The Blue at This Polo Field Is in the Collars, Not the Blood

darlingPennsylvania town’s equine arena draws locals in football off-season; pickups and Pabst.
DARLINGTON, Pa.—Chris Laderer danced to the Toby Keith tune blaring from his Ford F-150, slurped a Pabst Blue Ribbon and flipped a cheeseburger.

He was ready for some polo.

Glenn Watterson
Glenn Watterson
Minutes later, six riders on horses—thoroughbreds past their prime but still in fighting shape—were galloping up and down the dirt oval that is home to one of the world’s most unusual polo clubs.

This western Pennsylvania hamlet of 250 is high-school football country. But that’s in the fall. You need something to do when days get hot and long.

So locals like Mr. Laderer gather to watch polo, or at least to be near it.

“Tailgating, good food, good drink—now is the season for polo,” said Mr. Laderer, a 28-year-old factory worker in earrings and goatee, his back turned toward the equine action.

As the horses wove and cut, their riders leaning over to whack a white plastic ball with four-foot-long bamboo mallets, Mr. Laderer and his buddies explained the sport’s finer points.

“The rules of polo?” said one, Bubba Drabick, 21. “Drink as much beer as possible?”

The ancient Persians invented polo. A modern British resurrection associated it with the upper crust most everywhere.

Not so in Darlington, a place of farms and factories northwest of Pittsburgh. People started playing here in 1937 because they thought it was fun.

They shared horses and equipment to play, feasting on fried fish and corn after games. Early members included coal miners on plow horses.

The sport became part of town culture, along with pet parades and duck races. Friday-night game admission is $5. A “hot-dog, fries and pop combo meal” costs $4, served out of a brown barn. The sidelines have a blue-collar feel.

“It’s a night for everybody in the community to get together,” said Glenn Watterson, 42, club president and the founder’s grandson. “It’s been mentally written in here that there’s polo on Friday nights.”

The American polo set, in places like Palm Beach and Santa Barbara, observes Darlington with admiration and bemusement. The field, dirt instead of the usual grass, “is a twist on a theme,” said Elizabeth Hedley, a club consultant with the U.S. Polo Association. “It’s cheap and cheerful polo for the common man.”

The Darlington Polo Club has 12 members, many from two families. Annual dues are $50. The field, co-owned by the Wattersons and local government, has no grandstands; spectators line it with pickup tailgates and picnic chairs.

A traditional grass polo field might cost $60,000 to $100,000 a year to maintain. For Darlington’s dirt field, said Treasurer Justin Powers, “we just pay for weed killer.”

An upscale polo habit, including travel, can cost hundreds of thousands yearly. Even in Darlington, “you have to have some financial stability,” said Mr. Watterson, as it can cost at least $4,000 a year to maintain a polo horse. “But we think we’re more affordable than most places.”

On a recent Friday, the first match of the May-through-October season, Darlington played Cleveland. Mr. Watterson, an asphalt-company owner, welcomed teammate Rob Goehring, 51, an electrical engineer.

“I’m a neighbor, and Glenn invited me to play, and it was love at first swing,” Mr. Goehring said. “This combines my love of sports with my love of horses.” After warming up, he grabbed a chalk machine and lined the field.

Men and women play together in Darlington. “The biggest challenge is hand-eye coordination,” said Juliette Powers, 25, a physical therapist and polo player since her teens.

“Any time you have a group who wants to play, just call me,” she told a prospective player who wandered up while she was readying her horse, Picasa. “We don’t really have a schedule.”

As the sky turned pink, loudspeakers boomed: “It’s time for polo, and that’s the start of summer here as far as I’m concerned!”

The voice belonged to Darryl Mitchell, 63, Darlington’s polo MC. A night maintenance man, he long dreamed of playing but couldn’t afford a horse. “I live my dream by announcing the games.”

He usually announces free of charge, out of the barn by the field. “A couple times, the players put some money in a pot and I got $100.”

Mr. Mitchell couldn’t work the CD player, so the first “chukker”—a polo play period—started without the national anthem. A red Oldsmobile parked in front of the scoreboard rendered it inoperable.

Only one Cleveland player showed, so Darlington members filled in. “It’s what I love about Darlington, even though it drives me crazy,” said Mr. Powers, the treasurer. “We always make it work.”

It was time for the start, the “bowl-in.” Because the field is much smaller than a regulation oval—as big as nine football fields—they played three-on-three instead of with regular four-member teams.

As Ms. Powers whacked the ball downfield and chased it, riding Picasa toward the goal, Mr. Mitchell announced: “Nice hit, Juliette!…Out of bounds, too bad…Kids, get away from the rails!”

After the first chukker, he played The Star-Spangled Banner.

Across the oval, Mr. Laderer and friends weren’t much focused on the play. They ate burgers from the grill, talking about the Pirates and Steelers, trucks and guns. All volunteer firefighters, they discussed a recent car accident. They marveled that one couple was finally getting married and walked over to congratulate them.

The best polo-watching beer, Mr. Drabick and others agreed, was PBR, which he was sipping out of a camouflage koozie.

On the field, the cobbled-together team known as Cleveland led until the last seconds, when Mr. Watterson charged down on a chestnut brown thoroughbred named Willy B. More to score.

Final score: 5-5. Time for fireworks, then “music for the kids,” intoned Mr. Mitchell. First song: “Hokey Pokey.”

Children invaded the oval for soccer and Wiffle ball. Morgan Schwartz, 8, ate a cherry-blueberry snow cone. “I liked how the horses raced,” she said. “It was just like soccer.”

Polo, Mr. Laderer concluded, “is just an awesome time in a little boondock town like we have here.”

Write to John W. Miller at