bring the family, kick off your shoes and feel the soft grass beneath your toes. Pack a picnic, or barbecue behind your car. Witness amazing athleticism of horse and rider, as they bump and jostle with their opponents. Polo is an easy game for a first-time spectator to enjoy. And with a $15 general admission and children 12 and under free, you don't have to be royalty to experience the Sport of Kings.
If you go:
For more information, call 941-907-0000, or visit sarasotapolo.com. The fields are located 3.5 miles east of I-75 off University Parkway in Lakewood Ranch. Turn right on Lorraine Road; the entrance is the second on the right.