Owner James Miller wanted to take the Sarasota Polo Club to a higher level, so he went to England to do it.
He wasn’t buying anything related to horses, barns or players.
“I bought a historic double decker bus from England,” Miller said Dec. 12, a few hours after he returned to Florida from the Argentine Open, an event he called “the Super Bowl of Polo.”
Miller’s trips to various parts of the world often involve polo, whether that means playing his favorite sport, buying horses or finding ideas to make Sarasota Polo Club one of the finest facilities in North America.
Polo season opens
What: 2021-22 Sarasota Polo Club season opens
Where: 8201 Polo Club Lane, Lakewood Ranch
When: 1 p.m. Dec. 19 (Gates open at 10 a.m.)
Tickets: Start at $15 (online at SarasotaPolo.com or at the gate); Children 12 and under free
Seeing the double-decker bus simply struck him as a fun idea to put at midfield to serve as a bar and an observation point. The 2021-2022 season begins Dec. 19.
Unfortunately for the fans, the bus won’t make it to the opener.
Like several other projects he wanted to have ready this month, pandemic delays have slowed down delivery. He hopes to have the bus set up near midfield on the north side of the main field by January.
“We can use it as a bar and an observation point,” Miller said. “It already was in service, being used as a bar in England. I had tracked one down from the 1960s.”
The upper level of the bus can be used for premier seating or as a gathering point for a small group. Miller said he could foresee it being used as a “champagne terrace.”
Besides its role alongside the field, Miller said the bus runs so it can be driven throughout the region for marketing purposes.
“It’s something fun that’s coming,” Miller said.
It’s not the only change patrons can expect during James and Misdee Miller’s fourth season as owners after buying the Sarasota Polo Club from Schroeder-Manatee Ranch.
At the beginning of last season, a terrace seating area, underneath an event tent, was set up on the north sideline near midfield. A bad storm ripped the tent to pieces. The terrace has been moved to the south side of the field, adjacent to the pavilion, which hosts 175 to 230 people. More plush seating will be added to the area where that terrace vacated.
Miller said groups of 25 to 50 people had been seeking an intimate but roomy area to host parties during the match.
“It’s a little bit of a step up,” Miller said. “That’s always been our goal, to offer different tiers of hospitality.”
That goal also led to a clubhouse renovation.
“I gutted it,” Miller said of the clubhouse. “It’s got all new plumbing and flooring. The north-facing wall was removed and replaced with glass. We put in a catering kitchen,”
The clubhouse now has a quiet seating area alongside some sliding glass doors. A garden area outside the clubhouse is being refreshed and a permanent outdoor bar is being added.
“The goal was to have it done by Dec. 1,” Miller said. “Now we are trying to get it done by the end of December.”
Although Miller expects big crowds at the two December Sundays, he said it is somewhat of a soft opening since some of the upgrades he planned have been slowed by supply chain problems.
He said the rebuild will reinvigorate use of the clubhouse, which will be open to parties and groups during polo and also available to rent for parties, special events or weddings. He said the clubhouse will be the “epicenter” of the club’s Sunset Polo program.
Miller was asked why he started so many projects during a time the pandemic is making construction projects so difficult.
“I’m a bit impatient,” he said. “I want to get the club to the next level.
“Look how fast the communities are growing here. Look at Waterside. I want to be a part of it. I have been bullish on this opportunity from the beginning.”
Many of the elite polo players who travel to events will be more willing to travel as the pandemic eases.
“We absolutely do have (great players) coming,” he said. “We are booked up for our leagues and our tournaments. We are trying to make it more convenient for the players to come.”
Miller wants to showcase the very best talent on Sundays because he feels the spectators are getting more knowledgeable about the sport each year.”
He also is excited about playing himself, although he isn’t sure how much he will be participating early because his horses might need an extra week or two to be in playing shape. He bought a few horses during his trip to the Argentine Open, a competition that lasts more than a month and besides showcasing 9- and 10-goal players (the highest levels), it doubles as a chance to try out horses for purchase.
The Sarasota Polo Club will continue its pregame ceremony with an opening parade that allows the players and fans to get close and sometimes slap high fives. Miller said people are paying more attention and following safety guidelines. He said he wanted to allow the players and fans to interact if they so wished because “the pregame gives me chills.”
“It’s that time when everyone comes together,” he said. “We play the National Anthem and that’s a time we remember who we are. We pay our respect to those who have helped us get here.”
Another change the fans could see is the formation of a paddock area where fans can enjoy activities and tailgating a short distance away from the field if they so desire.
“I want to leverage all that extra turf,” Miller said. “And we always say that our fans can enjoy coming to the green beach.”