A classic Newport sport draws new fans hungry for a game during COVID-19

Professional sporting events are in short supply around much of the world, but polo is in full swing in Newport this summer — with masks and social distancing.

by Antonia Ayres-Brown

Dan Keating made his way across the field on his horse, Juicy. She’s young but fast, a former racehorse and one of the best horses on the field. Keating hit the ball and glided forward, successfully completing a pass to himself. 

“Dan Keating coming through at speed,” the commentator’s voice boomed. “I think Keating might actually convert this. Can he?”

Many sports fans have gone months now without this kind of commentary, at least outside of ESPN reruns. In recent weekends, however, spectators have heard it live in Newport.

Newport Polo received Rhode Island’s go-ahead to begin their summer season back in early June, and matches have been held every Saturday since. The usual appearances from traveling international teams have been canceled, but spectators have still turned out to watch local players compete in face masks.

“The fact that we’re able to play — we would have done just about anything. We would have worn a suit of armor if we had to,” said Clark Curtis, a Newport Polo player who comes to help out on his weekends off.

Cheering with the warmth of a parent and the confidence of a coach, Curtis knew all of the horses’ and players’ names. And the masks, he said, are only a minor inconvenience — a small price to pay to be one of the few sports that can proceed this summer.

A player on the Astors team rests on the sidelines.

Newport Polo is now operating at one-fourth capacity. Attendance has been in the hundreds, a strong but significantly smaller turnout that the thousands of people expected at games in previous seasons. This year’s matches, though, have attracted more polo newcomers — sports fans seeking the thrill of a live game of any kind, and even families looking for something to do outside their homes on a hot Saturday.

“I’m very conscious that obviously a lot of people go, ‘Polo? You know, what are the rules? How does this work? People on horses playing hockey? What’s this all about?’” said commentator William Crisp, whose quips and conspicuously British accent set the tone for the matches. He said his job is to make the game intelligible and enjoyable to guests, especially while people are in need of a safe outlet this summer.

Stacie Mills’ two simultaneous tailgates stood out as perhaps the most elaborate — with food, drinks, and even decorative accents on the serving tables. She and several guests wore signature Newport Polo jerseys, and she carefully spaced out lawn chairs at a distance from one another.

“I’ve had so many people call and say, ‘We’d love to come to polo,’” Mills said. “And [to] my colleague, I said, ‘God, everyone’s available.’ And she said, ‘Well, you know, everyone’s schedule is pretty open.’”

Mills passed out small square spectator guides to first-time guests, with all the information they needed to know to enjoy the game.

The match of the day was the Vanderbilt Cup.As a nod to Newport’s history during the first Gilded Age, local players faced off as the Vanderbilts versus the Astors — named after the wealthy rival families that feuded in New York and Newport in the late 19th century. Spectators were invited to dress up in Victorian hats, but few seemed to heed the theme.

Clark Curtis, a fellow player with Newport Polo, reclines as he watches the game.

Toward the end of the field, Curtis lit a cigarette and eventually reclined on the grass, supporting himself on his elbow.  He has played polo for about 20 years, and he said there’s a misconception that only the elite and ultra-wealthy can appreciate the sport. 

“If you want to set your silver tea set out and have champagne and hors d’oeuvres — great. If you want to come in on your Harley after a day at the beach and hang out, that’s great too,” Curtis said. “Everyone is welcome.”

He gestured to his own clothing — rubber slide sandals, ripped jeans, a t-shirt, and a worn baseball cap — as proof that Newport Polo isn’t all tweed jackets and Range Rovers.

But the timeworn traditions are still there, even with new rules in place. At halftime, spectators “stomped the divots” — a curious polo ritual in which people wander onto the field to stomp down grass torn up by the horses’ hooves. 

A player takes a final lap as fog covers the polo field at Glen Farm.

By the time the clock ran out on the match’s sixth and final period, a thick fog had settled on the field and the teams were tied.

The players and their horses idled as visibility on the field dwindled and the referees conferred. From the commentator’s box, William Crisp seemed to speak for the crowd.

“Seriously guys, could you get this comedy on the road?” he asked.

The referees settled on a sudden-death format, and the Astors quickly scored, winning the game 9-8. The horses pranced around the field as a final goodbye, wrapping up another week as one of largest live sporting events in the Northeast. But by then, spectators and fans were already shuffling to their cars, ready to go home after a rare occasion to go out.

Antonia Ayres-Brown can be reached at aayresbrown@ripr.org.

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