From High Goal to Hollywood – the history of polo in the USA – Part 1

hollyBy Victoria Elsbury-Legg

The sport of polo is steeped in history, with matches first recorded some 2000 years ago, it is hardly surprising that the popularity of the game continues to thrive and grow in modern times. After all this is a sport which has stood solidly alongside changing times, as its nomadic heartbeat calls to so many across the centuries – beating strongly throughout the Argentine Pampas, across the manicured lawns of aristocratic English estates, amongst the foothills of the Andes, whispering in the deserts of the Far and Middle East, over the Texas plains and through the fronds of the palms next to Florida beaches – spellbinding and luring all who answer it’s call into the beautiful addictive world that is polo.

In the United States, it is widely acknowledged that polo first began to establish its roots in 1876 (the year General Custer fought at Little Big Horn) when, after spectating at an English match, the man who later became named ‘the father of American polo’, James Gordon Bennett Jr (1841 – 1918) brought the game to the shores of America. Some records say he hosted a match at Dickel’s Riding Academy at 39th Street and Fifth Avenue New York City, then shortly after formed his Westchester Polo Club, which was formally established as the first US Club, and the story of American polo began to be written. Or was it?

Other historical documents reverse the order of events, with records stating ‘on May 13th 1876, the Jerome Park Racetrack in Westchester County (still known as ‘polo grounds’ but later becoming the home of the New York Giants baseball team) was the venue for the first outdoor polo match in the United States.’ Whilst others write the early roots of US polo slightly differently, citing evidence that the first match was played by English Texans who formed a Polo Club in Denison Texas, and challenged James Gordon Bennett to a match prior to him establishing his own club. Further claims state it was a retired British Officer Captain Glynn Turquand at Balcones Ranch who first lifted his stick aloof above American soil.

Like so many legends, perhaps it will never be truly clear which of the three named hit the very first ball across the American grass almost 150 years ago. Maybe that is the way it should be for the birth of a sport which has so many names intertwined in its US history – those of on-pitch polo stars, founding families, war heroes and Hollywood greats – all of whom have contributed their part to the eclectic history of American polo.

To be continued