This wasn’t your father’s polo match.
The Gladiator Polo event at Equestrian Village Thursday night was faster, more hard-hitting and more like a hockey game than a Sunday afternoon at the International Polo Club.
Players were announced with the lights dimmed and music, there was a live band and the couple hundred people who filled the stands seemed into the action.
PHOTO GALLERY: Gladiator Polo event at Equestrian Village
Ruth Shadwick, of Wellington, has been to equestrian events before — including polo — but she had never seen a polo match under the lights at night.
As soon as she heard about it, she knew that she wanted to check out what could become the new Thursday night tradition in Wellington.
“This is great,” Shadwick said. “It’s a fun night out.”
She also took a turn on one of two riding simulators that were set up for the event. One let riders hit polo balls with a mallet and the other was for free riding or show jumping.
The night was a chance for people who are new to the equestrian scene to get their feet wet with a fast-paced game. Mark Bellissimo hopes such people eventually become enamored with horses and come back for dressage, show jumping or a grass polo match.
The CEO of Wellington Equestrian Partners said he want to make this a Thursday night fixture, hoping for a 12-week season next year at the International Polo Club with several teams and “many hundreds of thousands” in prize money.
The arena polo variant could become a new hit in Wellington, but Bellissimo said it will never be a replacement for the traditional games at the International Polo Club on Sundays.
“Polo is the sport of kings, and I don’t want to dilute the value of high-goal, grass polo,” he said.
But there are some big differences between the traditional game and what the spectators were watching on Thursday at Equestrian Village.
The biggest change is the field. The players were riding around a 300-foot-by-150-foot field with enclosed walls, instead of the normal 10 acres.
Standard arena polo sometimes gets a little bogged down with too many whistles, Bellissimo said, so he changed the rules to make it more free-flowing. They played six, five-minute periods called chukkers with intermissions between each and a short halftime.
The idea is to keep the fans engaged and watching the game. Bellissimo said the spectators at the traditional polo can see it more as a social event. Many of them aren’t watching the action at any given time, but he hopes the new fans at Gladiator Polo will follow the action more and become engaged in equestrian sports.
It’s also exciting for the players.
Jason Crowder grew up watching his father play arena polo in Los Angeles and said it was a popular event that thousands of people would attend.
He has played a fair amount of indoor arena polo himself, so this match was almost like getting back to his roots.
Crowder sees potential for the event in Wellington and hopes people continue coming out for the upcoming matches like they did in L.A.
“Hopefully we can bring back a little bit of that,” he said.
Bellissimo hasn’t announced dates for the other two matches this season, but he expects one to be in February and the last in March.