On Friday, April 22, during the USPA/Polo Training Foundation (PTF) awards ceremony held at Grand Champions Polo Club in Wellington, Florida, the late Hal Vita’s legacy was honored with the presentation of the Russ Sheldon Award. An award that recognizes a USPA member’s outstanding contributions to arena polo, Vita’s granddaughter Logan Allison accepted the award on his behalf. A true pioneer in the sport, Vita’s journey to polo began back in 1962 when he and his wife Frankie bought a 22-acre potato field in Somers, Connecticut, for $11,000 with the vision to build an equestrian center that would one day act as the ultimate hub of all things horses.
Vita began by constructing a small barn and later expanded it into the Shallowbrook Equestrian Center. Along with this ambitious endeavor, Vita also raised five kids, studied horsemanship in Munich, Germany, founded the Connecticut Valley Hunt Club, was President of the Connecticut Hunter Jumper Association, and coached several generations of both riders and polo players (including his children) to national and state championships. His efforts launched a prosperous ripple effect for the equestrian community, with many of his children going on to open equestrian facilities of their own.
“He may have been small in stature, but I have never known a bigger force.” – USPA Tournament Manager, Kaila Dowd
Vita launched his coaching career at the University of Connecticut, and he led the Huskies to back-to-back national titles in 1972 and 1973 with teams that included his future son-in-law Bill LeRoyer as well as future arena legend Tom Goodspeed, a recipient of the 2018 edition of the award. The consecutive victories marked UCONN’s first intercollegiate national championship wins. Goodspeed reminisced about Vita’s innate ability to inspire success in his students, remarking, “Through his passion, he had an unparalleled ability to motivate teams. Hal didn’t make you think you could win. He made you go into a game knowing you were going to win.”
His career coaching interscholastic polo was also very fruitful, with his Shallowbrook team finding success in the National Open Interscholastic Championship under his leadership for two three-year stints, first from 1990 to 1992 and then again from 1995 to 1997. His grandson, Tony Vita Jr., anchored the team during their first victory run. Notable American and future high-golaer, Jeff Blake, played on the 1995 team.
Vita further contributed to the sport of polo serving as the USPA Northeast Circuit Governor from 1992 to 1998. During this time, he established Shallowbrook as the main Arena Host Center for USPA circuit, national, and international tournaments. He also revived the Townsend Cup, hosting a team from England in the process.
Russ Sheldon Award recipient Hal Vita (far right), pictured with his wife Frankie Vita and former students Carly Persano, Kristen Wenning and Audry Persano.
Many of Vita’s former students spoke to his character and desire to instill work ethic in those he taught. USPA Tournament Manager, Kaila Dowd shared, “He would not accept payment from us for polo, we worked for it by taking care of the horses and property. In addition to your average barn duties, we made the green horses, maintained the polo field and arenas, ran the summer camp, built fences and so much more. My team even built a barn from start to finish!”
A strict instructor, Vita was known by many to always give very honest advice and never sugar-coat the truth. Carly Persano*, a student and long-time friend of Vita’s recalled a meaningful interaction with Vita years ago that has stayed with her to this day. “One day after a hard day at school, I went to the barn and started to work the horses. One horse was giving me trouble. I remember getting really upset and crying. ‘Mr. V’ looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Carly, life is not easy, and when things get hard, work harder.’ And for some reason, that gave me strength to keep pushing through and find my path. I still remember that today and it always makes me work harder for what I want.”
Despite his tough exterior, Audry Persano* commented on Vita’s genuine enthusiasm to share his knowledge of the sport, saying, “He saw potential in each of us, took us in, allowed us to be ourselves and believed in making that dream come true. He was everything you could dream of in a mentor and friend.”
Outside of polo, Vita had a love for eccentric animals, housing four emus, two ostriches and a zebra named “Casey” on his farm.
And while resolute in the arena, Vita was also known to be a man full of love. Goodspeed shared, “He used to tell a story that he couldn’t sleep at night unless he could feel his wife alongside him. She was definitely the heart that helped soften the rough edges.”
Vita’s contributions to arena polo are unquantifiable. He shaped the lives of so many young players and his work can still be seen today in their accomplishments. Vita’s unique ability to bring out the best in those around him will forever be remembered by the polo community.
*Carly and Audry Persano are Team USPA Members alumnae. 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.