In the wake of the COVID-19 global pandemic, polo came to an abrupt halt in mid-March during the apex of the Florida season as the United States Polo Association enacted a suspension for all USPA tournaments. Cutting short two of the most prestigious high-goal tournaments on the USPA calendar, the GAUNTLET OF POLO® and the U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship™, the polo community experienced an unprecedented pause in tournament play. As professional polo players, grooms, photographers and countless others suddenly faced the new reality of life without polo for an undetermined period of time, the experience was one approached and embraced in numerous ways.
Adjusting their 12 and 16-goal schedules accordingly, Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club is preparing to welcome players back to Carpinteria, California, for their first USPA tournament of the season, the Pacific Coast Circuit Intra-Circuit Cup beginning Friday, June 19. As teams make their final preparations, the USPA checked in with several players to discuss their quarantine experiences and reflections on life apart from the game. From Jesse Bray learning to play chess to Sarah Siegel-Magness’ extensive reading, each player’s path through the Coronavirus was unique unlocking a variety of personal conclusions.
1. What did you do with your horses after the polo suspension was announced?
Felipe Marquez – “After the GAUNTLET OF POLO® was canceled the horses went to Alabama to rest and now I’m getting some of them ready to travel to Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club (SBPRC) in Carpinteria, California, to play in the 16-goal with FMB Two! We are taking care of the horses at Curtis Pilot’s Sonny Hill Polo in Point Clear, Alabama, and we have been playing practices.”
Geronimo Obregon* – “Once the Florida season was canceled, I packed up everything and went to Aiken, South Carolina, and turned the horses out for three weeks. During the quarantine I cut grass and painted fences with my dad. When I knew I was going to California to play the 12-goal with Dundas I grabbed a few of the horses which I didn’t play much during the Florida season and some that were previously turned out and didn’t go to Florida.”
Danny Walker stays on a breakaway to goal. ©David Lominska.
Danny Walker – “After the suspension was announced planning for a possible 16-goal season at SBPRC was my first thought. I utilize the winter months to condition the horses for polo between May and August, therefore the suspension eliminated the 12-goal for me, but set me up perfectly to prepare for the 16-goal beginning in July. Immediately, we gathered up the string of ponies and moved them to pasture in Arroyo Grande, California. We pulled the horses the third week of May to begin preparation for the 16-goal tournaments.”
Matt Coppola* – “When the remainder of the GAUNTLET OF POLO® was canceled I turned out my “A” string and starting riding and working with some of the younger horses.”
Cessna’s Felipe Marquez sends the ball down field. ©David Lominska.
2. How have you kept yourself in top condition both physically and mentally throughout quarantine?
Felipe Marquez – “I stayed in Wellington, Florida, for a month which was almost the full quarantine and I trained with home workouts. When I arrived in Point Clear, Alabama, on May 10, their local restrictions allowed for us to start riding and training as usual.”
Geronimo Obregon – “During those three weeks I was in Aiken I ran three miles a day and did some small abdominal, bicep and full body workouts. I like to run because it helps you burn a little fat and keep in shape especially when not riding.”
Jesse Bray* – “During the quarantine I was able to spend time at the farm riding my green horses. I have been working on a small breeding operation and used that time to work with that group. We have foals, yearlings and a few that are started under saddle so my dad and I were able to spend a lot of time doing groundwork with them.”
Matt Coppola – “I trained 5-6 days a week and spent a lot of time fishing and riding.”
Sarah Siegel-Magness – “I used my hitting cage six days a week and ran every day and did weights! I took the downtime to strengthen my body.”
Tomy Alberdi* – “I followed an Instagram page with daily workouts that I did every evening with my girlfriend. Mentally I tried to stay positive and hope for the best, but I always kept in mind that there were others in a worse situation and things could be a lot worse.”
Bensoleimani.com’s Tomy Alberdi prepares for a booming shot down field. ©David Lominska
3. Since polo is such a mental game how have you dealt with the break from tournament play and now getting back into the mindset/routine to play again?
Felipe Marquez – “It’s nice to have some time for yourself every now and then and think about something other than the horses and competing. As a polo player I only have a few vacations during the year so I tried to look at the positive side of the quarantine and take a break from the game for a bit to relax and enjoy other activities.”
Geronimo Obregon – “It’s always tough to come back to playing tournaments after a month and a half of practices, it definitely helps shooting penalties, concentrating and thinking about the game plan. Out of the three practices a week, play one practice for you and think about hitting the ball. When you start playing a little more you tend to rush and in practices you are playing more for the horses, so if you can play one practice or at least two or three minutes of that chukker concentrating on playing fast and quick, then you can relax. That helped me to maintain myself mentally to keep the quickness.”
Danny Walker – “The past two weekends I started to ride for the first time since March 15. Two weekends ago, I arrived at the barn to single my eight horses both Saturday and Sunday. This last weekend, we started again, but now the horses needed twice the amount of riding. I literally ride until I almost fall off for lack of conditioning. Best way for me to strengthen my legs and core.”
Matt Coppola – “It’s been a few years since I’ve had a break last more than a week so it was nice to spend more time at home with my family and let my body rest.”
Sarah Siegel-Magness – “Working out and watching polo games helped a lot during the quarantine. I focused my energy on becoming more physically fit which helped my mind stay clear and focused. The hitting cage also helped my hand-eye coordination stay sharp.”
Sarah Siegel-Magness on her way to goal. ©David Lominska.
4. What has been the biggest challenge or benefit to you personally as a result of the quarantine?
Jesse Bray – “I try to find the bright side of every situation and this year I was able to spend more time with my young horses. As a professional polo player I always want to push myself and play at a higher level of polo. Because of COVID-19 that was not possible, so I turned my efforts to my young horses.”
Matt Coppola – “I enjoyed spending more time at home and being around my family.”
Sarah Siegel-Magness – “My body actually really needed a break after playing in Florida. The quarantine forced me to stop pushing so much and learn to use my mind to play the game. Someone told me a story about a 10-goaler who went to war and played games in his mind the entire time. He came back and played just as well and I never forgot that story.”
Tomy Alberdi – “I was lucky to spend a whole month at my farm in Virginia. Because polo takes me all over I don’t get to spend more than a couple of days at the farm in between seasons.”
Patagones’ Geronimo Obregon with a neckshot during the 2020 GAUNTLET OF POLO®. ©David Lominska.
5. Has your appreciation for polo changed in any way since COVID-19 and what are you most looking forward to as things start to become more normal?
Felipe Marquez – “The hardest part for me was that I had to stay here in the United States and I couldn’t go back home to Colombia to be with my family. Right now I’m focusing on Santa Barbara because there will be many competitive teams so I’m preparing and training hard. After the 16-goal season is over I would love to go to Colombia to be with my family and see how my breeding operation is going down there. Then I will go to Argentina to play the season down there and work with green horses with Pelon Stirling. COVID-19 has made me value polo more and just keep working hard because playing polo is what I like to do the most in my life.”
Geronimo Obregon – “I normally play year-round and suddenly you just stop playing for almost a month, so I missed polo a lot. Mostly I’m looking forward to restaurants and bars opening up. I’ve been cooking a lot so it’s been a hassle cleaning up all the dishes afterwards!”
Tonkawa’s Matt Coppola on a run to goal during the 2020 GAUNTLET OF POLO®. ©David Lominska.
Danny Walker – “We miss the fun of being together as a polo family and planning an event for us all to attend.”
Jesse Bray – “I appreciate the lifestyle that comes along with polo. Many people were stuck indoors for quarantine and I was very lucky to be able to spend that time on the farm working with horses outside.”
Matt Coppola – “I’m just excited to get back on the field and start competing again in the 16-goal!”
Sarah Siegel-Magness – “I was so grateful to be able to ride horses. We are so lucky to play a sport outside in fresh air and I can’t wait for spectators to be able to watch the games! Polo means so much to many people and the time we are able to watch games is an escape.”
Tomy Alberdi – “This definitely makes you realize how important polo is in our lives and it takes so much time and effort. Once you can’t play it makes you want to play even more. I am sure we are all hoping to get back to our normal lives, but as long as we are able to be playing again I’m sure we can wait a little longer.”
Klentner Ranch’s Jesse Bray stretches to maintain control of the ball riding Disney. ©David Lominska.
6. What has been your biggest takeaway or something you learned from this experience?
Felipe Marquez – “We shouldn’t take anything for granted and we should value the things we have and enjoying every single day doing what we love with our favorite people.”
Geronimo Obregon – “During quarantine I wasn’t doing much and watching a lot of games from my past. What I recognized and what I’m trying to do now is become a calmer player. Personally what I most got out watching my games is to try to play different positions and control myself more mentally—in the sense of not running forward as quickly and being the guy that pushes all the time, and instead become the guy who can stop and control the game and make those passes. That’s what I’m working on.”
Sarah Siegel-Magness – “We are so blessed to play this amazing game and that our health is so important. We take for granted the health and well-being of others. We are all in this together and it takes everyone participating to be able to play safely. I also am grateful to be able to communicate with others and look forward to being able to give my teammates a big hug!”
*Geronimo Obregon, Matt Coppola and Jesse Bray are graduating Team USPA Members. Tomy Alberdi is a Team USPA alumni. Team USPA is a USPA program designed to enhance and grow the sport of polo in the United States by identifying young, talented American players and providing mentored training and playing opportunities leading to a pool of higher rated amateur and pro players and the resultant giveback to the sport of polo.
* Cessna’s Felipe Marquez carries the ball to goal during 2020 GAUNTLET OF POLO® competition. ©David Lominska.