The sport of polo is not just about being a polo player. Outside the boards, there are many different facets of the community that keep the entire ecosystem in order and running smoothly. No part too big or too small—they all contribute in one way or another to those moments of glory on the trophy stage. It is a world that once discovered will stay with you your entire life, and has a community that offers many opportunities for reinvention.
Judith Baker is one such woman who has dedicated her life to the sport of polo. Discovering the sport in her forties, after a successful high-level jumping career, she has never looked back, having succeeded at every stage of the game. From amateur polo player, to club owner, horse trainer and dealer to team manager and even a stint as a fieldside food truck entrepreneur—Baker has done it all. Not only do her skills run the gamut, but her series of accolades include reaching a 1-goal outdoor handicap, trainer of the second North American horse to win Best Playing Pony of the Argentine Open and team manager for a U.S. Open Polo Championship® winning team. Not what you would guess from the understated English woman, policing the barns at Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club and directing grooms and trailer traffic at the Pacific Coast Open. Then again, she celebrated her 75th birthday by paragliding onto Field 1 during a featured Sunday match—which just goes to show she is no ordinary woman.
Following in the footsteps of her older sister, Judith’s love of horses began at a young age in England. Her adolescence was filled with pony jumpers, catch riding and horse shows. It was not until her first marriage that she moved to the United States, where she continued to pursue jumping, and it was two horses that she bought for a mere $1,000 each at the Tijuana racetrack in Mexico which propelled her to the top of the international jumping scene in the early 1970s. Without any formal training, Baker and her top horse Nobeark garnered the women’s championship in Holland and jumped an astonishing 6’9” wall. “He was just a baby then,” recounted Baker, “he was a green horse basically and we did crazy things,” she chuckled nonchalantly.
It was while managing at Anaco Ranch, a boarding stable in Anaheim, California, that Baker discovered polo at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in nearby Griffith Park. As many can relate, Baker was instantly hooked, however, unlike many newcomers to the sport, only months after her first lesson she decided to open her own arena club—Winston Polo Club. “I just came back and measured the arena, the one jumping arena that we had there, and it was pretty much the same size as an indoor arena,” Baker said. “So with the help of some of the people around, I boarded it all up and we just opened the club. I basically got into polo by opening my own club and not knowing anything about it.” She surrounded herself with knowledgeable polo veterans however, such as intercollegiate champion Kim Kelly, who was hired to direct her lesson program. Many well-known staples of the USPA’s governing body such as Denny Geiler, USPA Governor-at-Large and Club and Membership Development Committee Chair, got their start at the club, alongside movie stars such as Sylvester Stallone. “We had 60 members at the club at that time, which now seems amazing,” recounted Baker.
Over the years, a growing and evolving membership segued into a need for better horses and more of them. Traveling back and forth from California to Florida, Baker bought seasoned horses, which she would quickly turn around and sell. “It was a great success, an amazing success, until probably I had it [Winston Polo Club] about eight or nine years and I left there to start making young horses.”
Delving headfirst into a whole new aspect of the polo world, albeit a facet she had proven experience in as a jumper, Baker traveled more frequently to South Florida buying horses from racetracks on her route including Phoenix, Arizona, and Ocala, Florida. Amongst these many prospects was a little gray horse that would become the famous Silverada; Best Playing Pony of the 1996 East Coat Open, Best Playing Pony of the 1996 Sterling Cup and winner of the Lady Susan Townley Cup Best Polo Pony and Asociación Argentina de Criadores de Caballos de Polo (AACCP) Best Type in the 1996 Argentine Open, only the second North American horse to receive this award.
Registered with the Jockey Club as High Hope Silver (Current Hope x Flower Pot) an article in a 1996 Polo Players’ Edition article described Silverada as a “Cinderella story.” An off-the-track Thoroughbred, Baker purchased the once-in-a-lifetime mare from a show barn in Ocala. After training and playing her in women’s tournaments in California, Baker returned to Florida, showing her to then Pony Express manager Raul Roldan for team owner Bob Daniels. On Roldan’s advice, Daniels bought the mare immediately and within three years she was playing and winning under Gonzalo Heguy for Pony Express in the United States and Indios Chapaleufú in Argentina. A dazzling accomplishment for a woman trainer who based her techniques on instinct. “I would just go out and watch the great people of the time if they came out to the desert. I watched the Gracidas train horses all day long and I would just try and do what they did,” Baker recalled modestly.
Ever reinventing herself, Baker did not stop there and would later transition from horse training to team managing, facilitating the activities of Lyndon Lea’s Zacara polo organization in both California and Florida. In fact, she managed the team for their first U.S. Open Polo Championship® win in 2012, in a thrilling 10-8 match against Lechuza Caracas.“That is basically what I am still doing now, and I still like to play,” Baker said, who has been working as Barn Manager at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club for a couple years.
Celebrating her first great grand-daughter, Baker continues to play regularly. At 75 years young, Baker proves that polo is timeless and success is not only gauged by trophies and championship titles accumulated over the years, but the lasting impressions you make on the people around you and the legacy you create in your chosen community. “We had a lot of young girls at Winston Polo Club,” Baker recalls, “including the Anderson family. In fact, Barbie Anderson plays at Santa Barbara with her youngest daughter. Barbie was only seven when she started with me, now she’s a grown woman with her own children and she’s still into polo and they have a big place up in Washington. Her eldest sister Shannon was a really good player and her father Bob was a good arena player, and because of my club they all continued their life into polo. A lot of people who started with me as children continued on into the sport and have gone on and done a lot with it, passing it down to their children. It doesn’t seem like that long ago to me, until I see those same people with their children,” she said with a smile.
Polo is not just about the individual player, but the people who make our community so special. The lives we had before we discovered this great sport and the lives we have after will never be the same. Once you have been a part of the game, for better or worse, it is hard to let go. Baker’s journey is a testament to the fact that polo does not discriminate and success can be attained at any point in the process. Truly a renaissance woman in the world of polo, may we all aim to be as fearless in our pursuits.