Polo season returns to Empire Polo Club field

empireAs players galloped across the Empire Polo Club field on horseback jostling the polo ball toward the goal, hundreds of residents cheered and whistled, “Let’s go! Let’s go!”

Polo returned to the desert Sunday with two matches kicking off the season.

Between 1,000 and 1,200 people showed up for the start, organizers said. They camped out with snacks, wines, lemonade and salads with children, babies and dogs in tow — scouting out the tough competition from deck chairs, tailgating cars and canopies in sunny, mid-60s temperatures.

“Welcome to Empire Polo!” the announcer cried out. “We’re excited for 2015.”

“She’s off to the races!”

Sipping on champagne, Margaret Webster, 59, said the most intriguing part of going to the polo matches is watching the horses themselves close up and the “amazing” moves they make with their jockeys.

Webster, who used to ride when she was young, likes to come at least once every other week to the Indio course during season and could not wait for the matches to get started again.

“I came out because I love watching the horses and competition of the jockeys, the wonderful people,” she said. “Thank goodness it’s still free!”

For Paul Hayes, 57, of Compton, Sunday was his first time ever watching the sport. He was staying in a timeshare in Cathedral City and decided to come out with his wife, sister-in-law and her husband. The group was still trying to make sense of the game and its rules, but after closely watching the players ride and score points with his binoculars, he plans to come back.

“I don’t understand how there aren’t injuries every game,” he said. “You’re afraid someone is going to get hurt sooner or later… It adds to the excitement.”

“Look at that! Look at that!” he said, as the white and black thoroughbreds raced closer and players lunged mallets at the high-flying ball.

In the second game of the day, the four players of M3 Strolling Wild beat the Lazy 3 team 10.5 to 6.

Madelyn Cobb, 25, threw in some stand-out long runs and big goals for the M3 team in the two winning matches Sunday.

A fourth-generation polo player, Cobb has been playing the sport since middle school and said they had been anticipating, preparing and putting in a lot of work, hours and manpower to get ready for this new season. She loves polo and playing in this game. You can practice scenarios but it’s not a cookie-cutter sport — you never have the same play twice.

“It’s fun to see it all come together,” she said, taking a break from signing autographs on polo balls for some young children in the crowd.

Her mom, also named Madelyn and who played for most of her life, said after the match that she still feels the turns and moves when she watches her daughter play.

Dennis Groveman, 55, of Palm Springs and a former polo player himself, visits the polo grounds every Sunday each season. He started coming with a few friends and that has grown to a group of about 25, who played their own polo versions along the sidelines.

“It’s healthy; it’s a great sport,” he said. “Unfortunately, nobody knows about it. They think it’s a rich man’s sport.”

His role is often to help his friends understand what is going on, he said.

He said the games are also social gatherings, family-friendly, and open to all in the desert. The matches are free with a $10 cost for parking per car.

As the crowd started to dwindle out and the sun set over the Indio palm trees, the winning players were given awards. Other fans tossed Frisbees to their dogs or admired the horses up close as they trotted back over the fields.

Kevin Ittig, operations manager for Empire Polo, said this year they were trying to dispel some of the rumors that the sport was just for the wealthy, to let people know that it happens each week during season and to expand spectators in general.

This included some changes, expanding the lake and the VIP section, as well as the bar and adding new sponsors. There are also some new players who hit the field Sunday.

Still, the valley is already better than other places to watch, he said, because the fans are more engaged.

The weather and beautiful views and grounds draw them in, and both the game and exciting announcing often makes them stay and keeps them entertained, fans and organizers said. Ittig said he sees part of his duty announcing the game as educating fans on the details of what can be a confusing and complicated sport at first glance. This can help them understand it better.

“That’s what I love in the desert, people are into polo,” he said.

In other places, people visit polo grounds just for the atmosphere but have their backs turned to the game.

“Here they don’t turn their backs,” Ittig said. “Our fans are here to watch the polo.”